It was presented as an extravaganza of “eclectic music, inspired by Iceland.” Then it was (very quietly) announced that some of the artists (Hjaltalín, Retro Stefson, For a Minor Reflection, GusGus) would only be present in the form of ‘pre-recorded performances from scenic locations throughout Iceland”. Oh well, at least we could see those fancy videos at the gig. Then we learned that these videos could only be viewed on the live webcast. So if some of the best acts on the bill weren’t going to be anywhere near the stage, what would the people who went to the actual gig be watching? I went to investigate…
Awful lyrics bubbling with emotion
When we reach Hljómskálagarðurinn (the show was moved from its original location at Seljalandsfoss due to some unfortunate weather), there are already several thousand people there, and Amiina have started their set. The rain is coming down heavy and the crowd resembles an umbrella shantytown. Amiina’s chamber folktronica is a solid start to the proceedings. That is, if you can actually hear it, as everyone seems to be yakking away quite loudly. I try to get closer as the PA guy manages to kick in some bass to make their sound a bit stronger. But just as we start to enjoy the music, Amiina say “takk” and they finish. What, was that it?
One might imagine that sometimes Sigur Rós-collaborator Steindór Andersen’s mournful, Old Icelandic style chants accompanied by music from Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Páll á Húsafelli would be too bleak and sad for this occasion. But actually I found it rather soothing and entirely appropriate for this grey, sodden evening. Droning violin wails with his raga-style voice sounds like the sort of thing that you’d want to hear in times of national crisis, bubbling with emotion underneath the copper-plated baritone notes.
Bubbling with emotion I suppose is one way you could describe Hafdís Huld. If by bubbling with emotion you actually mean head bobbing coquettishly from side to side like those toy dogs you see in cars, complimented by an inane grin. I found her songs too lightweight and watery to hold much attention. Her voice was good, but damn, those lyrics she uses it to spew are truly awful. Perhaps it’s a total coincidence that the heaviest rain of the night fell while she was singing.
Dikta is an Icelandic band
As Dikta were setting up, we chat with some Americans living in Reykjavik. Turns out they thought that Dikta were an American band and didn’t realise that they were actually Icelandic. Not surprising, really, since most mainstream these days US rock is formulaic and safe. Dikta, however, are all positive and happy tonight. After all, their music is INSPIRED BY ICELAND! They do the hits, including ‘Just Getting Started,’ which melds Coldplay and Scouting for Girls in an unholy marriage of convenience. A million extra points for finishing the song as a plane passes overhead towards the airport. You’d think that was deliberate.
Next up are Mammút, the first real highpoint of the evening. As per the night’s orders, their set is restricted to three songs, but it is punchy, crisp and to the point. They’re certainly the most rocking of tonight’s acts, although that’s not saying much, really. And Lordy above, the rain stops as well. Mammút’s music stops rain and heals the sick. Official!
It takes what seems like forever for Seabear to get ready. When their first song starts I’m rather underwhelmed, to be frank. The violin and trumpet just felt off-tempo and screechy. I was already looking glum, thinking: “Oh, not another crappy Icelandic chamber pop outfit.” But their second song, ‘Cold Summer,’ sounded much better, with tighter arrangements. They win me over with their final song and I’m pleased that they finish their short set on a high note. Another high point to the evening.
A man with wild curly hair and a beard ambles on stage. At first I thought it was Glen Hansard. But the wild squeals from crowd revealed it was Damien Rice. While I don’t dislike the guy, you could say I have a malevolent indifference to his angsty acoustic-by-numbers schlop. Any possible enjoyment I would have gotten from him was extinguished by having to move all the time because people around me kept going “OH MY GOD DAAAAMIEN RICE!!! HE’S SO DREAMY AND GREAT WHOOO WHOOOO!!!!”
I mean, really? The man’s OK, but not THAT OK. He finishes his set to rapturous applause.
The crowd’s Damien obsession means that the next artist has her work cut out. Alas for Lay Low, she certainly did disappoint. You feel for her since everyone had just seen their idol Damien Rice and so didn’t pay attention to her at all. It also didn’t help that—despite the fact that she’s now started moving around when she plays—she brings the worst presence of all of the night’s local acts. Oh yeah and her songs have a crushing monotony to them that just reinforces the cold I’m feeling. After her second song, she says “takk fyrir,” and walks off stage. Not a lot of people notice.
This is first time I’ve ever seen Pondus play live. Or even heard of them. Their post-rock indie sound was slooooooow, almost moribund. At this stage in the evening’s proceedings there should be fireworks from the stage, but it seems the rain has killed off any attempts at histrionics from tonight’s acts. Their last song picks up the pace a little as I write down “SNOW PATROL!” in my notebook for no particular reason.
Will the real Glen Hansard please stand up?
Eventually the REAL Glen Hansard turns up, all wild haired and ginger bearded, like a caveman version of Malcolm McLaren. Yup, his music is also of the folksy troubadour variety, but he seems more jocular and energetic than what has gone on before, and I applaud him for that. He also manages to one-up Mr Rice by getting his own little backing band to add some flesh to his songs. However, I really need to go to the toilet and when I get back, my wife is enthusing about how “Damien came onstage with Lára and, like, he sung this old lullaby in Icelandic and they were all singing and… it was so great! Wow!”
While we were waiting for the next act, Parabólur apparently played a very short set, not on the stage but by the edge of the pond. This meant that I completely missed them and only saw them on the way to get a beer while they were packing up their satellite dishes. Why where they not playing much nearer the stage, or even on the stage itself? A lot of people didn’t even realise they were playing.
A monotonic representation of a diverse and vibrant scene
Jason Pierce of Spiritualized Acoustic Mainline arrives onstage and takes to his seat. A third of the punters seem to have gone home, as it’s now ridiculously easy to reach the front of the stage due to large gaps in the crowd. It seems that a lot of people wanted to listen to watery acoustic folk nonsense and weren’t prepared to watch some real songs. The philistines!
Now I may have bitched about Lay Low’s non-existent stage presence, but it’s nothing compared to what Mr. Pierce had in store for us. Sitting down, he hardly talks or moves, and he barely acknowledges the crowd. He’s so impassive that he comes off as an Easter Island statue made from the mashed together waxworks of Richard Ashcroft and Roy Orbison, with added steel cable for neck veins.
But at least he has the songs to back up all the sitting motionlessly. From the opener, ‘Sitting On Fire,’ we’re treated to an hour of Spiritualized’s greatest hits and the velvet throated singing from Jason and his backing choir. The songs are full of big time gospel dynamics, my personal favourite being ‘Cool Waves,’ a lilting lullaby that would be the soundtrack as you head towards the light at the end of that very long dark tunnel. At the end he finishes to an appreciative, if greatly reduced crowd.
So what to make of “the gig of the year”? Well it was most certainly a valiant effort to generate interest in Iceland and its music, and there were some really good moments. But the line-up was too similar in tone and not really a true representation of some of the quality music that is coming from this place right now. And with some of the sub-par performances on display tonight, it was pretty much a blessing that the gig got moved. I mean, if you were at Seljalandsfoss and you thought the gig sucked balls, how the hell would you be able to get away?