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Bathing in the cultural weirdness of fake ABBA at a casino

Abracadabra

Abracadabra

On Friday night bedazzled jumpsuit aficionados from across the greater metro made the pilgrimage to Mystic Lake Casino for Abracadabra: The Ultimate ABBA Experience. The event promised all our favorite ABBA songs played with fidelity to the originals by expert ABBA impersonators — a proposition so enticing it packed the casino's hallowed theater to the gills.

As we sat in darkness the room began to swell with anticipation. Queries hung in the air like so many strange, drying hunks of Nordic meat. Would we dance and jive? Would we have the time of our lives? Was there in fact, beyond the curtain, The Ultimate ABBA Experience?

Fastidious readers may want to chime in, “Nay! Would not ABBA be the ultimate ABBA experience?” Yes, clever and handsome reader, it would be. But as the old Swedish proverb tells us: You can wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which fills up first.

However sad it may make us, however cold and pale the moon, ABBA are toast and never, ever getting back together. In fact, seven years ago the OG members of ABBA turned down a billion dollars to do a reunion tour. A billion. With a B.

The second best-selling band of all time holding onto the integrity of their past may seem like a victory over capitalism on the surface, but a deeper glance down the well shows the dirty fingers of the market have been satiated with imitations. There are actually a great many ABBA cover bands haunting casinos and pilfering our parents' pockets in the name of nostalgia.

There’s Arrival from Sweden. The straightforward ABBA Tribute. Dancing Dream (formerly known as ABBA GIRLZ) are still hanging around. There’s the brilliantly named Bjorn Again. To say nothing of the Broadway institution Mama Mia and its strange cinematic twin which features the James Bond of my youth singing "SOS" with a straight face

Writer Ryan Warner got to meet Abracadabra!

Writer Ryan Warner got to meet Abracadabra!

Nearly all of these experiences describe themselves as some version of the “ultimate.” Not being able to experience all of the ABBA experiences, I couldn’t tell you where Abbacadabra ranks amongst its brethren, other than behind them on Google.

However tenuous the billing, this was the only ABBA cover show in town on Friday and the only one I was assigned to cover. So how was Abbacadabra? Let me tell you. Soon!

Before we go any deeper into this arbitrary terrain, I should probably mention that I identify as an ABBA fan. And while there’s definitely an irony implicit in liking something this cheesy and gross, my love of ABBA’s music is today, no longer ironic. I know a critic isn’t supposed to tip their hat towards any kind of bias or whatever, but, for this situation, it’ll probably be best for both of us if I come clean.

My confession is that I came to ABBA with malice. That malice turned into indifference. The indifference turned into ironically playing ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits in my ex-girlfriends Volkswagen. Ironically, playing ABBA in that Volkswagen turned my brain into baby food.

I know all the words. I listen to ABBA when I’m by myself. This concert has been on my calendar since July. It’s actually disgusting. When the curtains parted and Fake ABBA started rocking out to "Waterloo," I screamed out with sickeningly sincere pleasure.

I know you were probably expecting a snark-fueled review of some bullshit casino cover band (and you’d be in capable hands), but my conscience prevents me from delivering. I probably should have mentioned this to my editor when he conceded the “lead” to me, calling the show “cultural garbage,” though I am comforted in turning this into something earnest.

Onto the show!

So Not-Really-ABBA comes out guns blazing with what seems like an impossible to maintain pace. Nestled in the ecstatic joy of their first five songs are "Waterloo," "SOS," and "Mama Mia!" Of course, everyone in the house is worried that Faux-ABBA are in way over their heads, and have possibly just blown their loads all over Mystic Lake.

Not so! We’re talking about one of the deepest reservoirs in all of pop! Pretend-ABBA remind us of the relentless power of this music, with no respect for the members of the audience with heart conditions. There are costume changes! The members of the band resemble the actual members of ABBA in regards to hair color, gender and race! 

By the time they launch into "Chiquitita" we’ve all been reduced to the most primal versions of ourselves. Tears are rolling down faces. Middle aged women are literally dancing in the isles. There’s rapturous hope in the hearts of all. Time has no meaning. If we could bottle and sell this feeling, we too could be in the position to turn down a billion dollars.

The emotional tide rolls on until cresting with a finale that includes "Voulez Vous," "Fernando," "I Have a Dream," "Bohemian Rhapsody" (because whatever), and, of course, "Dancing Queen." It sounded sort of like ABBA. They kinda looked like ABBA too.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, and because I’d like to maintain the integrity of this fine paper, I’ll search for some holes in the façade of Imitation-ABBA. Hmm ... now, this might be a little nit-picky, but there was a certain chintziness to the fantasy that may have been absent in an Actual-ABBA concert. It might seem ridiculous to point this out, given that we’re talking about a cover-band at a casino, but Abbacadabra: a little tacky.

Now, one could argue that the source material is a little tacky itself, and one may have a point. However, there’s so much labored excess in real ABBA. Half the appeal is in the bells and whistles. Remember, the chrestomathy of ABBA is not called “greatest hits” or “the best of” or “Mama Mia, we’ve gotta lota hits!,” but GOLD. The music sounds expensive. Their outfits look expensive.

I hate to say it, but Abbacadabra look like they were wearing Halloween costumes. The show's proximity to the holiday did them no favors. Also, they passed out a hell of a lot of glow sticks. A totally unnecessary, embarrassing amount of glow sticks. There were also little mirror-balls the band held over their own heads during "Dancing Queen." I’ll just say it was embarrassing and move on.

Oh yeah! Hate to “go there,” but the stage banter could use a little work. The first time Imagine-We’re-ABBA addressed the audience they used Scandinavian accents that were terrible but exactly what the ravenous crowd was begging for. Then they faded. Then they were gone entirely. Then the accents came back! It was sort of like Nicolas Cage’s southern accent in Con Air but way lazier. This is to say nothing of the content of the banter which was, of course, all divorce-based humor.

To catch up non-ABBA fans: The original members of ABBA used to be married. Then they broke up and the band dissolved. Broken homes, children as pawns in a bitter spat for grown-ups. That kind of stuff. Remember these people wouldn’t perform together again for a BILLION DOLLARS, a fact not lost on Abbacadabra.

From the beginning, when the ladies of Imagine-ABBA introduced their male counterparts as “my ex-husband” and “MY ex-husband,” until the end of the show when Fake-Bjorn insinuated that his fake ex-wife could be had for $100, the banter toed the same line.

Now I get it. Divorce, hilarious. But maybe a little diversity in the humor would spice things up. Just an idea here: Maybe instead of mining the interpersonal hell of Actual-ABBA for yuks, Fake-ABBA could find something funny in its own milieu. For example: Everything. There isn’t anything about Abbacadabra that isn’t ridiculous. That’s your thing! Use that!

The music is so great by itself, a little self-awareness would glue it all together. Here’s a freebie just in case Fake Bjorn reads this review. You’ve just played “Take a Chance on Me.” The audience is in the palm of your hand. Motion to anything — the audience, your bandmates, whatever — and say “Can you fucking believe this shit?” Get inside yourself; it’ll bring the house down.

All in all, it was weird. Wonderful, but weird.