There are a few concerts which can be said to have changed the Icelandic pop landscape. One of these was Led Zeppelin’s seminal gig at the Reykjavik Arts Festival in 1970. The swinging sixties were more or less still in full swing up until the end of that decade, Beatles clones played music you could dance (and drink) to long after their role models had moved on to greener pastures. But after seeing Zep, everyone locked themselves in their rehearsal space to up their game. Musicianship improved and the landscape shifted. Now the goal was to make music you could sit still and listen to.
It took another seminal concert, that of the Stranglers in 1978, to undo all this. Not as many attended, but everyone that did went on to form a punk band, and that sound was to go on to conquer the world via Björk and cohorts. I was a tad too young (in fact not yet born) to see Zep in ’70, but one of the best concerts I have witnessed on these rugged shores was Patti Smith at NASA in 2005. It was the perfect venue for this sort of thing, Patti even strolling into the audience to watch her own band, and even if she has returned a few times that first night has never been bettered.
The Secret Solstice festival has been a summer highlight for most of the past decade, combining first rate music with the comfort of sleeping in your own bed, assuming you live in Reykjavik. Massive Attack were massive and Radiohead was great but seeing both Patti and Plant on the same stage in the same evening surely ranks as one of RVK’s better nights out.
Punk in Our Time
Patti Smith did not disappoint, nor would one expect her to. She opens with “Wing” from her 1996 comeback album Gone Again, which gets another peak in with “Southern Cross.” It is starting to drizzle a little, always a concern with outdoor gigs in Iceland, but thankfully this does not turn into a downpour. Patti coughs a little and puts on a jacket but remains indestructible, and dammit if she doesn’t manage to make 72 look sexy.
She proceeds with a festival friendly set of some of the best-known songs from a classic catalogue largely devoid of hits, “Ghost Dance” and “Dancing Barefoot” from her late 70s heyday. Things get even more interesting when she delivers a seemingly impromptu monologue about climate change. This is, after all, a person who protested the building of the Kárahnjúkar dam already in 2005, before teaming up with Björk for a pro-environmental gig in 2014. This leads into Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” an ‘80s Australian chestnut that somehow is exactly the anthem for our times.
Another highlight is Hendrix’ “Are You Experienced.” Patti has always combined the role of rock fan with artist better than most, frequently throwing in favourites that she makes her own. She concludes with the first of these, Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” the opening song to her first album. Here it is a showstopper rather than set opener as the last time she was spotted in these climes, on her Horses anniversary tour. And then it’s all over. No “Because the Night,” and just not nearly enough. Which is the only complaint anyone could have at a Patti Smith show.
Morcheeba are in the unenviable position of being placed between two living legends. The remaining Godfrey brother looks a little peeved as the crowd thins out and complains that Icelandair lost his wardrobe. Thankfully, Skye managed to get hers and looks as stunning as ever. They start 20 minutes late due to technical difficulties, but before it’s over they manage to rein the crowd in, with a cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and their own “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.”
If Patti Smith from the ‘70s and Skye Edwards from the ‘90s look like just the artists for our time, then Robert Plant would seem a little anachronistic. Led Zeppelin were, after all, the cockiest cock-rockers of them all. But the crowd is expectant and they are not let down. The set is more Led-heavy in material than one might expect, but the Sensational Space Shifters are not Zep redux and Plant not merely a shadow of his previous rock god self. They have their own sound, and it’s a good one. At times they approach almost Bad Seeds intensity, and one does not care if they are playing the classics, the new songs or traditional fare.
Against all odds, Robert Plant has managed one of the best post-legendary band careers in all of rock. He does mention being told that he played here in 1970 but hardly remembers it. Maybe it’s a tad disappointing to hear that the night he changed Icelandic music was just another night for Robert Plant, but anyone present on that June evening in 2019 will never forget. And yes, he does end on a brief “Immigrant Song,” reportedly written here for Led Zep III. The Norwegians, where he has been touring for most of the month, did not get that one. They should be so lucky.
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