On the floor beneath the stage a man began unabashedly interpreting the music with his body, stretching his arms out and down and shaking his wrists, bouncing meanwhile on his knees, face turned upward toward the musical gods.
Most of the people who had shown up at 19:10 for Kristín Bergsdóttir’s set at Tjarnarbíó were members of her big band. That is to say, there were about as many people in the audience as on the stage. It was so quiet that even at the back of the theatre you could hear the drummer say: “umm, should we just start then?” before the band of eight launched into a set of sweet jazz ditties. Fingers snapping, hips lightly bopping along (seriously, what is it about jazz musicians and their posture? Is there special training for how to carry oneself like a hep cat included in the price of a brass instrument?), the band looked consummately casual. Venues don’t get much more romantic than Tjarnarbíó on a rainy night, and the atmosphere inside was marvellously appropriate; Kristín’s honeyed voice, combined with the light-hearted brass, resulted in melodies that sounded like the fall commencing outside—like leaves falling on wet pavement in the cold twilight.
Múgsefjun is hard to figure out, and not just because of the apparent miscellany of their musical influences. It is a wonder how a band of five musicians was able to develop so seemingly without pretence—to compose songs that are self-satisfied without being cocky, traditional without being predictable. Múgsefjun’s melodies sound like they come from some rustic, mysterious place of eternal summer, where men in wool sweaters sing harmonies over brown ale after a long day of roaming around barefoot in the grass.
Far from being “evocative of the cold and desolate landscapes of their distant homeland”—Ugh. Someone actually put those words to paper—Rökkurró’s songs are too polite and tempered to be evocative of much of anything. The kids are earnest, able musicians, and clearly serious about their music, but their compositions are so controlled as to be nearly numb. Their most successful and engaging effort of the night was undoubtedly their self-described ‘upbeat’ song, ‘Sólin mun skína’; in it you could finally feel some blood running through their veins—at long last, a song driven by some identifiable and dynamic passion.
Unfortunately the daze continued even once Benni Hemm Hemm had stepped on stage along with the full line-up of Retro Stefson. The kids of Stefson were there to provide accompaniment, apparently, not to collaborate in any meaningful sense of the word, and Benni’s music coming through them sounded disconcertingly limp. As soon as some of the boys got to sing along, the pace picked up a bit, but Benni’s music just didn’t have enough variance to fully relish the kids’s capabilities. In fact Benni sounded a bit lonely without his brass. The big-band sound in which his compositions best enjoy themselves was nearly achieved, however, in the set’s final song, where at last everyone got to play along, and the audience—now sparse—finally got a small, though meagre, taste of Stefson’s special gift, the joy of celebratory noise.
Accompanied by Mugison, Kippi Kaninus, and Sigtryggur Baldurson, Pétur Ben took the stage to a weary crowd. It was almost eleven, the atmosphere felt dead, and I was beginning to think everyone around me was high. On the floor beneath the stage a man began unabashedly interpreting the music with his body, stretching his arms out and down and shaking his wrists, bouncing meanwhile on his knees, face turned upward toward the musical gods. A few kids sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him started making interpretive movements with their hands as well. Pétur, meanwhile, was testing out new material. Someone shouted out ‘White Tiger!’ and he laughed and said “Yeah, right.” As he did on the songs on his last album, Pétur was taking steady, deliberate steps, weaving tight melodies, only to transition suddenly, the formula unravelling, melting away.
The dancing man was twirling in circles across the floor. He launched into an intricate square dance when suddenly his right ear seemed weighed by an invisible force, pulling him downward like a magnet, and then releasing him at intervals. Pétur said he wanted to come back to the venue and do a big show. The audience silently stared. At his final song, ‘Tomorrow’s Rain’, Pétur asked them to come closer to the stage and sing along, ending the night in a beautiful, languorous harmony. The dancing man, now still, singing along.