Even through the fuzzy connection of a video call, across an ocean and down the length of a continent, DJ Mag USA can feel the wired energy of that green room all the way from our own seat in Miami. A sense of excitement is palpable, despite the exhaustion Jono admits to as he rests his head on his hand with a grin. In just a few hours, Above & Beyond will make their debut at Royal Albert Hall, the fifth stop on their 11-city Acoustic tour for the release of ‘Acoustic II’ – the highly anticipated follow up to their chart-topping 2014 ‘Acoustic’ album.
The trio have just finished sound check and they settle comfortably into their places on the black couch. “There’s such a lovely reverb to the room,” Tony smiles, explaining the acoustic quality of the iconic hall. His signature neckerchief is green today, and it matches his pants. Casual attire before the night’s elegant storm. We ask the group if they’re nervous and receive a round of brief nods in reply. “Nervous,” Tony affirms.
Jono points at the wall to his right, “It’s a big deal playing Royal Albert Hall. It’s not your average venue. Just look at this poster over here: Opened by Her Majesty the Queen on March the 29th, 1871,” he pauses and holds a finger up for emphasis, “at 12:30pm.”
Above & Beyond will take the stage tonight at 8:45pm, accompanied by a 15-piece ensemble, Jono on Rhodes, Tony on guitar and vocals and Paavo on grand piano. And while Queen Victoria, who opened the Hall, is long gone and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is presumably tucked into her Buckingham bed, there is something majestic about the quiet moments before this show.
Strange feelings aside, Above & Beyond are no strangers to packing historic houses, like New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the Sydney Opera House and just four nights’ prior on this tour, Manchester’s Albert Hall. “Manchester was one of the loudest gigs we’ve ever done.
The Beatles; Pink Floyd; Radiohead; Stevie Wonder; if the walls of Abbey Road Studios could sing, they might spill the greatest secrets in modern music’s history. It’s only fitting that a band with the ability to move people on the level Above & Beyond does, would take their best work to the iconic production house.
‘Acoustic II’ is cinematic, bold and warm, with swelling strings punctuated by big brass and Taiko drums that are redolent of familiar film scores. There is a movement precisely two minutes into the album’s version of ‘Sticky Fingers’ that sounds as if it was composed for the exact moment 007 pulls his Aston Martin up to MI-6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross.
Strings and brass were recorded at Abbey Road and the parts were taken back to Above & Beyond’s own studio for mixing before being returned to Abbey Road for final mastering. The guys credit the album’s musical director and producer Bob Bradley, Tony’s longtime friend and former bandmate from an era before Above & Beyond, with creating many of the string components.
This idea of being involved since the start is a consistent theme across both the album and its concert counterpart. Beyond just sound and feeling, there are people who have been instrumental in helping the band become what they are today, who are an integral part of the ‘Acoustic II’ process.
Tony leans forward in his seat on the black couch in Royal Albert Hall’s green room, peering into the camera thoughtfully. “I should tell you this story I was just thinking of tonight, actually. I used to work just over here in Kensington,” he jerks his thumb at the wall behind him, “Over the road, there was a bath shop with very nice, high-end bathroom items; little soap dishes and towels. There was a rug, a blue and white rug in the window, and I walked in to find out how much it was...
“A very attractive shop assistant was working there and I asked her, ‘How much is that rug there in the window?’
‘65 pounds,’ she said.
And so I replied, ‘That’s quite a lot. Do you get a staff discount?’
‘Well I do, but you don’t,’ she answered.
‘What if I take you for lunch?’ I asked.
‘Okay, then,” she said.
“And that… was Justine Suissa!” Tony announces with a grin, still pleased all these years later by such a happy twist of fate. “I never got the rug,” he shrugs. But he did forge a lasting friendship with singer-songwriter Justine Suissa, who would go on to form vocal trance group OceanLab with Tony, Jono and Paavo, delivering hits like ‘Clear Blue Water’, ‘Satellite’, and the more recent ‘Another Chance’, which gets its own elegant rework on ‘Acoustic II’.
Such twists of fate are woven throughout Above & Beyond’s history, from their inception to the present moment. Here’s the annotated version you won’t find on Wikipedia: drummer Paul Stewart introduced Jono and Paavo to one another at the University of Westminster, where the two were both studying music production.
Meanwhile, Jono was working in sound design for Yamaha. Tony’s brother, Liam, purchased one of Jono’s products and thought to connect Jono with Tony, who was working as a successful marketing director for Warner Music Group at the time.
And then, fate winked again.
In Tony’s role at Warner Music, he had begun to don an A&R hat on weekends. Always out clubbing with his ear tuned to dance music trends, Tony started signing tracks to the label. “20 years ago this year, my first signing came out; Hysteric Ego’s ‘Want Love’.
Today, that remix of Chakra’s ‘Home’ is a classic that no trance throwback set is complete without. In it, you can hear the beginnings of Above & Beyond; the heart of a small, hot star that would give life to the super group they’ve become – there are the rising strings, the uplifting, melodic progression backed by a distinct style of rolling energy, and without fail, emotive lyrics that foreshadow the feeling so many fans would come to glean from their music in years to come: "You're not alone, I've come to take you home."
Drop in on any given Friday for the live-stream of Above & Beyond’s weekly Group Therapy Radio broadcast on YouTube, and you’ll find yourself roped into an enthusiastic family of listeners tuned in from across the globe. A live chat stream scrolls along the right-hand side of the screen, chock full of colorful emojis and text that simultaneously react to the music being played and interact with fellow Group Therapy fans. There are proclamations of awe, words of trance fam wisdom, and virtual hugs to welcome others as they join the fray. For two-hours straight, things generally look like this:
@PeterP: “ALL ABOARD THE FEELS TRAIN!!!”
@AlexandreH: “Those vocals…”
@LaurenF: “This makes my heart dance.”
@OldrichJ: <Heart emoji heart emoji heart emoji>
@JasonV: “Been needing this all week!”
@RyanR: “Remember to keep your hearts open, everyone.”
@DebbieB: “Breathe the love in :-)”
The buzzing joy and connection that can be experienced in person at an Above & Beyond show, can be read, word for word, heart emoji for heart emoji, in the Group Therapy live-stream chat. It can be heard in the notes of dedication read aloud by either Paavo, Tony or Jono acting as weekly show host; from birthday wishes to the announcements of babies, condolences in the wake of loss to congratulations on small achievements. Group Therapy is a fractal of Above & Beyond’s live performances that allows fans to stay connected not only to the music but to one another.
“Most things that we do, not just the podcast, we try to make into an inclusive event. We try and do our best to be inclusive artists rather than exclusive in the way that we operate,” Jono explains, pausing thoughtfully for a moment to consider his words, “So I think it comes from there and a combination of, seemingly, that the kinds of people who listen to our music are really good people. What’s nice about it for us, is that it gives the music a sense of purpose.”
Group Therapy Radio launched in 2012 as the successor to Above & Beyond’s Trance Around the World podcast, and Tony suggests the name change is a brilliant reflection of what the show means to everyone who tunes in.
The clock hanging on the wall behind Jono, Tony and Paavo is ticking past 6:00pm. Just under three hours until they take the stage. There is still dinner to be eaten and naps to be had. We get the sense that Above & Beyond practice what they preach, so before they depart to prepare for the evening, we ask what they’d say if they were reading their own messages aloud on Group Therapy Radio, directed to their listeners.
They pause for a moment, collectively, each artist thoughtfully forming his answer.
Paavo: “For me, going to the shows has actually become a really big part of my life, and on a good night when things go really well, I call it a ‘life affirming night.’ I’d just like to thank anyone who’s ever been at one of our shows and given me that feeling, because at the end of the show I feel like, whatever life throws at me it’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. It’s that kind of life-affirming trust in the future that comes from the shows, so thank you.”
Tony: “Particularly, I’d like to thank people for allowing all three of us to make music that really means a lot to us, and allowing us to have a career doing so; because that’s not always so obvious a thing for a band to do in this day and age. That we’ve managed to carve out a career making records we feel very proud of is the greatest gift any musician can have.”
Jono: “Something I notice that happens a lot at our gigs is people say things to me like – in the most extreme example – ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your music.’ Or that they wouldn’t have achieved something. And I just feel like, I wish people would give themselves more credit sometimes. Because you know, music, the arts, can be catalysts for change… but it tells me that people really need to recognize the power within their own bodies and minds; that they can be whatever they want. That’s the message I would like to give to fans really, is ‘the sky’s the limit; go and find it.’”
There is a short video clip on Facebook with over a quarter million views, taken from the mobile phone of someone standing in the audience at Royal Albert Hall on the night of this concert. In it, the domed arena is awash in a deep red glow; the entire crowd on its feet with a sea of arms stretching toward the sky, singing in unison to Above & Beyond’s ‘Sun & Moon’ as a glittering stream of confetti rains down upon them. It’s a sight majestic enough to impress a queen, 145 years after she opened the doors of a concert hall to the world.
Words: ERIN SHARONI
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