There's a fashion for major artists to reconnect with their fans by playing small venues. On Thursday March 20th a singer who can fill concert halls in Scandinavia, and who supported Tori Amos on a recent US tour, played a support spot at the Ruby Lounge.

Thomas Dybdahl is a Norwegian singer-songwriter. I first came across his music nearly ten years ago when my son came back from New York with a few of his songs on his new iPod. We knew nothing about the singer then, but those songs became part of the soundtrack to our family life. There was a mystery about who he was and where he came from. And why had he written a song called ‘Cowboy Dreams’?

A few years ago we got to see him in Derby, touring solo, playing small venues, chatting to his audience. My younger son added his songs to his busking repertoire. We saw him again with his band on a rare and beautiful sunny afternoon at the Green Man Festival in 2011. So, when I saw he was playing the Ruby Lounge, I was thrilled but puzzled. Why such a modest venue?

A small but very enthusiastic audience of fans gathered, some of them fellow Norwegians. They knew he had sold out the concert hall in Oslo the week before. This was going to be our living room experience of a gig, in the Ruby Lounge. Thomas was genuinely surprised at the warmth of the reception. We all knew the songs, we all knew the words. He has that ability to connect with his audience that makes a performance memorable long after the event.

It became a conversation. He asked for requests, inviting the audience to ask him questions. It was cosy. He gave us the back stories to the songs. ‘Life Here is Gold’ was written in a hot tub in Bahrain. ‘A Love Story’ was for a film soundtrack. He sang an old favourite, ‘Cecilia’, revealing something of his relationship history in the process. It's about the girl he didn't get. He did an acoustic version of ‘Let's Party Like It's 1929’. He finished the set with ‘Love is Here to Stay’ from his latest album. He had dreamt the first chord of this particular song.

He made an interesting point when he asked for requests. As an entertainer it was his responsibility to give people what they wanted to hear, but as an artist he was under no obligation to play that request. He had to make you think you wanted to hear what he wanted to play. All explained in a very charming and funny way.

He had no merchandise, but he talked to people at the bar, posing for photos and chatting in Norwegian and English. It was a very special night. New friends and favourite music.

He is from Stavanger and I learnt that the difference between his accent and dialect, and an Oslo one, is more marked than our English northern and southern speech. Who would have thought it, with his perfect English.
He gets compared to Jeff Buckley and that would be a starting point if you think you might like him, but he is a very distinctive writer and singer.

Take a look and listen.

Earlier that same week I had been to the Royal Northern College of Music to see Tord Gustavsen, another Norwegian musician. This was mindfulness and musicianship, melody and movement. Accompanied on stage by some fantastic fellow musicians, playing as a Quartet, they were cool but never cold. It was tasteful and restrained, yet passionate at the same time. It made me think about the appeal of musicians from the North, In the last few years some of my favourite concerts have been by Scandinavian musicians.

Efterklang from Denmark, with their amazing album and film, Pyramida. Olafur Arnalds from Iceland. I’ve also followed First Aid Kit from Sweden, and Susanna and her Magical Orchestra from Norway. Then there’s Bjork with her very individual approach to creating music. Abba, Robyn and a-Ha represent the pop version of Scandinavian music, always top quality, never trashy.
Classical themes, jazz sensibilities, Nordic spirituals. I haven’t even mentioned the dark and heavy rock from the North.

Many of these artists seem able to shift from mood and genre as they develop as performers. There’s melancholic melody, themes of love, longing and spiritual yearning. I wonder if it’s the strong contrast between dark and light, winter and summer. Here we live in the twilight, the gloaming, with spring and autumn seeping into summer and winter. We don’t have the drama of the sharp contrasts experienced further north. But there’s a deep shared heritage and it has a very strong appeal.

It’s not just the music, Nordic noir is on our television screens and Tove Jansson’s Moomins are delighting new generations.

Look to the Northern lights.

The photographs of Thomas Dybdahl that accompany this article were taken by Joe Walker.

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