At first glance, one might take Garmarna to be just another band of alterna-rock 20-somethings, but as the Blues Poet Willie Dixon once observed, you can’t judge that chunk of reading matter by its superficial graphic design. From Sweden, Garmarna are five singers/players who take the traditional folk music of their land’s history and invest/interpret it with modern technology and edgy oomfp. They strive for a balance that treats their heritage with reverence but, thankfully, don’t try to "present" said musical heritage as it (might have? must have?) sounded centuries ago, while vesting it with their own contemporary energy and ardor (but stop short of watering-down or "pop-ifying" it).
In the auditorium of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, Garmarna played to a packed house. The focal point was the lovely, pristine (but slightly austere) singing of Emma Hardelin, who also played violin, but what made their performance an Event was the punchy, driving rhythms the band bestowed on their program of trad Swedish folk songs and Middle Ages composer Hildegard von Bingen (b. 1098). The rest: a drummer who played an electronic drum set, a fellow who alternated between electric guitar (w/ an E-bow from time to time) and electric bass, a chap who played violin and hurdy-gurdy (an ancient instrument that has a sort-of keyboard and is cranked) and a gent who played acoustic rhythm guitar all of whom played with adeptness and commitment. While forlorn ancient melodies were performed more or less in a folkloric, straightforward manner, they were given a booming, wailing bottom via a brisk matrix of rock-oriented drums and sampled beats. Often, the violins and (especially!) the hurdy-gurdy rendered a dense, powerful drone recalling the early Velvet Underground ("Venus In Furs," "All Tomorrow’s Parties") as well as uber-minimalists La Monte Young and Phill Niblock. The capacity crowd, as they say in Hollywood, ate it up with relish and craved seconds. Garmarna played as if enveloped in the chilly noontime light of the Arctic Circle and the ancient winds from a savage Nordic netherworld. Good stuff!