October 6, 2020

It’s no secret that the music industry has taken a severe beating from the COVID-19 lockdown, and the recent restrictions-off-restrictions-on pantomime just seems to be rubbing salt into the wounds. Musicians have found various ways of surviving through their personal crises. Some have taken advantage of the break in their gigging schedules to record new material, often without actually physically meeting with their fellow band members. Others have pioneered basically a new industry, organising concerts online and charging for tickets for the virtual event. Finnish Blues Queen Erja Lyytinen has even gone so far as to record such an online concert as a kind of quasi-live album – hence her new combined CD and DVD release, Lockdown Live 2020.

Photo by Heikki Kervinen

It’s a brave move, and how you react to it will largely be down to how you view live albums in the first place. Some will be overjoyed to hear a full-on warts-and-all band effort, recorded in one hit, with all the raw energy that implies, but without any audience noise getting in the way. Others may see it completely the other way, as having all the disadvantages of the live setup, but without the audience interaction and atmosphere that makes it relevant.

In any case, it’s a noble experiment, as well as being pretty well inevitable in the current climate, and no doubt there will be plenty such releases to compare as time goes on. For now though, it’s a novelty, so let’s give it a listen.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that, although her 2019 biographical book is titled Blueskuningatar (‘Blues Queen’, as noted above), in its original Finnish, Erja is by no means a blues purist – the album presents blues elements in a pub-rock context, side by side with full-on hard rock numbers and pop-and-prog-inspired musicianship. The album starts in suitably adrenalin-fuelled style, with a huge, crash intro morphing into the hard and gritty slide riff of up-tempo funk rocker Don’t Let A Good Woman Down. It would be a classic live opening, except that instead of fading in over a chanting and whistling crowd, all we hear at the beginning is amp hiss! At the end, there is no ecstatic applause of course; the amp hum is quickly faded out, then faded back in for the start of the second number, the slower, percussive, heavy blues of Cherry Overdrive.

This routine sets the template for the entire set; it’s hard, loud and powerful, with the unmistakable slight mushing of sound that happens when all the instruments bleed into each others’ recording channels, but no audience reaction is ever heard. There’s no doubt that it takes a few goes at it to get one’s head round the live-but-not-live action, but stay with it, because it actually does work. In fact, as mentioned earlier, many listeners may actually find they prefer it this way. As far as the DVD version is concerned, Erja brings her A-game and full lighting rig to the set, with a powerful and energetic performance backed by strobes and spots. Without a heaving mass of humanity to feed back the energy, it’s incredible that she manages to keep it up, but keep it up she does, and the level never drops.

It’s live but it ain’t – photo by Heikki Kervinen

Black Ocean from her 2017 studio album Stolen Hearts follows, with its hard-rocking riff-based blues reminiscent of Demon’s Eye by the Ian Gillan incarnation of Deep Purple. This track stretches to nearly seven minutes, making it the second-longest number in the set, but it’s clear by this time that Erja means business and the band are taking no prisoners.

Having said that, the spiky rhythm of Hard As Stone doesn’t really flow as easily as these first three tracks, and Torn is a nice but fairly workaday pop-rocker, despite its promising bluesy intro and melodic sensibilities. But Dreamland Blues brings the rock back home, with a slightly discordant riff reminiscent of Led Zep’s Dancing Days or Crossfire by Stevie Ray Vaughan, played over an easy boogie shuffle in the vein of Wilbert Harrison’s classic Kansas City – but much heavier of course.

Photo by Hertta Hynninen

Lover’s Novels heads even further in this direction as a full-on, straight ahead 12-bar rock’n’roll number reminiscent of 1970s pub blues. But Another World is where the quasi-live format really gets experimental; this one is over seven minutes long and includes the full audience interaction treatment, with Erja cajoling her audience to get involved and sing along! We should be able to hear a pumped-up room belting out the words and clapping along, and maybe that is what you’ll hear if you have some mates round and crack open a few beers, but otherwise you’ll have to use your imagination.

Snake In The Grass is another hard rocking melodic pop rocker; this starts as pure New Wave of Heavy Metal, almost Motörhead-heavy, with a poundingly heavy wah-wah guitar solo. Rocking Chair from 2017’s Stolen Hearts brings out more big guns with its 7/8 timing, followed by the hard-rocking fast thrash of Wedding Day, which would be a rockabilly roller in other hands.

This is where we might expect the set to finish on an adrenalin high, but in fact Erja waits until now to present a softer side, electing to end on the sweetly melodic ballad Wildflower.

As often with live albums, the whole caboodle is a lot heavier than one might expect from her studio output, and the constant Hammond backing and ample guitar soloing gives it a classic rock feel. As mentioned, the whole vibe is a bit strange, but no stranger than we are all living with daily at present. It took me a couple of listens to really connect the dots, but then it all started to make sense, and it’s worth the extra effort. Better get used to it anyway, as the end of the tunnel still seems a long way away.

Erja Lyytinen’s “Lockdown Live 2020” is released on CD/DVD by Tuohi Records on November 6th via www.erjalyytinen.com

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