I thought this was the year Mr. Destiny would prove it is nothing but sell-out corporate crap. I was wrong. Not because the foreign bands somehow found soul or meaning—I still insist they suck (MTV and Rolling Stone magazine disagree, by the way, which may prove my point), but because the Icelandic bands showcased at Airwaves put on great shows. Most put on not just their best shows of the year, but career bests. Even better, few of these career bests will result in the bands selling out. When you put crap like The Stills on your program, you attract journalists who don’t know great music if it slaps them repeatedly in the face and then, Egil-like, vomits on them. So Icelanders put on a great show for Icelanders, while foreign journalists looked a little confused.
Bands most in danger of “making it”: Mugison, Þórir and Trabant
In the most charismatic performance I’ve seen…possibly ever, Mugison joked that this was his “make” show. He may have been right, though his show focused so much on his personality, and was so charming, that he was labeled by one English journalist I talked to as “a great performer, but not for radio.” My god, there is such a thing as being too good.
Mr. Destiny showed genuine savvy in giving the two best time slots of the festival to the Icelandic performers who could best stun everybody. Wednesday night, 19-year old prodigy Þórir performed in front of a fresh-faced and sober audience and gave them beautifully crafted verses and pitch-perfect phrasing. Very quietly, Þórir has proven himself to be the most exciting Icelandic find since Sigur Rós (It’s no coincidence, by the way, that he stands out so much and is so good when he sounds so different from the popular Icelandic band). Foreign journalists did pick up on this young singer. He is the musician I am most afraid may get dragged out of Iceland by Clear Channel or some other media giant.
Trabant also performed a “make” show. Grapevine has devoted three articles to the band so far, but their performance on the last night of Airwaves demonstrated that we weren’t giving them enough coverage. No bother, you’ll see them everywhere else now. Honestly, had Mr. Destiny booked a chimp with an accordion for the rest of the festival, Trabant’s closing number would still have allowed every person who forked out over 5000 ISK to admit they got their money’s worth.
Why don’t they play like this every week?
…but no chimps with accordians
Of course, the other bands weren’t chimps with accordions. The great surprise was that you could go to the smaller venues, away from the crowds, and catch the lesser-known local bands put on great sets.
On Thursday night, Bacon rocked through a bluesy interpretation of their new material. An absolute stunner, it was the kind of opening to the evening that makes you feel very bad for any band following. Any band but Funk Harmony Park, who are not funky and employ no harmony, and are not even a park. Steintryggur and Ghostigital came on and played rousing sets.
The same night, I Adapt and Úlpa played strong shows. To explain my disappointment in the Slowblow performance, I will refer to ultra-hip music online magazine Pitchfork’s review. They claim the band “ditches their peers’ electro/ acoustic textures in favor of detachedly strummed acoustic guitars.” A good point, except Slowblow showed up with Múm playing the electro/ acoustic textures that sound so familiar. And frontman Dagur gave the impression that he would rather be behind a camera than on a stage.
Hjálmar and Hot Chip played rousing sets at NASA the next night. But those not so interested in dance music caught extraordinary live shows by Æla, Skátar, Kímono and
Dr. Spock. If these four bands to continue to play shows like that all winter, it’s entirely possible that fewer locals will sink into alcoholic depression.
Will Sirkus ever be the same?
The final night brought Maus, Mugison, Trabant and Gus Gus: four bands that are always good live bands, but that were particularly on that night (Gus Gus’ canny use of poultry allowed them to cope with having to follow the best show of the year.)
Saturday also brought the soap opera of Airwaves. After another frustrating experience with their American label, four members of Singapore Sling decided they had enough during the CMJ festival. Frontman Henrik Björnson returned to Iceland three days before his Airwaves gig with no band. He and guitarist Einar scraped one together, including previously mentioned prodigy Þórir on drums. Members of Múm and Hudson Wayne were also involved.
The Sling show brought with it an edgy nervous energy, like we were watching people cross a picket line. Henrik opened saying “We’re still Singapore Sling,” and got a few “No you’re not” responses from an impatient crowd. The look of the band wasn’t as uniform as it has been, perhaps not as cool. But the sound was good, the band tight. In fact, with Þórir pounding holy hell out of the bass drum, Sling sounded more driving and organic, less a wall of noise. Even the reluctant crowd had to concede it was a good show.
To kick the drama up a notch, Toggi, who had been Sling’s bassist three days earlier, joined Gus Gus on stage that night. “With Gus Gus, the Funerals and Singapore Sling fighting like this, I don’t feel comfortable going to Sirkus,” a local quipped.
People who enjoy The Stills, The Shins and Keane all insisted these headlining bands played good shows. I asked how this was possible. “I knew all their songs, they played them perfectly, and they had a lot of energy,” I was told. I had to be told. I had fallen asleep during The Stills show.