So one of the most fun evenings of my years on this planet began with the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band. There are fourteen of these guys, most of them are on brass, and it’s some serious funk they’re playing. The only thing that could have made it better would be James Brown fronting the thing, but I quickly realised that’s true of pretty much all bands, and stop holding it against them. Their trombonist, who seems to be at the helm of the proceedings, is either dancing in a manner that leads the rest of the group, or is just in thrall to their power. It’s difficult to tell, and a pointless exercise. Either way, his moves are replicated by the crowd, who include a bizarrely high number of toddlers – the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band is a broad church, but all the better for it.
Valdimar are similarly fond of booming brass sounds, but in a manner that couldn’t be more different. Their music has a lot in common with post-rock, but avoids going down the dead ends that genre so often tempts lesser musicians down; the build ups and break downs here all feel very natural, never forced, never garish. That said, it’d be hard to describe it as being any ‘fun’ – whilst it was solid, accomplished stuff, the fact that I was sat in the dark watching it alone was genuinely quite fitting, which isn’t something I want to say about too many bands this festival.
You know how dogs sometimes spend so long with their owners that they start to resemble one another? John Grant and Iceland have a similar relationship going on. If there’s ever been a more convincing impression of a Reykjavík native done by a man from Colorado, I want to see it. And, I also want to see John Grant again. I wasn’t initially enamoured with Pale Green Ghosts, its heart on sleeve tales of relationship trauma and existential insecurities set to pulsating electronica seeming a little forced to these ears, but it takes seeing John live to realise that ‘forced’ is not something he does. This stuff just flows. These songs are vastly improved by the opportunity to look in the face of the man singing -them, be they the confessional likes of the piano-led ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ or ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, which sounds like a more sinister version of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (my two highlights, right there). There was also something wonderful about a crowd of people who’d remain deathly silent mid song breaking in to cries of “WE LOVE YOU JOHN!” as soon as there was a gap, screaming their adoration at a man who was playing songs about how he thought nobody loved him. I hope they all went out for a beer afterwards.
Is there much more you need to say in a review of a gig than “Björk went down to the front and danced like a maniac” to convince someone it was amazing? Omar Souleyman was the beneficiary of this honour, and though it was quite a sight, it was nowhere near the most impressive thing about this mammoth set. Whilst I can’t say I’m an authority on the Syrian techno music known as “dabke,” as the old saying goes, I knows what I likes, and this was the most fun I’ve had all year. Souleyman’s stage presence is a curious thing – whilst all hell breaks loose thanks to a couple of keyboards set behind him, he wanders the stage gently clapping, occasionally raising his hands, occasionally seeming totally disinterested, but it’s magnetic in its simplicity. By the end of the show, I’ve formed a huge circle of strangers all dancing like friends at a wedding, our arms in the air as people attempt to breakdance on the booze-soaked floor. What just happened? Not a clue, mate. It was magic.
AlunaGeorge initially suffer from the very fact that they have to go on after the whole Omar Souleyman… thing… but quickly transform Reykjavik in to something resembling a banging south London night club for forty minutes or so. Whilst the music is so devoid of edge it might as well be spherical, anyone who wants to argue with the power of songs like ‘White Noise’ and ‘Attracting Flies’ when performed at gone midnight to a crowd of people who are finally in the mood for dancing like maniacs is fighting a losing battle. My favourite part of the set? A cover of Montel Jordan’s ’90s RnB classic ‘This Is How We Do It’, which is definitely in my top five Montel Jordan songs ever.
Gluteus Maximus to end, then. Here’s what happened. There’s a singer who looks – but doesn’t sound – like Rick Wakeman, and he fronts a band who come across as if someone has given a deep house remix to the entire Frankie Goes To Hollywood back catalogue. There are male and female body builders with glistening muscles lifting weights high in to the air in time with the brooding beats of the music. There is smoke, lots of smoke. There are people in top hats. There are a few audience members people left awake, and they’re all dancing. Whilst not the most musically impressive moment of the evening, it’s its biggest spectacle, and the glamour with which its pulled off is why I will forever tell people this band are amazing. As was this whole evening, in truth.