When the sun goes down in Stockholm, the music winds up

When the sun goes down in Stockholm, the music heats up thanks to a collection of intimate venues and a hip fan base dedicated to pop music appreciation.
Travel locator map of Stockholm, Sweden
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 1:37 PM

Onstage, Robyn whips her platinum coif around as though she's trying to escape a headlock. She punches the air. She kicks at phantoms. And when her bittersweet pop hit "Dancing on My Own" reaches its conclusion, she throws her arms out as if shoving the song off a cliff.

A few tunes later, she wolfs down a banana and chucks the peel into the audience. Of all her wild gestures, this one feels the most illicit.

That's because we're in the concert hall of Berns Salonger, an opulent 19th-century ballroom adorned with three hulking chandeliers and a whole lot of history. Swedish writer August Strindberg immortalized this place in his 1879 novel, "The Red Room," and 130-odd years later, its breathtaking architecture is filled with dancing Swedes, blinking strobes and a pop star at the height of her fame.

In the United States, you might be arrested for throwing garbage around in a room this magnificent.

But this is Stockholm, a global beehive of 21st-century pop, where Swedes treat their music with the reverence it deserves. In recent years, Scandinavia's largest country has churned out some of the most finely crafted, detail-oriented pop on the planet, produced by artists such as Stockholm sensations Lykke Li and the Knife and Gothenburg outsiders the Tough Alliance and jj. When I visit the land responsible for all these fantastic sounds, it makes perfect sense. In Stockholm, the nightclubs are clean and intimate, the sound systems are loud and lush, the DJs are encyclopedic, and the bands can be brilliant.

This Robyn show is practically a national event. her second homecoming gig in an intimate two-night stand. The only concertgoers at Berns who aren't clapping along to the 31-year-old singer's candy-coated disco are older women sipping white wine and too-cool teenagers who look as if they'd stumbled out of A Perfect Guide, the Swedish fashion magazine I leaf through the next morning.

A few titles down the newsstand rack, Robyn's smirk adorns the cover of Fokus, the Swedish equivalent of Time. She has been declared "Swede of the Year."

"It makes me proud to be Swedish," the clerk says, ringing up my purchase. "She's more famous than Abba."

Members of the Radio Dept., an indie-pop trio living here in Stockholm, think that Robyn is "just okay."

We're sitting at the front table of Nada, one of numerous incredibly cozy bars that dot the island of Sodermalm - or Soder - the trendy, arts-friendly district that houses most of the city's musical night life. We order a round of Falcon lager, Sweden's cheap, drinkable answer to PBR, and talk about the national popscape while a DJ in a Metallica T-shirt spins Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye.

The band is prepping for a big U.S. tour, which includes a stop at Washington's Rock & Roll Hotel on Feb. 1. Like its new album, their English is superb - and the same goes for just about everyone I meet during my four nights exploring Stockholm's bars and nightclubs.

And while the weather outside is frightful, frontman Johan Duncanson assures me that I've chosen a fine season to visit. Sure, the Scandinavian summers promise 20-plus hours of sunshiny good times, but most Swedish artists spend them on the road, festival-hopping in lower Europe. If you want to see Swedish bands in their natural habitat, now is the time.

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