From Iceland — Autumn Evening Coming Down

Autumn Evening Coming Down

Published October 16, 2011

Autumn Evening Coming Down

The whole night was mostly very enjoyable. After three long nights of Airwaves it was nice to relax in a seat in Kaldalón and listen to thoughtful, well constructed songs from a variety of artists. I just wish that some of them, especially the wonderful Esmerine, had gotten to play longer sets.

Kaldalón is a strange venue for music. Harpa is an odd mix of a symphony hall and conference center. Kaldalón is much more on the conference end of the spectrum. It is an all-seater venue, and all the seats are on a steep incline, so even the people in the third row are well above the stage. Being at a concert there feels a bit like being in class, some basic intro course at university. It is not the most intimate of venues.

I should also mention that there were some more Airwaves bad planning shenanigans. One set was delayed while sound equipment was moved off the stage because it was blocking a fire exit. And throughout the night the event staff had to ask people to move to the left of the auditorium. You see, there are two entrances, but they only let people in through one of them. People would pile up on one side of the auditorium, and then they would get asked to move. The people tonight generally showed up for one act and then exited. Because they had been asked to sit on the left, that side would empty out, and the audience would have to be asked to scoot over again. It was not a great big annoyance but if both entrances had been used, all this would have been avoided. Surely using both entrances to an auditorium was not beyond the organisational skills of Iceland Airwaves?

Andvari had to cancel their set, so Myrra Rós, the lead singer of the band played a solo set, assisted by the bassist, Andrés. She is a female singer-songwriter of the classic type. This was the kind of concert you could see anywhere in the world, from Melbourne, Australia to Mannheim, Germany. Nice, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. This is the kind of music that is good to listen to while drinking tea and staring out the window on a wet, autumn afternoon. Listening to Myrra Rós’ music is like taking a hot bath on a snowy night. It is lovely. Early on in the set the bass player asked for the lights to be dimmed: “So we can have a more cozy atmosphere.” The whole set was very cozy and nice, overcoming the impersonal nature of Kaldalón.

Fittingly, her songs were very personal, about subjects like heartbreak and her daughter. After three songs a drummer, Grímsi, joined the band. The music became a lot more propulsive, but stayed soft. My favorite song of the set was Sail On, which was both pretty and driving. The final song of the set was Kveldúlfur, which was a bit of a mood-breaker. It was higher tempo than the rest. It felt a bit hectic at first. Soon I was won over, however and I felt like it was a good end to the show.

Icelanders have a very particular relationship with the Faroese. It is sort of like the feelings of an older sibling to a younger one, loving and protective, but with a tendency to dismiss their abilities. Until Eivør Pálsdóttir broke through in Iceland in the first years of the century, people in Iceland did not really pay attention to music from the Faroe Islands. But in recent years it has become common to have Faroese musicians perform in Reykjavík. Guðrið Hansdóttir is a part of that wave.

Her music put me immediately in mind of The Indigo Girls, and she is definitely in that genre, though no copycat. She brings her background with her, her lyrics speak of fjords, the Faroese fog and one song alternates between English and Faroese. She ended on a couple of songs in Faroese. To Icelandic ears, Faroese can sound like a dream language, dancing on the borderline between understanding and incomprehensibility. The last song, Stjörnur, was particularly strong, my favorite of the night. Cloth Mother and Time Will Tell were also very good. It was a good show from a musician I had never listened to and was happy to get to know.

Song for Wendy are a lover’s duo, Dísa Jakobs and Mads Mouritz. The former plays keyboards filtered through a laptop and other gadgets while the latter plays a beautiful old acoustic guitar, and both sing. They set classic English language poems to music. The first song of the night was To My Sister, using the William Wordsworth poem. The music was acoustic fingerpicking and dreamy electronic keyboard sounds. All the songs followed that template. The music was somewhat brittle and ornate, like a glass figurine. Sometimes it felt almost too fragile, like it might break apart any minute.

When the Heart was my favorite song they played. Dísa did some throat singing in the beginning, which is always nice, and the whole song had a psychedelic feel, reminding me a bit of the phenomenal Linda Perhacs. The finished with a cover, One Word off the album Wrong Way Up by Brian Eno and John Cale. It is always a danger to cover great songs by legendary songwriters since it may result in your own songs comparing badly. But the song slotted well into their set, making for a fitting end. It was very atmospheric and could soundtrack many a touching scene in movies about doomed relationships.

I was a bit skeptical of Dad Rocks! before they started playing. Ironic band names have always put me off a little bit. It feels like the band is signaling that it does not take itself seriously. I was expecting one guy with a guitar singing comedy songs. However, my expectations were confounded. Seven people lined up, two violinist, two horn players, a back-up singer, a man playing the double bass and the main vocalist who also played the acoustic guitar. There was supposed to be one more member, a drummer, but he had flown back home because his girlfriend’s water broke.

They played indie, and were quite good musicians. However, I could not really connect to their music. The lead singer seemed very sarcastic in everything he did. For instance, the first song was about his girlfriend’s addiction to the Twilight series, which he made fun of. His second song was about all the cute girls he meets on tour and offer themselves to him, which he has to turn down. It was all very droll. One song he introduced by saying: “I say some bad things about kids, but it’s ironic so don’t take it personally.” The problem with Dad Rocks! is that everything was ironic. It was music not to take personally. It is sort of like trying to talk to someone who always replies sarcastically. It is impossible to hold a conversation with someone like that, impossible to form a bond.

The next band, Esmerine, took themselves seriously, which was refreshing after all the sarcasm and irony of the previous band. Esmerine is a band from Montréal published by Constellation Records and it shares members and musical language with a lot of the other artists on that label. These are often grouped under the moniker “post rock” and the most prominent of these are Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion. These bands are all characterized by high levels of musical skill and ambition. They write long, multipart songs (Bruce Cawdron, one of Esmerine’s two percussionists, introduced the last song of tonight’s set as “a long song, like some of the others”) using a variety of instruments, never limiting itself to guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. It is the sound of the vines of rock creeping up the walls of classical music.

Esmerine is at its core a quartet, comprising the aforementiond percussionist, Cawdron, Rebecca Foon, a cellist, harpist Sarah Pagé, and drummer Andrew Barr. They also had Mishka Stein with them, who played the bass guitar in many songs, and Patrick Watson, who played piano and sang. Some band members switched instruments, Cawdron going between a marimba and a xylophone, which Barr sometimes joined him on, which they not only struck with mallets, but also played with violin bows (the first time Cawdron played the marimba with a bow, audible gasps came from some people in the audience). For one song Pagé let her harp rest while she brought out a bowed psaltery, which I will admit to have never before seen played on stage. I should specify that at no point did an instrument feel superfluous, it all fit together seamlessly.

This was the only act tonight in Kaldalón which managed to mostly fill the venue (many had to move to the left to accomodate new arrivals) and the audience was very appreciative. Some danced in their seats during the more rhythmic sections of their songs and most watched with rapt attention. It was a brilliant set and I wish they would have played longer, but some Killjoy McPoopypants told them to stop. The post rock scene in Montréal has now been going strong for a decade and a half and shows no sign of stopping. Hopefully it will continue. Esmerine are a great representative and they brought beauty and power.

Matthew Hemerlein had the unenviable task of following Esmerine. He came out barefoot in a suit. The lack of socks and shoes was because he constructs his songs out loops he mostly constructs on stage and he manipulates the various sequencers and other gadgets with his feet, while his hands are occupied by a violin or an electric guitar. There is something of the “one man band” about him, and at first I felt a bit like I was watching a street performer. I was admiring the deftness and skill with which he created his music, rather than actually paying attention to the songs themselves. It was a bit like watching a man juggle while dancing, you rarely pay attention to the dancing.

I had to close my eyes to shut out the the spectacle on stage before I could focus on the songs. When I did it was quite good. His last three songs in particular were great. He covered Ginuwine’s Pony, which sounded much more fragile and pretty than I could ever have imagined that song being. Sade’s No Ordinary Love was a less incongruous cover, but no less impressive, and the two complimented each other wonderfully. And his final song sent everyone away happy. It was perhaps the simplest track, or at least sounded that way, which made it easier to enjoy without thinking about how it was constructed.

The whole night was mostly very enjoyable. After three long nights of Airwaves it was nice to relax in a seat in Kaldalón and listen to thoughtful, well constructed songs from a variety of artists. I just wish that some of them, especially the wonderful Esmerine, had gotten to play longer sets.

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