ABBA Voyage (The ABBA Arena, London)
For those lucky enough to witness last night’s opening show of Abba’s virtual London residency, there was only one conclusion: Mamma Mia! How can we resist you?
In the words of Dancing Queen, they were having the time of their lives at the Abba Arena in London’s Olympic Park… and were rewarded at the end of an emotional evening when Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad walked on stage in the flesh to take a curtain call.
Up to that point, the famous foursome hadn’t actually been on stage in person during a 95-minute run-through of their greatest hits and a few slightly deeper cuts.
Up to that point, the famous foursome hadn’t actually been on stage in person during a 95-minute run-through of their greatest hits and a few slightly deeper cuts
Quietly taking their seats seconds before the curtain rose, they had watched nervously, or maybe in admiration, from the wings. But if they weren’t centre stage, the spirit of their 1970s and 1980s heyday most certainly was.
Five years in the making and put together at an estimated cost of £15million, this was indeed ‘a concert like no other’ with the band represented by four virtual avatars – or ‘Abbatars’ – of their younger selves created using state-of-the-art digital technology.
In a purpose-built, 3,000-capacity venue, the show began amid cries of ‘unbelievable’ and ‘Oh my God!’ at just how realistic the avatars – beamed on stage as holographic images – actually were.
The dance moves, hand gestures and facial expressions were all remarkably lifelike.
After a short introductory speech from Benny, who compared himself to time-traveller Doctor Who, the band came close to raising the roof with classics such as SOS and Knowing Me, Knowing You, both played early in the set.
In a purpose-built, 3,000-capacity venue, the show began amid cries of ‘unbelievable’ and ‘Oh my God!’ at just how realistic the avatars – beamed on stage as holographic images – actually were
For Chiquitita, the four avatars were silhouetted against a slowly eclipsing sun. Mamma Mia, the song that launched a stage musical and two films, was served up as more of an interlude with larger than life projections of the band members shown on a gargantuan screen rather than on stage.
Much the same went for another number, Eagle, which again had only a filmed accompaniment.
The Abbatars were backed by a ten-piece live band of real-life musicians, including three backing vocalists situated to one side of the stage. Led by UK indie-pop star James Righton – the husband of Hollywood actress Keira Knightley – the backing musicians helped to thicken the classic Abba wall of sound while staying true to the catchiness and clout of the original songs.
They excelled themselves on an extended, rocking version of Does Your Mother Know. There were other highlights, including a thrilling dance medley featuring Lay All Your Love On Me and Summer Night City.
That was followed, with the band dressed all in black, by a pulsating, discofied Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).
It wasn’t just about the classics from the 1970s and 1980s, either. ‘Who could ever believe we could go back into the studio after 40 years?’, asked the virtual Agnetha before singing the band’s two recent comeback singles – Don’t Shut Me Down and the brilliant ballad I Still Have Faith In You.
If there was a special moment, though – other than that final curtain call – it was the first few bars of Waterloo, in which the four avatars were silhouetted against vintage footage of Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton in 1974.
The staging was undoubtedly spectacular, but there are still innate shortcomings in any virtual show
Before the number, they wryly pointed out that the UK had given the song ‘nul points’. Despite a slight mid-set lull, the finale was spectacular – with the avatars back centre stage for Thank You For The Music, a euphoric Dancing Queen and the inevitable Winner Takes It All, with virtual Anni-Frid in a glitter jumpsuit and digital Agnetha in a flowing white dress.
The staging was undoubtedly spectacular, but there are still innate shortcomings in any virtual show. Earlier this week I saw Harry Styles deliver a masterclass in playing to the gallery.
Launching his new album with a gig at Brixton Academy, he was able to single out fans in the crowd who caught his eye, drape himself in flags thrown from the audience and even sing happy birthday to one female devotee.
A digital avatar will never be able to live in the moment that way, although Abba Voyage made an emotional connection in other ways. Most of us can measure our lives in Abba hits, and the sheer strength of the material alone should be enough to guarantee this show’s box office success.
Before the show I bumped into lifelong Abba fan Sharleen Spiteri, of the band Texas, and she was in no doubt as to why she was there: ‘I’m really keen to see the staging… but for me it’s all about the songs.’ And whether or not they are being performed by avatars, they are still magnificent.
FROM SUPER TROUPERS TO TIMELESS ‘ABBATARS’
To bring the Abba tour to life, experts used motion capture technology employed in big budget Hollywood movies like Star Wars.
All four band members were fitted with form-fitting body suits covered in sensors that helped record their every move. They were also given helmets equipped with cameras and microphones, special shoes and sensors placed all over their faces in order to create digital ‘avatars’.
Bjorn and Benny were even forced to shave off their beards to allow the sensors to properly analyse their facial movements. The stars then spent five weeks in front of 160 cameras. Each of the 20 songs from the concert were performed ‘to perfection’ – enabling every mannerism, facial expression and motion of the band to be tracked and recorded.
The 3D recordings were then given to almost 1,000 digital artists – based around the world – who used archive footage to roll back the years and give the illusion the band in their 1970s prime had been transported to the 2020s.
In total it took around one billion computing hours to create the impressive ‘Abbatars’.