Published September 6, 2017
There is something fishy about Bubbi offering a free concert. After all, this is the man who has done more to monetize Icelandic music than most, as when he sold his entire back catalogue to a bank in 2004. So he gave a “free” concert at Dillon Whisky Bar, but upon entering, one could immediately see what the scam was. A table with a view of the stage cost 10.000 ISK. Others could stand in the aisle for free and hear, if not quite see, what is going on. Still, the bar had Happy Hour throughout and Grapevine was in a good mood, so we gave what we could hear a, well, fair hearing.
But first the facts. Bubbi in the ‘80s was the most lauded rock star Iceland ever had. He was one of few who managed to make a pile of money out of being the biggest fish in a very small pond, swimming in women and—as rock stars did in those days—plenty of cocaine. By the time his album ‘Sögur af landi’ came out in 1990, he had made a claim to being a major poet too. That Christmas, it was the higest selling album while his autobiography (penned with the aid of renowned literature critic Silja Aðalsteinsdóttir) was the best selling book.
Then came the ‘90s. For a new generation, Bubbi became best known as a boxing presenter for the 365 media conglomerate. His albums slipped down on the charts, but he remained a formidable live act, playing new songs with gusto, or being almost Dylanesque in changing his old ones beyond recognition. It was only in the early 2000s, with appearances becoming rarer, that he started to resemble a greatest hits act while hobnobbing with the soon-to-be-bankrupt bankers.
This is why Bubbi’s show at Dillon, which took place in late August marked something of a return to form. His new album, ‘Tungumál,’ was, like 1992’s ‘Von,’ recorded in and inspired by Latin America. This evening, it was just him and his guitar. And it has to be said that he remains a fantastic guitar player and his voice has lost little of its power. When glimpsed, he even looks better than he has in a long while, with less weight and just a little grey in his beard.
But the songwriting did not quite reach the heights one had hoped for; reminiscent of, but never quite reaching the level of his 1985 masterpiece ‘Kona.’ At his best, Bubbi is a troubadour who lays his soul bare or tears at the structures of an unequal society. At his most mediocre, he merely offers half-hearted commentary on the latest headlines. Here we got a bit of both. And when he said he was worried about where the current boom seems to be taking us in terms of greed, well, where were you when we needed you in 2007? Ah yes…
But still, when he offered his heartfelt tribute to the recently deceased Leonard Cohen, upping his own poetry in the process, we were fully onboard. By this point, the regular Bubbi crowd emerged at the back, tattooed, drunk and very late. At times Bubbi has been embraced by the intelligentsia, but those days are long gone. He remains, for good and for bad, a man of the people, even more so by making the same mistakes as so many did in the last boom.
Impossible to dislike
And yet he does not pander to them. The encores consisted of only one of his own standards, ‘Stál og hnífur,’ and then a Joy Division cut before moving over to the blues classics he loves so much. He seems genuinely moved that people have stayed through it all. But Bubbi, perhaps like your fallible, but sometimes brilliant, older brother, is a man whom it is impossible to dislike for very time.