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A bus journey to a time before ABBA

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Benny Andersson, the bearded pianist who bopped along behind his keyboard, was a key architect of ABBA's sound, writing and producing a string of unimpeachable earworms with his bandmate Bjorn Ulvaeus.

[STOCKHOLM] — Catherine King was easy to spot at a recent gig for Benny Anderssons Orkester: She stood right by the stage, in front of a large Australian flag she had tied to the safety fence. King, 49, had travelled from her home in Tasmania to catch four concerts on the Swedish tour.

"I fell in love with ABBA when I was 7, but unfortunately my parents wouldn't let me go to their shows in Sydney," King said. "I never forgave them for that."

"Just joking," she added. (She was not.)

Benny Andersson, the bearded pianist who bopped along behind his keyboard, was a key architect of ABBA's sound, writing and producing a string of unimpeachable earworms with his bandmate Bjorn Ulvaeus.

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But the gigs by the large ensemble he has been leading since 2001 do not cater to the "Mamma Mia!" constituency.

Mr Andersson, 72, sees his group, which goes by BAO (pronounced "bah-oh"), as part of the tradition of the hardworking "dansbands" that entertained Swedes for generations. Dansbands, whose popularity peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, would roam the country and play mainly pop, rock, disco and the cheesy easy-listening known as schlager with one goal in mind: Get people to dance. Many wore fantastically garish matching costumes.

Like most dansbands, BAO tours by bus, in this case a comfortable but not ostentatious double-decker. The extra room is needed because Andersson's crew is supersize: 15 members — including string and horn sections and two singers — compared with four to six in a regular dansband.

The set list is just as expansive, with 50 numbers over four hours. Only a handful are by ABBA, and those are deep cuts like "Lovers (Live a Little Longer)" and "Put on Your White Sombrero."

"I do them for those in the audience who are ABBA fans because they would know these songs," Mr Andersson said, grinning. "The rest of the audience, probably not."

BAO's sets are puzzlingly diverse, as if someone had grafted together the playlists of 20 genres on Spotify. Attending four tour stops last week, I took in 16 hours of music — like Wagner's "Ring" cycle, only more upbeat — and heard waltzes, big-band jazz, pop tunes, polkas, boogie, chansons, rockabilly, glam-rock stomps and traditional folk tunes. The band basically went through all the styles ABBA smoothly integrated into its signature hits.

"They capture the Swedishness of the music," Jan Ryden, 55, said of BAO, at the end of the show in Eskilstuna, 90 minutes west of Stockholm.

"Toppklass!" said his friend Mats Eriksson, 57. "No one can do that except for these people."

No musical stone was left unturned. A classical section included a riotous version of Bach's "Badinerie" that featured virtuosic solos by Janne Bengtson on the flute and Kalle Moraeus on the banjo. It comes as no surprise to learn that the first is in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and the second is among Sweden's foremost multi-instrumentalists.

"Benny writes real parts for us, almost like Duke Ellington with his band," said Calle Jakobsson, a tuba player by day in the Royal Swedish Opera's orchestra. With BAO, he added, "I probably play more notes than I do in a whole season at the opera."

With recording solo projects, composing musicals, writing a suite for a Swedish royal wedding, and helping to oversee his former band's legacy, Andersson's post-ABBA career has been extraordinarily fruitful. Yet it's clear that BAO is special to him.

So in addition to releasing a series of popular albums, he gathers the troops for some live dates every few years. This summer, the group played eight outdoor venues across Sweden, ranging in capacity from 3,000 to 7,500. The tour ended on Aug. 3.

The al fresco bit is crucial, because a BAO gig is as much community celebration as it is concert. Attendees picnic as the long summer days slowly turn to dusk. A square wooden dance floor, festooned with multicolor lights, is set up right in front of the stage.

"When you play as long as we do, you watch the dancers and you get energized," Mr Jakobsson said. "It's a great symbiosis."

The dance floor is a wonderful equalizer — nobody batted an eyelash when Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a longtime BAO fan, busted some moves at the concert in the small town of Trosa — and a nod to the tradition of the "folkpark," where many dansbands plied their trade.

Folkparks, which flourished in the first half of the 20th century, were places where Swedes could dance to live music and enjoy carnival-type attractions. All of ABBA's members played them in the 1960s — Mr Andersson and Mr Ulvaeus even met at one — and they continued in the band's early days, before switching to arenas worldwide. Nowadays, folkparks can seem old-fashioned, and there aren't many left.

"The first BAO tour we did, we went to genuine folkparks with dance rotundas and small stages," Mr Andersson said. "Then we thought we should bring our own folkpark to the people: the dance floor, the games of darts, the hot dogs, the chocolate wheel — a wheel of fortune where you win chocolate. It was too messy so all we kept are the dance floor and the lights. But that's enough."

After a show in Leksand, in central Sweden, BAO spent the night in a mom-and-pop hotel — no fancy palaces for Mr Andersson, who partakes in snacks and buffets like everybody else.

On the way to Eskilstuna the following day, the group stopped for lunch at a restaurant attached to a bakery that produces wheels of crispbread the traditional Swedish way — by hand, in wood-burning ovens. When the bakery was in danger of closing a few years ago, Mr Andersson became an investor. "It was a part of our culture that I didn't want to see disappear," he said.

This is all of a piece for a man attuned to the ideas of tradition and community. He often switches to the accordion — the first instrument he learned — onstage. When not playing his own music he often collaborates with folk ensembles like the all-female Systerpolskan. He also supports educational initiatives aiming to preserve ancient instruments and musical techniques.

And yet Mr Andersson is not stuck in the past. He has recently been working on a 360-degree virtual show featuring holograms of ABBA as it was in 1979. For the project, the band recorded its first new tracks in nearly four decades.

"We were together in the studio like no time had passed," Mr Andersson said. "Everybody fell into their roles immediately."

The songs are ready, but the high-tech "Abbatars" are not, and the grand reveal has been delayed. According to Mr Andersson, a video for the new song "I Still Have Faith in You" is expected to be released in the coming months, as a teaser for the full experience.

Preservation, fellowship and transmission are important to the musician, and the children of some BAO members often travel with the band. The 23-year-old daughter of Mr Moraeus, the versatile instrumentalist, oversees the kids' brigade in charge of selling the merchandise. She and the bassist's teenage sons occasionally join in on fiddle. Bengtson's 15-year-old daughter sits in the horn section for a few numbers, playing the trumpet.

Until recently, the band members used to jam on the bus or at the hotel after their shows, and the new generation has picked up the baton: The three young fiddlers offered an impromptu session in the hotel's dining room after the Leksand gig, with the adults beating the rhythm by stomping their feet.

"Playing music for people is the most rewarding thing you can do," Mr Andersson said. "You play together, and life is good."

 

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