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Meet Erja Lyytinen, the Nordic goddess of blues rock

Musicians like Lyytinen, known for her blend of blues rock and Finnish music’s trademark of melancholia, are now getting an international audience

Erja Lyytinen..
Erja Lyytinen.. (Sanjoy Narayan)

Not so long ago, while playing a gig in Helsinki, Carlos Santana, the guitar maestro and venerated rocker, called on stage Erja Lyytinen. Introducing her, he said: “My new friend represents the future—and I like the future! Erja… I call her lightning! Lightnin’ Hopkins, you know…” The year was 2018 and Lyytinen, who was then 42, wasn’t exactly unknown. The Finnish blues guitarist had already released 10 studio albums, a couple of live albums, and had earned a place among the respected top blues guitarists’ lists in Europe, Canada and elsewhere.

The accolades from Santana stuck, though. “Lightning” is an epithet that suits Lyytinen, whose style of playing the guitar—both slide and otherwise—is spectacularly speedy, yet soulful, even melancholic.

Last week, Lyytinen was the top billed artist at a new jazz and blues festival in Kuopio, a Finnish lakeside city in Northern Savonia, on the eastern side of the country. It also happens to be her hometown. Lyytinen was backed by a brass band, the Sawo Big Band, and the jazz trumpeter, Jukka Eskola. The combination of Lyytinen, who normally plays with a much smaller band, like most blues guitarists, with a big band, including several horn players and a virtuoso trumpeter such as Eskola, was new. But as Lyytinen remarked to the small yet enthralled audience after the first number, “It worked.”

Lyytinen belted out several of her mainstay numbers, including originals such as Wedding Day, as well as her interpretation of popular blues songs such as The Sky Is Crying. She can seem diminutive on stage, particularly when she is accompanied by members of a big band, but that is deceptive. Her guitar sounds robust, confident, striking.

Besides playing with Santana, she has played with musicians such as Joe Bonamassa, Sonny Landreth and Jennifer Batten, and has opened for gigs by Robert Plant and Tom Jones.

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Her vocal style is not extraordinary—she has a workaday approach to singing the blues in English, which is not her mother tongue—but her monumental guitar skills more than make up for it. At the gig, she sparred solos with Eskola, a trumpeter of no mean talent, besides launching into her own improvised solos, which blazed and seared. Her guitar style is known for its unique blend of blues rock and Finnish music’s trademark of melancholia. Dark black metal and heavy rock accounts for a large proportion of Finnish contemporary music. According to one estimate, Finland leads the list of countries in the heavy metal genre,with 53.2 heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents. Incidentally, Sweden is the second most dense country, with 37.14 metal bands per 100,000 residents.

In Lyytinen’s guitar style, you can discern flecks of heavy metal—not overwhelming dollops but little touches. That’s what distinguishes her style of playing the blues and that’s probably what has garnered the praise and critical approval she has received. Last autumn, her latest studio album, Waiting For The Daylight, came out and got positive reviews from most blues music critics. The nine songs on the album are all original and although it isn’t a live album, the tracks bear her trademark style of improvising, the guitar riffs evolving constantly before returning to the themes she starts with.

Last winter, Lyytinen received another new feather for her cap. A readers poll by the Guitar World magazine ranked the guitar solo of her song Bad Seed, off her newest album, as among the top 10 guitar solos in the world for 2022. Lyytinen was ranked No.10 on a list that included Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, and Steve Vai (formerly of Whitesnake).

For blues lovers, an introduction to Erja (pronounced “Erya”) Lyytinen’s music can be considered essential. Unfortunately, however, in spite of the critical acclaim, few outside the hard-core blues musicians’ circuit and, of course, Finland’s music aficionados, know about her.

That is one of the problems Finland’s thriving contemporary music scene faces. There are some great local bands but few outside the country have heard of them. One reason is the size of the country. It is small, with a population of barely 5.5 million people. To add to that, the Finnish attitude towards self-promotion in most fields, the arts included, is, let’s say, almost non-existent. In its place is a sort of studied self-effacement that is a (perhaps stereotypical) description of the Finnish personality.

Of late, however, that has begun changing, albeit slowly. Musicians such as Lyytinen are finding themselves on the international gig circuit. This year, besides a hectic tour schedule in her home country, she is scheduled to play in North America, the UK and several European venues. Greater exposure to wider audiences is what the Nordic goddess of blues rock certainly deserves.

For blues lovers who don’t get to see her live, her discography is easily accessible, fortunately, for an introduction to her brand of the blues—a unique combination of upbeat energy and deeper brooding introspection, a pairing I would say is tailor-made for the genre.

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