It’s hard to imagine a more incongruous set of opening acts for the headliners at this gig, unless you count the time Tom Jones opened for GG Allin at the 930 Club in Washington, DC in 1988. But I still feel as though I’ve grown as a journalist, perhaps even as a human being, for having witnessed it.
First on the line-up was Eldar, a very low-key, acoustic band featuring male lead vocalist Valdimar (of the band Valdimar) along with Fríða Dís on backing vocals, a keyboardist, two other guys playing bass, guitar or banjo – depending on the song – and a percussionist. Not a drummer, mind you – a percussionist. At one point, his percussion was drawing a violin bow across a pair of metal bowls. This was the type of down-tempo acoustic music that I would best describe as “dinner music”. I could imagine myself playing their CD while having over some of my more sober vegetarian friends for a meal of fried eggplant and couscous. Valdimar’s vocals were probably the most remarkable detail of this band. The singer sounds a lot like what Ben Harper would sound like, if he had a decent backing band and didn’t sing about Jesus and marijuana. To give you an idea of the sound this band produced, most of the crowd – only a few dozen at this point in the night – remained seated, some of them on the floor, with politely pleased smiles on their faces. Enjoying themselves, although their bodies remained still.
Next up was Klassart, which was much in the same vein, only with a more bluesy influence. This band I found incredibly frustrating. Not primarily because their songs were all sort of samey, though – it was Fríða Dís, who now took the lead singer role, who frustrated me. Her voice is smoky and ephemeral, and you can clearly tell she has talent. But her delivery lacked any confidence. Which is a shame, and I mean that as a testament to her obvious talent. It’s like seeing someone holding some magical talisman in their hands that you know can turn lead into gold, standing right next to a heap of lead, who never turns to notice the pile of lead next to them. If she ever believes in her ability, and let’s pray she does, Iceland may have on their hands their next great female vocalist. Speaking to her after the show, she cited among her influences PJ Harvey and the Beatles, giving me some hope that she at least believes that good vocals are delivered with conviction, so we shouldn’t be quick to write her off just yet. Root for her, people. She really needs it.
This was followed by Lifun, which counted among their members Eldar’s keyboardist. I was beginning to wonder what was going on with this overlap in the line-up. But I had nothing to worry about – Lifun is in a whole separate category from Eldar and Klassart. And by that I mean they were a safe, colour-by-numbers, standard Icelandic pop band. Absolutely no surprises, whatsoever. If Írafár and Buttercup were put in the CERN Hadron Collider and slammed against each other, this is what would be produced. If you’re the sort of person who listens to light pop stations such as Bylgjan or 95.7, you might never notice that this band was being played. The singer danced a bit, sang a solid but predictable tenor, the guitarist’s solos were lukewarm, and the rest of the band faded into the background like your grandmother’s wallpaper. Don’t get me wrong – they weren’t bad. “Competent” is what comes to mind. They know what sound they want to play – radio-friendly light pop – and they do it reasonably well. But this is a band better suited for a “sveitarball” – an Icelandic country party – than a music festival in the capital.
Given these first three acts, you can imagine my great relief to see Icelandic rap pioneer Blaz Roca hit the stage. Erpur Eyvindarsson – as he is also known – worked like the crowd like a pro, unloaded a machine gun delivery that would make Busta Rhymes curl up in the fetal position and weep like a baby, and even had the class to support his other MCs without crowding them out. It’s a good thing that DJ Moonshine kept playing samples of air raid sirens, because this dude came to drop bombs on these people, and no one was safe. He had the crowd absolutely wrapped around his finger from Moment One, and when he asked, “Is Reykjavík in the house?”, the response was a deafening roar. If anyone ever doubts that the Icelandic language is too formal or too vowel-focused for the percussive quality of rap, tell them to shut the fuck up and listen to Blaz Roca.
I was fortunate enough, or obnoxious enough, to push myself backstage to talk to him for a bit.
Given the acts we just saw, were you worried you might have driven this crowd off?
“No, not at all. They were all good acts, but my fans know what to expect. When I get started, they get right into it.”
I reckon it must be tempting to just rest on your laurels and keep churning out the same sound your fans love.
“I can’t do that. I always have to keep it fresh. That’s why I took time off in 2003. I just quit, went to China, and listened to other stuff for a while. I can’t take anything for granted. I have to keep doing something new.”
Can I take that to mean we should expect some surprises in your new offering?
“Yeah, you can. There’ll be surprises, alright. I’m going to Cuba soon. No, I already did reggaetón. Reggaetón is dead. I have some new stuff planned. Am I going to come back with some Latin flavour? I don’t know, you’ll have to wait and see.”
You would think a big name like Blaz Roca would be the headliner for the night, but he was followed by Emmsjé Gauti, another old school Icelandic rapper, but one with a decidedly R&B feel. This MC never stopped moving, delivering his bass-heavy stylings with tremendous energy. It’s actually hard to say whether he’s more of a rapper or an R&B vocalist, but he handles the balance between the two deftly. Rather than relying on the momentum that the previous act whipped up, Emmsjé Gauti seemed more intent on beating his own drum, so to speak, and did so with confidence and panache. Catching up with him in the smoking area, I managed to get a few answers out of him in between friends and well-wishers coming by to thank him.
Were you nervous at all about following Blaz Roca?
“Ha, yeah, there were some gaps in the crowd when I came on stage. But the crowd soon got into it.”
I have to say, I think I heard some R&B influences in your sound. Was I just imagining things?
“No, not at all, it’s definitely an influence. At first I wasn’t that much into Icelandic R&B. But then Friðrik Dór came up. His lyrics are quite good, and I started to appreciate Icelandic R&B more.”
Do you have any words for any other Icelandic MCs coming up right now?
“Yeah: never dismiss a gig. Just keep right on going, play anywhere you can. We need more people who are good at this, so show your faces. If you’re still not successful after nine years, go work in an office or something. But if you try to take my throne, I will come to your house and kill you.”
Headlining tonight was Valdimar, featuring the lead singer of the first band of the night. In stark contrast to Eldar, this band was more like Hjaltalín than Lights On The Highway – a huge band delivering upbeat, head-boppable pop music accented with horns (Valdimar himself belted out a few trombone solos). Their music was more reminiscent of early Simple Minds than anything else, giving the crowd music that sounded like the closing credits to a bittersweet romantic comedy. A very full, sincere, and meaningful delivery that could easily overtake any high-calibre Icelandic pop band.
I left this night feeling as though I witnessed one of the weirder line-ups I’ve ever seen at Airwaves, but certainly didn’t leave feeling disappointed. This was a night well spent.
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!