London has for the last few years has entertained a healthy Nordic obsession, and it’s not hard to understand why. Nordic noir, social and economic equality, ridiculously well dressed and attractive people, Northern Lights and interesting food are all things that the UK generally lacks on a day-to-day basis. So when Ólöf Arnalds and José González announced two dates at London’s Scala—tickets were quick to sell out.
Arriving to the second night, I was pleasantly surprised by not only the intimacy of the venue, Scala, (which is generally thought of as a rather large space with a cap of 1000 people) but also the very sizeable early turn out. I was full of curious anticipation to see Ólöf perform, an artist who in the UK has been described as freak-folk or ‘like Marmite’—love it or hate it.
Her set opened with the lyric “With a smile / I greet you” from her new track “Turtledove” and that is exactly what Ólöf does. While her unusual and at times near jarring voice may contrast against her soft guitar picking, her warm smile and sincere happiness to be performing quickly wins over the crowd. Her songs ranged from laments and love songs that evoked the image of a woman waiting on the shore for her man to return from sea, to the more playful “The Joke” which she described as “About 24 hour sun in Iceland, when you go crazy and do silly things like casual sex and things you regret later maybe…”
Stripped back with only a guitarist accompanying her on stage, her classical training is betrayed by the medieval chord structures and gentle rhythmic repetition littered throughout her songs. Her set is completed with a cover of Beth Gibbons’ “Mysteries”—a nod to her UK audience. Her performance done, I realise her music is actually very much like trying Marmite for the first time: initially you are hesitant and unsure, then you realise there is something kind of interesting going on here, and by the end you realise you are smiling and keen for more.
My verdict: love it.
José González came out with a full band, a stark contrast to the last time I saw him play live somewhere in Australia many years ago when it was just a very nervous José, a stool and his guitar. Filled with the confidence that comes from several more years of touring and another two critically acclaimed albums, José and his band launched into new tracks from his album ‘Vestiges and Claws’ which was released only a month ago.
I cannot emphasis enough how incredibly the combination of José’s vocals and guitar worked with the subtly and musicianship of his band. The three-part vocal harmonies were so buttery smooth, they could put Fleet Foxes to shame and together with three intricate percussionists and an additional guitar, José’s records were brought to life in one of the best live performances I have had the pleasure to attend.
Working backwards through his catalogue, José then played crowd favourites “Killing For Love” and “In Our Nature” before his band left the stage, allowing for emotional solo renditions of “Crosses,” “Hints” and a cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats”. The stand out track of the set was his cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Hand On Your Heart”—a single released back in 2003, it’s a lesser-known B-side that you would not necessarily expect an artist with such a strong back catalogue to perform. The reworking of the perky pop song to one of the most devastating break up tunes was a stand out tearjerker, and if you haven’t heard it I implore you to right now.
Highlights also included a cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, a track from his other band Junip named “Walking Lightly” and a treat during the encore where Ólöf and José performed together, covering The Velvet Underground & Nico’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” a perfect cap to an evening of incredible live music.