Is the future of musical gigs or a technological novelty?
That is the question posed as I pushed aside any cynicism, and boarded the train from Fratton to Pudding Mill Lane on the DLR, London to check out the brand-new ABBA Voyage tour. Lockdown had given us many virtual gigs, and like a lot of the population I paid out to watch shows like James Corden in One Man, Two Governors, and James Bay perform to an empty audience at Shakespeare’s Globe. It was enjoyable to watch but felt empty, and soulless. What was missing was that visceral excitement of actually being present with the rest of the audience. So, I was aware of the irony in travelling in person to a live gig to watch virtual avators – or as they have been affectionately been called – “abbatars” of legends Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid.
The purpose-built arena sets the Swedish tone, more Ikea wooden slatted design then cold concrete; sustainability is catered for in mini chilly bottles with free refill water stations (something surely that should be offered at every gig) and merchandise has a glorious nod to the kitsh seventies of a band that have never forgotten their fanbase or their origins.
Inside it feels like we have boarded a spaceship, not a concert hall; super trooper lights project from the roof, which must have been a conscious addition and there is a genuine thrill of expectation in the audience. Seating is spacious, as is standing room or you can hire a dancing booth but with capacity of only 3,000 it feels more intimate than say the O2.
It is simply like nothing you have ever seen before.
Disappointingly the set opens with the more obscure tracks of ‘The Visitors’ and ‘Hole in Your Soul’ – it would have benefitted for one of their more well-known classics, but a minor quibble aside once ‘SOS’ kicks in the show really gets into gear. And what a journey! The magic is in the creation of the stage, made up of a ten-piece live band on a moving rostrum, with a raised platform where the avators appear. It really is an assault on all the senses, fusing a 360 screen with immersive lights, animation, and closeups of the band that look so real. Every hair, wrinkle and sequin are expertly captured from the Industrial Light and Magic company that brought you Star Wars.
Like most gigs these days where you switch between watching the big screen and the actual band, you quickly forget that ABBA are not in the building. While their appearance shows they haven’t aged since their heyday, the costumes and design are very much up to date, creating a surreal hybrid energy to the performances. But the real takeaway for me was the incredible acoustics, their music has never sounded so good, with a setlist that is a treasure trove of riches with songs that are not so much classics as the fabric of modern music.
Highlights included ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ the disco friendly anthem complete with lasers and ABBA suits that pulsed to the beat, ‘Waterloo’ with the original 1974 Eurovision footage, and new heartfelt tracks ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ and ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. They have fun too when the live band bound onto centre stage with a rocky “Does Your Mother Know’ during a ‘costume change’ like what would occur at a real gig. By the time ‘Dancing Queen’ plays out for the finale, bringing the crowd onto on their feet, you know that the band have delivered something ground-breaking, emotional, and utterly original.
ABBA Voyage has reset the bar high. Just pack your flares, grab a ticket and enjoy the ride.
Photo: Johan Persson