The first half of Harpa Kaldalón’s Saturday line-up felt incredibly random, as if the organizers pulled names out of a bag. I spent most of the night alternating between being deeply moved, annoyed, and confused.
GUÐRIÐ HANDSDÓTTIR had a band on stage with her—a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist and a back-up singer—but the set was mainly about her. Each song started softly, with her voice and her acoustic guitar, and then the rest of the band would come in. First the backup singer, then a soft beat from the drummer or a good, moving bass line and finally some guitar, maybe playing a low, growling solo. Each song grew to a crescendo and expanded around her; just as the set itself rose and fell. Guðrid wound things down with a love song featuring a mandolin and a breezy soft rock song. She closed with “Just The Girls,” when she and her singer did an acoustic cover of The Cure’s “Love Song.” This is a song I’ve heard more times than I can count, that I’ve always liked but never fully appreciated until last night. It was the only time during Airwaves that I came anywhere close to shedding a tear.
The guys of 1860 took the stage next, and everything that had worked so well for Guðrið’s set fell flat in theirs. I tend give artists a little lee-way on lyrics, but 1860 opened their set with a beachy, soulful mandolin/acoustic guitar heavy dud of a song with lyrics like “big, big city/ I don’t like.” They continued in that vein for most of their set, trying and failing to sounds like a folksy Jason Mraz, with more verses that made me wince a bit (e.g. “This old town can break you down/ This old town will make you frown”). Going on after Guðrið only made it more glaringly obvious how little soul their music actually had. And then, out of nowhere, just when I was getting ready to throw in the towel, the band almost redeemed themselves with what I believe was called “Kapo,” a fun, dark pop song, with no acoustic guitar and a cool bass line. It was an old song of theirs, though it hadn’t been recorded yet, and I have to wonder what happened between then and now. Their last song was a slow one, and again they played to their strengths—twangy guitars, strong male vocals and a keyboard sound that wouldn’t be out of place backing a gospel choir.
After 1860′s sudden drab-to-fab change, I didn’t think anything could surprise me. Cue KIRA KIRA, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir’s new age group of shoeless musicians. Their entire set consisted on one ambient sound art experiment—music is a word I use hesitantly, and songs would be a stretch. But as a sound art piece it had its moments. The cello created a nails on a chalkboard sound. The trumpet player blew through his instrument and pressed the valves without actually playing, resulting in a whooshing airy sound. After about 30 minutes in, the set started to climax with industrial techno beats, and then the lead singer started more or less praying to “high frequency spirits.” Meanwhile, trippy rainbow images were projected on the walls—melting butterflies, melting fish, melting waterfalls. It was an experience.
In terms of artist names, Mark Andrew Hamilton, aka WOODPIGEON, is probably one of the most uninspiring ones I’ve heard in a long time. He would have had a bigger impact if he called himself Pocket Fluff, General Statement, or Meadow Pipit. And when he shuffled on stage with a slightly crumpled demeanour, I had to admit that my hopes were not that high for this concert.
But then he started to play and sing and I was surely turned around with his music. His songs were acoustic folk style numbers that he carefully constructed from the ground up with clever use of his guitar and looping/sequencer pedals (Sóley is also a devotee of this technique). He slowly added more and more layers to the music so that at the end, you were being treated to some truly lush, dense sounds that were only augmented on occasion with the introduction of a single trumpet, or second guitar from guest performer Benni Hemm Hemm. He sung in a hushed, tender tone that reminded me a little of Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie, but the effect of his singing gently drew me in to his songs which were actually quite dark and melancholy, such as one song about the story of two children who ended up drowning together in a stream. “I know this is sad for a Saturday night,” mused Woodpigeon, “But, Hey. We’re all in this together right?”
As you can tell, he also had a rather twisted sense of humour in his banter that certainly had me chuckling several times. “I usually dedicate this next song to the Prime Minister of Canada because it’s all about Gay Pirates,” he says at one point before going into a song that actually was a bit about Gay Pirates!
It was a beautiful set from Woodpigeon, and my expectations were certainly met and more than exceeded. Well done.
SIINAI were definitely a different kettle of fish. They are the living arctic avatars of every major krautrock trope that has existed, from Amon Düül II to Popol Vuh, via a hint of Neu!. This may sound reductive, but they laid into their music with such passion that it pretty much swept you away. They don’t do songs as such, but more like exercises in head nodding droning mantric energy. Tracks such as “Olympic Fire” and “Anthem 1&2” saw them massage and coax their instruments over a single note, or simple lyrical motif until both their drummers brought the whole thing crashing down with furious catharsis. They certainly built up a storm of sound in Kaldalón, which made it all the more frustrating that their set contained only three numbers. Leaving the stage to the final dying sounds of the keyboard, it left me wanting more than I received (they didn’t perform my personal favourite of theirs, “Munich 1972”). But what I did receive was exemplary. Damn these running times!
The last band on tonight were local supergroup MR SILLA. There were many features to their music which were lovely to hear, the main one being the vocals of singer Sigurlaug. Her voice is pure and powerful, suffused with moments of tenderness, and she certainly was a captivating front woman in her “Running Man” style body suit. The songs too were a mix of rousing alt-rock numbers that were performed with vim and verve by the band, even with the drummer Magnús Tryggvason Eliassen doing seven shows last night (man he looked absolutely fucking knackered!).
Admittedly there were certain parts of Mr Silla’s set up that did leave me a little non-plussed. For example, they actually have two bass players, but their lines and sounds weren’t distinctive enough and throughout their set, I couldn’t for the life of me differentiate what the two of them were playing. It didn’t necessarily kill my enjoyment, but it made me wonder why they had two bass players in the first place.
As Mr Silla’s set finished, we spilled out of Harpa for the last time into the thankfully calmer night air of downtown, as the night itself began to warm up with furious dread…
SPECIAL REVIEW UPDATE!
While we at the Grapevine always love to read the thoughts and opinions of our music writers about the bands they see, we also like to make sure that what we say is also accurate and honest.
So it was really nice when we received an e-mail from 1860 frontman Hlynur Júní Hallgrímsson with regards to their performance at Kaldalón on Saturday. If you saw them and really liked what you heard, check out their website where you can hear/buy their stuff.
Hey there Grapevine, hope you’re having a fun Airwaves
Just wanted to clear a couple of things up, which would be great if you could correct in the article – but no biggie if it’s not possible. The first line of the lyric to the first song we performed is “This big city, I don’t like”. Subtle difference but it makes more sense grammatically
The second-to-last song we performed is actually the most recent song we’ve written, not the oldest. Sorry if we were unclear (as we tend to stumble when it comes to between-songs-banter in English). It’s called Bastion, but at rehearsals we just say “Capo on the 2nd fret” so nobody forgets to put the capo in its right place – that’s what the whole “capo” thing was about. The last song we performed is actually the second most recent song we’ve written as a band, so we’re glad that you thought those two were the strongest of the bunch.
Anyway, just wanted to drop you a line. Take care man.