Being on the road with Fire! Orchestra is completely different from touring with a duo, trio or a quartet. Usually the musicians sleep in hotels, they travel by train or plane (if they have to cover larger distances). But the Fire! Orchestra 2016 tour is an enterprise of about 25 people - 18 musicians, a sound engineer, a tour manager, a merchandise manager etc. In times when the cultural sector is forced to downsize, no organizer could actually afford them. That’s why the Fire! Orchestra circus travels by bus - like a huge rock band. In order to save hotel costs this means that the musicians sleep in bunks, they live together very closely. It can be claustrophobic and stressful but according to some musicians, it’s also fun.
After a long trip from Vienna the band arrived at Zurich’s Rote Fabrik (which means “red factory“). Located directly at Lake Zurich they could take a swim or enjoy the venue with its art spaces and the nice restaurant (although Swiss prices can be a real spoiler). The musicians were in a good mood, they were hanging out on the compound, smoking, getting ready for the gig.
After the release of their superb album Ritual the expectations were very high and on the internet there was the information that they would play the whole album. Then again, two sets were announced. What would the other set include? The Swiss organizer, who gave a short introduction, informed the audience that they would start with three duos before - after a short break - the whole band would play a longer set.
The first duo were Niklas Barnö (tp) and Martin Hederos (keyboards). Hederos delivered Pink- Floyd-like textures over which Barnö soloed, however, it was nothing more than some kind of warm-up. Even the musicians seemed to realize that the spark didn’t jump and stopped only after a few minutes. Then Mette Rasmussen and Anna Högberg hit the stage with their alto saxophones, and right from the start there was a different energy. Gurgling sounds lead to a fiery duel, they fueled each other, it was an energetic communication. This first set was closed by Nate Wooley (tp) and Per Åke Holmlander (tuba), another contrast to the two women before. The duo’s intensity lived from the very different sound colours of trumpet and tuba, which Wooley even increased by using higher registers most of the time. All in all a nice finger exercise that gets the audience excited for the real deal.
15 minutes later the orchestra members took their positions and immediately plunged into the riff of “Ritual 1“ - and left me puzzled. The brute, immediate energy and sheer power I expected was missing. On the other hand these formations can sound blurry and mushy, but here everything was very clear and transparent, you could distinguish the single instruments very well. The orchestra seemed to need this first piece to pick up speed until one could realize what this evening would be about - excellent solo parts in front of a well-oiled machine. The first highlight was delivered by Lotte Anker, who actually likes to play more abstract, but who knocked out a forceful and yet elegant solo which seemed to set the standards for the evening. The following solos by Mats Äleklint (tb) and Nate Wooley were excellent and especially Wooley seemed to be in a romantic mood. In general, it was the ballads that were more convincing that night (in contrast to the studio recording), so Wooley’s decision to leave his (exciting) sound excursions aside was just perfect.
The other remarkable aspect of the concert was the fact that the set was beautifully structured. Like on the album the pieces were linked by solo passages for which the orchestra fell completely silent - this structure first highlighted the keyboards, then the shredding noise of two guitars, then the two drummers in a reminiscence to drum solos in rock shows and finally the two singers in a very intimate duet. At the end of the set the power that seemed to be missing at the beginning has crept into the performance - without losing the initial transparency and crispiness.
And Mats Gustafsson? He conducted his musicians like a manic preacher with sweeping movements, which was fascinating to watch. He lifted his arms and crossed them in dramatic gestures, he brought musicians in, he increased and slowed down dynamics. Sometimes the light show featured him as if he was an angel. Like me, he seemed to enjoy the evening very much.
Fire! Orchestra 2016 is:
- Mats Gustafsson (baritone sax, conducting)
- Mette Rasmussen and Anna Högberg (alto), Lotte Anker (tenor)
- Per “Texas“ Johansson (bass sax, clarinets)
- Niklas Barnö (tp), Nate Wooley (tp),
- Mats Äleklint (tb)
- Finn Loxbo and Julien Desprez (g)
- Johan Berthling (b)
- Per Åke Holmlander (tuba)
- Martin Hederos (keyboards)
- Andreas Berthling (elec)
- Andreas Werliin and Mads Forsby (dr)
- Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg (voice)