Taking the Voyage with ABBA

I just returned from my first trip to Europe in several years. My primary destination was Italy, but given how easy it is to “hop” around Europe fairly cheaply once you’re across the Atlantic, I decided that while I was in “the neighborhood”, I simply had to go to London to see ABBA’s innovative concert/show/spectacle, and so I planned a two night stop-over in London for that purpose.

In a prior blog I wrote about the launch of ABBA’s new album, Voyage that was released in 2021 after a 40 year hiatus and the emotional impact it had on me. At the time, I really never imagined I would get to see the show, they were producing, so I was thrilled to be able to get a ticket and work this into my travel itinerary.

For those of you who don’t know, the members of ABBA are now in their 70s, and while their voices appear to be in fine form given the vocals on Voyage, they were not about to go on a world tour to promote it. Instead, in sort of classic ABBA style, they decided to create a virtual concert using cutting edge, almost bordering on sci-fi technology. Basically, the group members donned motion capture suits and went into a studio a couple of years ago, where they sang all their old songs while cameras recorded their every body movement down to the muscles in their faces. These recordings were then sent to George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic company and avatars – or ABBAtars – of the four members of ABBA as they appeared circa 1979 were created. ABBA then built their own 3,000 seat stadium from the ground up in London’s Stratford neighborhood to house and support the technology required to bring the ABBAtars to life on stage. The show employs original studio vocal recordings from their work in the 1970s but adds a 10-piece live orchestra and background singers. I really couldn’t wrap my head around much of this but was eager to see how it would all play out at the show.

I flew from Rome to London’s Stansted Airport and caught a bus to Stratford Station, then got checked in at the Holiday Inn Express which was just a 10 minute walk from the ABBA Arena. I chuckled as I went up to my room at the hotel as they’ve got the lyrics to Dancing Queen printed across the mirrored interior of the elevator.

I must say that I was not terribly impressed by this area of London. Other than a big mall, there was not much going on and as a dedicated “foodie”, I was dismayed by the scant options for a good meal anywhere near the hotel. I only had two nights in London, and I did do some walking and took the Tube to the Notting Hill area and down to the Tower Bridge, but otherwise, the Monday evening show was the main event. I’d planned to have dinner at one of the few restaurants nearby before the show, but alas, it was closed when I arrived, so I stopped at a convenience store, grabbed a little fishnet full of some Babybel cheese, and headed off to the arena.

The ABBA Arena seriously resembles a UFO that just landed in the Stratford neighborhood, a dark, brooding structure with ABBA in lights across its face. Once inside, however, the atmosphere was very festive in what they refer to as the “Departure Lounge”, with multi-colored lighted ceilings and several food and drink areas. One huge open area was serving pricey wines, champagnes and gourmet foods for those who wanted to spend the Money, Money, Money. I opted for a food stall that sold foot-long hotdogs, which didn’t seem terribly ABBA-esque, but they did serve a Swedish hard cider that was delicious and helped me wash down the hotdog and all that cheese! I wandered around, checking out the souvenir store where they were selling everything from $36 t shirts to $100 ABBA Christmas sweaters. It was fun chatting with other fans, exchanging information about where we were from and speculating as to what the show would be like. Soon it came time to take our seats, and I was pleasantly surprised by how the stadium is built so that even with someone standing up in the row front of me, I still had an unimpeded view of the stage.

Unfortunately, photos of the show itself are strictly forbidden, and if caught, the errant person was to be ejected from the arena. I do understand the reason for this, and it was nice not to be distracted by people trying to record everything or watching the show through their phone cameras. However, the lack of visuals makes it difficult to explain what the show was like; I’ll do my best to describe it in words. There are spoilers ahead for those die-hard folks who don’t want to know the playlist or running order of the numbers, so if that’s you, stop reading now!

The opening song was a somewhat unusual choice, 1981’s The Visitors, but the song starts slowly and builds to an energetic chorus and made for a very dramatic start as the ABBAtars made their first appearance. As at any big concert, the stage was flanked by two large video screens, so you can see the faces of the singers close-up. I have got to tell you, the ABBAtars were so amazingly lifelike I would have sworn there were four flesh and blood people on that stage. I turned to a British woman sitting next to me and we just shook our heads, totally dumbfounded by what we were seeing. These are not some sort of primitive holograms or two-dimensional projections; they are three dimensional and they cast shadows as they move around on the stage. Their faces contort with emotion as they sing.

The second song was another unusual choice, Hole in Your Soul, a non-hit album cut that features mind-bogglingly high pitched vocals from Agnetha and Frida, the lead singers. After that number, Benny – well, Benny’s ABBAtar – talked to the crowd, made a few jokes, paused for laughter and applause, and then launched into the famous piano introduction for the hit,  S.O.S., which was one of the highlights for sure.

Once the shock of just how realistic the ABBAtars were wore off, I was able to appreciate the amazingly intricate lighting displays and stage backdrops. Chiquitita featured the ladies performing against an enormous sun that gradually gets eclipsed and turns the stage dark. Frida then gave a little introduction before segueing into Fernando and the set featured a realistic-looking starry sky and shimmering northern lights overhead. Unforgettable.

For Knowing Me, Knowing You the ABBAtars weren’t on stage, but instead they appeared in a music video projected on huge screens with mirrors and lights. They sort of re-created moments from the original video where the couples hug and part from one another, and it was really moving, and yet I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching avatars in a music video. I exchanged several more glances with the woman beside me, but we were both speechless. There is a one-minute long “trailer” online for the show, and you might want to check that out here so you get some sense of what I am really at a loss to adequately describe.

There were only two “weak spots” in the show in my opinion. For the majestic song, Eagle, an animated film was show featuring a Viking-esque young boy named Rora who is searching for something in a series of mysterious vaults or tombs. It to some extent mirrored the mystery of the song itself, though I’d have preferred to see footage of eagles flapping their wings in time to the beat of the song. A bit later, the song Voulez-Vous begins and unfortunately, Rora is back with us again. The complete lack of any connection between the song’s mood and lyrics and the adventures of Rora left me bewildered. Had Rora been visiting a French discotheque and trying to pick up on a sexy Viking girl, it might have worked better. Given the fact that two mega-hits, Take a Chance on Me and Super Trouper were not included in the show, the use of these animated bits seemed silly, and given the amazing lighting effects, the line, “Tonight the super trouper lights are going to find me shining like the sun…” could have come to life beautifully.

Perhaps the most beautiful set during the show was for Summer Night City – the ABBAtars were back and performed from inside illuminated, pyramid-shaped enclosures with a backdrop of stars, planets and a huge version of Saturn rising from the horizon. The lighting effects were other worldly, in more ways than one.

Mamma Mia was another “music video” sort of format, and wildly popular with the audience and then a very sweet and understated When All Is Said and Done, which is perhaps my very favorite ABBA song.  The two hits from the Voyage album, Don’t Shut Me Down and I Still Have Faith in You, came next, the latter featuring the ABBAtars walking around the stage, holding hands, hugging each other. It was very sweet and again, I had to keep reminding myself that the figures on that stage were not flesh and blood. Also, because of the live band, the songs didn’t sound exactly like the original recordings, and this just reinforced the perception that you were at a live show.

Benny’s ABBAtar came out to introduce Waterloo, sharing a funny story with the audience. During the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 when ABBA first publicly performed the song, the British judges gave the song zero points, despite the fact that Waterloo went on to win the competition that year, so it is sweet irony that after all this time, ABBA chose to build their $200 million dollar arena smack in the middle of London to house the Voyage Show! They then showed a music video of the band originally performing the song at Eurovision and in the early years of their career in their outlandish costumes. So now it was like the ABBAtars were showing us their home movies!

Waterloo, 1974

Agnetha then did a really sweet version of Thank You for the Music that had the whole arena swaying and singing, but then, all hell broke loose as the opening for Dancing Queen began. I have to say, I got teary eyed more than once during the show, but Dancing Queen had the tears rolling down my cheeks, and looking around me, I was not the only one. The light displays descended from the ceiling above the audience, Agnetha and Frida’s ABBAtars were projected on huge screens, and all 3,000 people in that arena were on their feet, singing and dancing. It was truly magical.

And then, as in any concert, there had to be an encore and the ABBAtars came back out on stage. Agnetha took center stage in a gorgeous flowing white dress and sang The Winner Takes It All. The ABBAtars wished us a goodnight, took a bow and left the stage and then ABBAtars – or perhaps it was just a video – at this point I was completely unsure – of the band members as they are NOW walked on stage and thanked everyone for their love and support and waved goodbye.

I think that anyone who was a true ABBA fan would absolutely love this experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and am so thrilled that I had the opportunity to see it. During the height of their career, ABBA was often criticized for their silly costumes and simplistic lyrics, but over the decades, even the most cynical critics of the band have come to realize just how talented this group really was. The extent of their global popularity and how their music has endured for more than 40 years speaks to the fact that they touch people in a way that few artists have ever achieved. I can say that for the 90 minutes that I spent in the ABBA Arena on that chilly November night, everything seemed right (well, except for Rora) and I hadn’t a care in the world, and that certainly is something I am grateful for.

2 thoughts on “Taking the Voyage with ABBA

  1. Wow! Matt! Thank you for that experience. I sort of felt that i was right there with you in the audience, listening to those songs, feeling the energy, connecting back to those days, the first times i had and heard those musical experiences.

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