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Bill Frisell: Helsinki, Finland, August 29, 2012

Anthony Shaw By

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Bill Frisell
Helsinki Festival
Helsinki, FInland
August 29, 2012

It's hard to find a summer festival that is not critically dependent on the weather for that essential vibe. As such, August's Helsinki Festival stands as good a chance as any for success, with the main stage located a half-mile from the central station on a bank beside an inlet of the Baltic, where 600 people can sit in relative comfort under a 40 foot high, custom built steel and poly-propylene marquee. And when the weather does shine there's an outdoor bar and all those old faces to catch up with during the intermission.

Bill Frisell couldn't have had it better, playing to a packed house on an evening of Baltic blue skies and tranquil sea, his ultimately laid back, echoing guitar wafting across the fences to a throng of freeloaders gathered on some rocks outside. Despite this loss of revenue, the festival organizers can congratulate themselves on selecting an artist who appeals to listeners of all generations, and who sold out this concert almost instantly. With a vast back catalog including artists such as singer Norah Jones and saxophonist John Zorn, Frisell's canvases have also included the world music of the Malian-styled Intercontinentals, and numerous other contemporary luminaries of rock and pop. He has a large pool of followers on which to draw.

Essential to many of his multitudinous recordings and especially to his live sound in Helsinki, here on tour playing All We Are Saying—the Music of John Lennon (Savoy, 2012), was his long-term colleague and coconspirator, pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz. Leisz's back catalog is as broad and eclectic as is Frisell's, and onstage their understanding reached back to a shared musical heritage where Lennon and McCartney stand tall. It's a catalog that stretches across the millennia, and their selection evening started with the suitably laconic "Across the Universe." As the concert progressed, the intensity seemed to grow, certainly later stomping through Lennon's raunchy "Come Together" and "Strawberry Fields." And for every twist that Frisell made to his modest effects unit or bend of the strings, Leisz matched with a tweaked and slurred phrase of his own, beautifully blending with Frisell's own melodic leads.

Bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen contributed invaluably to a show where their leader's modest mastery seemed as effortless as it was complete. The show picked up as it went along, filling the evening with timeless Beatles riffs that were still echoing the following morning.

Local musicianship also played its part in setting the scene for this evening of slightly edgy musical mainstream. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola's heritage stretches back to the partnership of his bassist father, Pekka Pohjola, with British multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield, but is now founded on his own compositions and work with upcoming young Finnish jazz glitterati. His quartet opening for Frisell was, itself, a similar mixture of familiar and fractious, with the evening's show including much of the music from it latest release Ancient History (ACT, 2012). The writing is Pohjola's. but onstage he worked closely with his edgy pianist, Aki Rissanen. The music was fresh but familiar to ears that grew up with father Pekka's Mathematician's Air Display and Consequences of Indecisions. Both Frisell and Pohjola are equally self effacing musicians who lead their bands as much from the rear as center stage, and on this airy evening produced a show that effortlessly transcended generations.

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