Premiere 18 November 2023, Rijswijkse Schouwburg

Sunfire has been around as a band for quite a while, to be precise since 2017. It started off as a solo project of Satria Karsono, who remains the lead singer and lyricist of the band to this day. When he had recorded his first solo album under the name of “Sunfire”, he realised that he had used too many instruments at once to be able to present his music all by himself. To remedy his predicament, Satria asked two friends, Michel Beeckman and Berend de Vries, to tag along, the latter of whom had already been responsible for mixing the solo album. Michel and Berend agreed and came armed with an electric guitar and an electric bass, thus Sunfire – the band – was born. Within the year, the wonderful violinist Sophie Zaaijer joined, transforming the trio into a quartet, and adding further to the soundscape. The current quintet line-up was made complete by the energetic drummer Jeroen van Leeuwen.

Since those early days Sunfire has built a strong reputation as a popular, energetic live band within the Folk and Fantasy scene in the Netherlands and beyond, having played more than 150 gigs in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France and the UK. Their sound is hard to describe: it is a unique mix of Americana, Bluegrass, Country, Roots, Rock and Folk, which the band itself calls “Western Folk”. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, which genre their music belongs to, because this inability to fit into any category is exactly what makes it special. Their sound is as unique that I am convinced most people, who have heard them play before, would be able to recognise a new song as theirs after only having heard a short snippet. Indeed, their sound and live performance is filled with so much energy and is so well-known among regular visitors of their performances that a fellow CeltCast member, when confronted with the idea of a theatre show by Sunfire, commented: “a seated Sunfire show? I would destroy my chair probably”.

This remark of my colleague is probably the litmus test for Sunfire’s theatre show “Tales of the Old West”. Sunfire’s performances are great at festivals and clubs, but the critical question is: does their show work within a seated theatre setting as well?

Let’s kill the suspense right away – yes, the show works, even brilliantly so and a fortiori in a theatre setting. So, if you don’t feel like reading any further, go check the “Tales of the Old West” tour plan and get yourselves some tickets (or have a look at the teaser first…). If you are still having your doubts or you are just interested as to why I think it’s brilliant, you are very welcome to keep on reading and defer checking out the tour plan and acquiring your ticket until later. Be assured, I will remind you…😉

So now that we got this settled, let me tell you, why you absolutely shouldn’t miss this show and how Sunfire made the show work in this very different setting of a theatre.

If you ask me, the first stroke of genius in the process of planning the show was to get a narrator, and not just any narrator, but exactly this one: Tycho Francis aka “Jebediah Wallace Dumont”. The short character introductions narrated by him, posted ahead of time on social media, already made me very curious, but seeing him do his magic live on stage was nevertheless even better than I had expected. The moment he entered the stage, with his walking cane, next to his lectern and the rest of the stage veiled in darkness (great lighting work by the way), the whole audience fell completely quiet and all eyes (and ears for that matter) were focused on him. When he started introducing Sinner’s Town and the people roaming that town (that is Satria Karsono aka “Billy Tanner”, Sophie Zaaijer aka “Madam Sawyer”, Berend de Vries aka “Deputy Frost”, Michel Beeckman aka “Henry River” and Jeroen van Leeuwen aka “Cole Burner”) with his deep, calm, and sonorous voice and a surprisingly authentic American accent, I was immediately transported into the reality of this imaginary town, set in the Old West and, among others thanks to his regular returns on stage, I remained there for the duration of the show.

This illusion of travel through time and space was not only aided by the careful crafting of the costumes of the band members and the consistent usage of English, avoiding any single Dutch word to ruin the illusion (up to this point no news to anyone, who has seen Sunfire before), but also by the new backdrop, specifically made for the theatre show, probably designed by Satria himself, as most of Sunfire’s graphic art, the props present on stage or lowered down from the ceiling, the great lighting work, which managed to hide any work related to reorganisation on stage, a pre-recorded, atmospheric backtrack that helped those of us less proficient in time travel to navigate to a saloon or the prairie of the Old Wild West and the surprising acting talent of the band members, making good use of the opportunities and space offered by a theatre stage.

So, let’s dive a bit deeper into the place Sunfire took us on a journey to. This place, Sinner’s Town, is not new to people, who have followed Sunfire during the last few years, because, as my fellow CeltCast member Cliff de Booy remarked in his review of Sunfire’s new album “The Devil’s Drink” (which, by the way, was released digitally one day prior to the official theatre premiere and physically on the day itself – check it out, if you haven’t done so yet, or have a look at Cliff’s review!): “[w]e have come to know main lyricist Satria Karsono as a true storyteller”. But what kind of story is Cliff referring to? What kind of story does Satria (and the rest of the band) tell then? If you were hoping to find a classic Western Cowboy story, telling about a few brave heroes, ruling the Good Ol’ Wild West with the help of their guns and mounts, “Tales of the Old West” is probably not for you. If, however, you are fascinated by a less romanticised (though also fictional) version of the Old West, telling of hardships, moral dilemmas and in general the timeless drama of human existence faced by those roaming Sinner’s town, ranging from absolute destitution, despair and death all the way to a state of uncontrollable joy and ecstasy, you definitely need to experience those tales as they are recited and acted out by Sunfire during the show.

Photo by Jean Paul Karting

After the narrator’s introductory words, “Tales of the Old West” started off with a bang, eh, with a “Shot” and with “Soul” ended on an equally up-tempo, rocking sing-along note, which the audience made ample use of. But in between, it was a rollercoaster of emotions, making us laugh with witty lyrics as in “Jolene” (which has been released on Youtube, too) or weep during the likes of “Ballad of River”. The band kept surprising us, when we were suddenly sent (back) to Sunday school, when an out-of-job drummer showed off his many other talents or when Billy Tanner was driven to despair because his horse was nowhere to be found. We went through more than one moment of uncertainty as to whether the show could go on, when the whole cast dropped dead to the floor, seemed to be on the verge of being hanged or when the lead singer appeared to be too drunk to continue with the show – had he taken one sip too many from the “Devil’s Drink”, and had thereby been incapacitated to “Leave the Bottle”? But in the end, the show must go on, and it always did … and in style, I might add.

Not only did Satria impersonate a drunk singer to the verge of perfection, but he in fact seemed to put his whole soul into every note he sang that night, ranging from powerhouse to emotional wreck, from drunk to sober, from deep to high notes, from singing to mere speaking. No matter what was required by the song, Satria gave it the right vibes with his voice. The same holds true for the rest of the band. The sound was engineered very well, and the instruments were in great harmony with each other. Each band member stepped back from time to time to give the respective other his or her chance to shine, whether it was an instrument predestined for a solo such as Sophie’s violin, Berend’s E-guitar or Satria’s banjo and acoustic guitar or an instrument granted this role less often as Jeroen’s drums or Michel’s bass. The soloists used their moments not only to shine, but to metaphorically light up the whole theatre hall. In fact the waltz driven almost entirely by Michel’s bass playing, while the rest of the band was swaying and dancing along was one of my personal highlights of the entire show.

Furthermore, the harmony was not limited to the sound alone. People who have seen Sunfire perform before will know what I mean, when I say, that it was a feast for the eyes to watch the band members interact with each other on stage. I can only come up with two possible explanations for this fabulous interaction. Either they are even better actors than we had suspected, and we will soon have to go without Sunfire’s music, because they have all been hired by Hollywood or they are not only a random cast of musicians, selected to put on a great show, but rather a crew of friends having a blast together while winning their bread in the meantime. I don’t know about you, but I sure hope it’s the second one and am almost sure it is.

This positive impression of the musicians’ personalities is made complete by the appreciative and respectful behaviour of the band members themselves, on- and offstage. Neither before the show on social media nor during the show did the band members grow tired of emphasising that this was not only their work, but the work of a crew of eleven, including the narrator, the people responsible for light and sound, for taking care of moving things on- and offstage, for booking and promoting and last but not least for selling the band’s merch in the theatre’s foyer. The attendance of many a musician or person otherwise active within the Folk and Fantasy scene underlines this point and is topped off by the cosy atmosphere after the show, when a noticeable portion of the audience hung around to get autographs, take pictures, exchange a hug or simply have a nice chat with each other or the band members, telling them things like “put this show on tape (eh, DVD) right away, capture this masterwork, so it will be there for people to enjoy after the tour is over”.

So, to sum it up, “Tales of the Old West” by Sunfire is not just a concert moved onto a theatre stage, but much more than that … It is a theatre production of its own right, that keeps the strengths of Sunfire as a band, but at the same time hits a whole new level in terms of taking the audience on a journey through time and space, bringing Sunfire’s version of the Old West to life through the tales from Sinner’s Town. Well, now, the only thing left to say is: don’t forget about that ticket hunt you postponed earlier to be able to read on and we might just meet at one of their shows, because I am pretty sure I will be travelling to the Netherlands at least once more (from Germany) to join Sunfire on their journey to the even more distant Old West.

– Germaine

P.S.: as a reminder – here’s another link to the “Tales of the Old West” tour plan! And, to round it off, below you can find the official teaser of the show:

In addition, you can find Sunfire here: