I braved the soggy weather Thursday night and had yet another Sixties flashback. Last week, I was in Iceland. This week Iceland came to me at the Walker Art Center's McGuire Auditorium in the form of the musical collective known as Múm. It was a very strange affair, even by Icelandic standards. Imagine the gentlest, trippy-est flower-power band in the summer of love. This is the experience that constitutes a Múm concert. Not really songs, but vague refrains, not exactly musical parts, but groups of sounds. And lots and lots of la-la-las. I was in la-la land! At one point Örvar, the lead singer, mentioned that " ...we're really playing a quiet concert tonight... it's OK to go to sleep..." If not for the excellent percussion work by Samuli Kosminen, I might have done just that.
I've seen the opening act, Hildur Guðnadottír, play at the Airwaves in 2006 with Storsveit Nix Noltes (Bulgarian /Greek wedding band) and also with the Johann Johannsson project Evil Madness. They were better shows. The second act, Sin Fang Bous, was fronted by Sindrí Már Sigfússon whose singing at times attained a Garðar Holm quality.
"When the truth is found to be lies, and all of the joy within you dies..."
A Serious Man
A Film by the Coen Brothers
Seeing this movie last week-end must have stirred up the mid-sixties incidents I've been posting about lately.
Set in a Minneapolis suburb in 1967, this film is the Coens' take of the Story of Job, as seen through through the lens of their collective childhood memories. At the center of past Coen Brothers' films has often been a cosmic joke, but this film takes a direct look at the capricious nature of the universe. Although it is quite funny at times, it is dead serious. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an almost-tenured physics professor paralyzed into inaction by a series of events beyond his control; a rudderless vessel in a sea of destructive forces. His family, instead of being a source of pride and comfort, tear at him- an emotional fire-storm that this "man of science" is absolutely helpless to resist. Even his faith offers no solace, indeed it may be the main problem.
All of the Coen Brothers' films have great acting and this one is no exception. There are no "stars" but every role is cast and played to perfection. This movie is a break for the Coens for it is no longer an entertainment, but is really a spiritual story. Not a New Testament story of Faith and Redemption, but rather an Old Testament story of an irrational and wrathful God, and the powerlessness of man.
Of the many local bands that formed in my neighborhood in the mid-sixties, the only one which could be considered a "rival" of the groups I was in was The Pastels. My bands were the usual male-teen proto-punk groups, playing Louie, Louie, Wipe Out, and later, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. We were geeky, erratic and raw boys. The Pastels were a quartet that sang and played folk music and were everything we were not:
Poised, disciplined, and talented girls.
We knew them well, we were involved in many of the same school activities and were competitive in our studies as well. We were more than a bit jealous of them, for they could play "gigs" we couldn't- social affairs, school programs, even parades! Their events were "civilized." We played in fraternity basements and for teen dances, where a fight could break out any minute, and illicit liquor replaced soft drinks and tea as the beverage of choice.
The final week of of our senior year, there was a "Senior Talent Day" (arranged by The Pastels of course) where several musical acts put on a show for the rest of the school. The Pastels were gracious enough (grace was another thing which we boys lacked) to invite my current band, The Hungry Freaks, to play in the show. The Pastels were on prior to us, and we were last on the bill. They had added a bassist and a snare player, and were excellent as usual. We added rap, feedback, sirens and dissonant organs to ours. For our finale we smashed guitars as some of the band members with Soviet flags overran the stage, "fighting" the other ones.
Thirty years later, we got that old band back together and played for our class reunion. We were much better behaved, and we could really play. We invited The Pastels to play, but they declined. In fact, not one of them attended.
Later I found out that years ago, in high school, there had been a rift in their group, something about boy, and they had never played again.
Every time that I've returned to Reykjavík, I've made it a point to see a production at Iceland's National Theatre. This time it was Frida ...viva la vida, a new play written by Bryhildur Guðónsdóttir, who also acted in the title role of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. This was a very stylized production, with her paintings becoming a part of the set and figures from them, most notably Óxlotl, her dog (and also the Aztec dog of the underworld), and La Catrina, the Mexican goddess of death. Her life, from her disfiguring accident until her death, and her stormy relationship with Diego Rivera, is told in a grim, nightmarish fashion, almost frightening at times. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson becomes Rivera, his immense stature giving Diego an appropriate larger than life aspect. Frida's politics are also covered, Leon Trotsky even makes a memorable appearance.
That an Icelandic theatre would produce an original play about Frida shows what an influence her art and life has had worldwide. The Selma Hayek movie version was visually stronger, as would be expected from a Hollywood movie, but this production brought out the internal struggles of Frida in a more compelling way.
And, of course, if you ever have the chance to see Frida Kahlo's paintings in person, do it. They are the reason we find her more fascinating than ever, and reproductions don't do them justice.
Having had a few days to recover from the 2009 Iceland Airwaves music festival a few thoughts about the experience as a whole, and some of the acts in particular, are in order:
First, the festival's organization was excellent. Almost all of the acts were on time, and despite the occasional full venue, I could usually have a choice of interesting acts to see. Those shows whose demand for tickets exceeded the venue capacity, particularly the Kings of Convenience at Fríkirkjan, were usually balanced with another high-demand show at another venue. The special wristband queue for Kings was probably as bad as it got, but the queue was a place to socialize, so that was at least partially redeemed.
The venues were generally good, and although the Reykjavík Art Museum's set-up and lighting wasn't as nice as it was in 2006. It did have a high enough stage to make sight-lines good for all but the shortest patrons- and risers along the sides and back would have helped with that, too. NASA, a large club, was a little better, except when it was crowded. Sódóma and Grand Rokk were both second-floor clubs, which meant low ceilings and low stages, but both were fine when not too full. Grand Rokk, kind of cruddy to begin with, was downright scary when over-stuffed. Still, none was as claustrophobic as the old Gaukurínn used to get. Iðno seemed a little less inviting this time- the stage set-up was a bit darker and the PA risers which flanked the stage took away from the room's considerable charm (along with the performances of several sub-par acts which I did not review.) Hressó's courtyard tent was a most informal and comfortable venue possessing very organic vibe. I missed Batteríð- the few acts I wanted to see there always had a long line.
The off-venues have greatly expanded since 2006; there was music everywhere. Most of these mini-concerts were in record stores and funky coffee-houses. The big stage in Skífan probably had the most effective presentation, with the most incongruous being at Eymundsson's bookstore (nice view of the jail, though!)
But the best venue by far, large or small, was the Nordic House, with its cozy 50 seat auditorium. Although it had no stage per se, the intimate nature of the mostly acoustic performances there didn't need one. Some acts, like Pascal Pinon, Oh Land! and Casio Kids suited the room perfectly, while special mention must be made of Agent Fresco whose atypical performance was completely acoustic, with an emotional presence seldom seen anywhere. Kudos to Sari Peltonen and all the people at Nordic House for an unforgettable series of ten concerts (and Q & A sessions) over three days. I believe this venue was new to the Airwaves in 2007, and is well worth the trek across a windy heath. Check out the Nordic House's stunning library and chic restaurant if you are ever in town:
Finally, the main reason I love the Airwaves is that the chance of seeing something new and exciting is always high. Even groups whose musical styles I don't care for had good things going on- Captain Fufanu, two teen-aged technos, have the potential to become monsters. Cosmic Call showed themselves capable of creating solid rock tunes, while Útidúr and Rökkurró both expanded the usual musical boundaries of pop-rock. All of the orchestral/fusion groups (Hjaltalín, DJ Margeir, Daníel Bjarnason) were exceptional. Musical considerations aside, some acts were just plain fun to see (Vicky, Dr. Spock, 22, Casio Kids, Ultratechnomegabandið Stefán) and there were many singer-songwriters (maybe a few too many) who showed promise (Toggí, Oh Land!, Uni, Hraun, Björt) and just some good old hard-rock bands (Æla, Bárujárn, Darling Don't Dance.)
I saw over 40 acts, less than a quarter of the total, and all were within walking distance of each other- some of the venues were only meters apart. Reykjavík is a fun city, day or night, with many shops, galleries and places to eat. Almost all of them are original concepts, not franchises:
In general, the Icelandic bands were, by far, the most exciting and innovative. I might have to wait a few years before I return, if only to give a new crop of Icelandic acts time to develop and mature.
12 Tónar is a charming little record shop and independent record label in Reykjavík. Serving up hot espresso and even hotter tunes, it is as comfortable as your living room (and possibly smaller.) I went in last Monday morning to meet up with the blogger Wim and his friend Heiða who is active in the Icelandic music scene as the lead singer and guitarist of the group called Hellvar who I saw perform at the 2006 Airwaves. Our gracious host was Johannes, who arranged Wim's acquisition of a classic shirt from the Icelandic supergroup Unun, and is shown below in his shop- flanked by Heiða and Wim:
Later on, Wim had arranged for me to meet Villi Knudsen, the famed film maker, and producer of the The Volcano Showin Reykjavík. We were escorted into his study by his assistant, Ellen T'Joen, and offered refreshments and pastries. It was a special day, his late father, who would have been 110 today, was nevertheless very much present in the room for most of the furnishings were built and/or designed by him. A loose stack of photos was lying on the table, chronicling his father's many and varied pursuits:
A stroke had slowed Villi a little, but he was still sharp, his piercing stare missed nothing, and his humor is as wry as ever as he talked with Wim and me.
Photo: Ellen T'Joen
Of course, there were leather bound copies of the work of Halldór Laxness on one of the shelves- behind the chair where Halldór himself had once sat:
"I never read him." Villi said with a smile. We talked for nearly an hour, and when had I to leave to catch my flight Villi gave me a copy of one of his DVDs.
Ok, I'm back from the pool, were I spent time listening to an old fisherman punctuate his monologues with Icelandic poetry. He evidently was well known to the regulars who, like me, enjoyed his performance. I walked "home" through the cemetery where I saw this beautiful Art Nouveau gravestone:
I then stopped into Kolaportið, the week-end flea market, and picked up a few things. Once outside again, I was greeted with a fine sun shower on the Austurvöllur square. That's the Hotel Borg on the left and the cathedral on the right:
The sun and rain on the cobblestones around Iðno made for a nice picture:
After a much-needed nap (a recurring theme in these posts!), I went over to Skifan to pick up a few Icelandic CD's. Uni, a woman who splits her time between the desert Southwest and Iceland was playing alt-country-folk songs with her band, very nicely done:
She was followed by The Mysterious Marta, who had sort of a harp-less Johanna Newsom thing going on:
As I was leaving, I noticed this commemorative block in the sidewalk:
This was to be my Techno night, and the only night I stayed in one venue- NASA.
A larger hall, with a good sound system and some elevated sections for better sight lines. I won't go through these acts in depth- this stuff isn't really my thing- but there were some pleasant surprises.
Captain Fufanu, a couple of teens with a great grasp of what they're doing. They could have done a bit more variation with the bass beats, but were very focused throughout the set:
DJ Margeir and his Symphony Orchestra. A real surprise, a dj with a 5 piece string section and conductor. It really worked, and the first song had the best groove of the whole evening, with its slashing string parts bringing it up to another level. The second tune was not as strong, but the last piece was real classical music and breathtaking, it is rare that two such dissimilar musical styles really "fuse" but this was outstanding. The crowd understood it as well and gave them a well deserved ovation:
Oculus: Heavy, heavy bass with kind of twinky keyboard programs on top. Not much fun, I think he wore out the crowd:
Warieka, from Denmark had guitar and live keyboards, with some singing on top of the usual electronic stew. It was all over the map and I couldn't get into this at all:
GusGus, the headliners, were the obviously most established outfit, playing real songs on top of the grooves and although the crowd reacted well to their "hits" their response seemed a little forced- perhaps too many late nights in a row? I couldn't make it to the end; they may still be playing; but I've had enough, and my Iceland Airwaves is over for 2009:
I managed to dash between the raindrops on my way back to the Nordic house. Pascal Pinon, a group consisting of four 15 year old girls, played a memorable set of their quiet and very personal songs:
While simple in structure, these songs (in both Icelandic and English) were carefully constructed, but they often came to an abrupt end- which was actually refreshing after hearing acts in the last few days who didn't know when to stop. These songs all had complete lyrics, often with many stanzas. This is the kind of musical experience which is rare- an honest look into the mind-set of adolescent girls, untainted by show-biz and uncorrupted by age and cynicism. They spoke afterward in an informal Q & A, discussing how they came to write the songs and who their musical influences were- "mostly each other" was the answer to that question:
They even had a self-produced EP in a numbered edition!
When asked about writing in Icelandic versus English they mentioned that Icelandic was better suited to poetry, which was evident in their lyrics, even to this non-speaker. The whole experience added up to another wonderful Airwaves moment.
After a delightful, , if somewhat poignant, afternoon spent over coffee with an old blog-pal, I took a little break back at my apartment to recoup my strength. After wards, while strolling down Hverfisgata, I stumbled into an art opening, the highlight of which was this black swan sculpture:
I was really looking for a place to eat, but before I found one, I saw the Ojba Rasta band playing groove tunes with a Caribbean flavor in the Karamba coffee house:
After a wonderful meal of grilleð lax at the bistro Vegamót, I went over to Þjóðleikhúsið, the National Theatre of Iceland, to see their production of Frida ...viva la vida:
photo credit: Þjóðleikhúsið
Post-play found me heading back to the Reykjavík Art Museum, where I came across the notorious Dr. Spock, who had pulled a trailer into a street, blocking traffic, and did a riotous set of their surf-punk-grunge-whatever. The first act I've seen which had its own fire-eater:
When I did get into the Museum, Thecocknbullkid, a pleasant Hackney lass, was holding forth with some nondescript pop tunes:
The final act of the night at the museum was Páll Óskar singing with Hjaltalín. Páll is a national treasure of Iceland; he was resplendent in his sequined suit. This was a show sung entirely in Icelandic, for Icelanders, and a complete joy to behold:
"Maður í bleikum pallíettujakkafötum getur ekki klikkað." ~ Kristín Gróa
As I write this at 3 AM the music is still going on in various clubs, but I doubt that anything could top Páll and the entire crowd singing along on every song. This day started with a most special experience and ended with a musical performance I'll never forget:
The day program at the Nordic House is getting better and better, with interesting acts doing personal and intimate songs in this cozy auditorium. The first act today was billed as Oh Land, (Nanna Øland Fabricus), a gifted natural singer from Denmark who played her beautiful songs on piano (both grand and toy) with a bassist. Her song I Feel Like Running described her feelings when she had been told that she would never dance again (she had been a ballerina). Heavy stuff:
A bass-less Casio Kids (from Norway) normally play the big venues (as they would later that night) but fit in here just as well with their "acoustic" set. They've been known to do a kindergarten tour from time to time, but make no mistake, they are great musicians- George Martin even produced one of their albums:
The next act was Toggí, who usually fronts a band, but played solo today. His well-crafted songs were interspersed with hilarious banter. If he decided to pursue stand-up he would be a knock-out. A group of preschoolers came in to enjoy the show as well:
Finally, Agent Fresco performed completely acoustically. The lead singer and main writer of the group led us on a trip through his emotional art-songs, concluding with a devastating song about his father's dying days:
I ran into Wim Van Hooste (sitting behind the photographer in the Toggi shot), whose Icelandic music blog I've followed for years. He introduced me to his Icelandic friend Heiða and we all shared notes. I managed to squeeze in a couple more off-venue shows including the Nick Cave-inspired Hudson Wayne at the fabled 12 Tonar record store:
Evidently he is something of a local legend and seldom seen in performance. Afterward, I skipped over to Skifan, a big record store and host to the Airwaves information center. The Brasstronauts from Vancouver B.C. were holding forth in an alt-rock vein which I just couldn't quite mine:
For the start of the evening festivities I saw the Icelandic Surf band Bárujárn ("Bare Iron") ripping it up at Sódóma. The addition of a theremin gave the music a nice coloration. Great, loud, crazy, with a bit of a tendency toward heavy metal, but I'm not a purist:
Stopped by Iðno and heard a few tunes from yet another sensitive singer-songwriter, this time it was UK performer Puzzle Muteson, another "artist" in the Once movie bag. Even a little help from Nico Muhly couldn't redeem him. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Muteson, if you are going to be on stage performing in front of people who came 3,000 miles to see you, PLEASE TUNE YOUR DAMN GUITAR!
The next act at Iðno was composer Daníel Bjarnarson and his chamber orchestra. Real classical music, although seeing Daníel conduct at the keyboard of a Fender Rhodes piano gave me a little flashblack of Gil Evans. The first piece, All Time to Silence Comes was a tone poem and most effective. They played some additional works which were all well received:
I hadn't got quite my fill of riot grrrls, so I returned to Grand Rokk to see the Danish group Darling Don't Dance. Not as polished as last night's Vicky but more in the style of the old Minneapolis group Babes In Toyland. They even did some effective feedback solos. Makes my heart glad to see these young women empowered with high-power Marshall amplifiers- AND THEIR GUITARS WERE IN TUNE!:
It was after Midnight when I returned to Iðno to finally see Ben Frost, a Bedroom Community artist. (I missed him in 2006.) Question: How many techs does it take to plug in a guitar? Answer:
They faffed around with this for over a half an hour, and when Ben finally deigned to actually play something there was still a big ground loop humming through the PA. I listened to Ben play one feedbacked and echoed chord for ten minutes until I gave up. I walked the 500 or so meters back to my apartment and could still hear him all the way, droning on like a over-amped Steve Reich:
Things were off to a roaring start today (or rather last night, when the winds were well in the 50 mph range after midnight) but (almost) everything was sunshine and flowers at a small off-venue concert held in the early afternoon at the Nordic House, a Scandinavian library and cultural study institution located near the University:
Hafdís Huld, an experienced singer-songwriter performed catchy pop-rock with her band in the intimate auditorium. Very professional, very positive and upbeat in personality, Hafdís charmed the small crowd:
A young, sensitive, singer-songwriter from Australia, Mijo, did a few tunes before the next scheduled act, Hraun performed. There was some sort of connection there, evidently they had performed together in the past:
Hraun whose leader/singer/songwriter Svavar Knútur is from the Westfjords (his promo shot shows him bottle-feeding a lamb!) is about as close to an elf as you can get. His reworking of Darling Clementine into something quite new was exceptional. He got the audience to sing along on a couple of tunes, and we were great as well:
The final group, Choir of Young Believers was from Denmark. Dreary and turgid songs of malaise and despair. Reminded me of the movie Once. I did not believe.
Oh, and just for Rose, here's a little library porn:
Later on in the afternoon I stopped in at Babalú, a coffeehouse/restaurant on the second floor of an old house:
A Swedish act, Christine Owman, was playing but the place was so packed I had to hold my camera around a corner to even get a picture! Her old-timey sound fit perfectly with the venue- there may have been only a dozen people in the tiny room she was playing in:
A quick stop at Eymundsson's gave me a glimpse of The New Wine, a alt-rock combo from Norway. (New Whine?):
On my way to get groceries for my dinner, I spotted one of the many acts unloading equipment for off-venue events. These are members of The Tiny, a "Freak Folk Duo" from Sweden, I caught a bit of their act at the Nordic house on Saturday:
Rokkurró, what some might call a "shoegazer band", did some art-rock on the main stage at the Reykjavík Art Museum. With a strong vocalist who doubled on cello they were pretty good, in their way, in a short set:
I didn't know what to expect from Björt, so I headed over to Hressó, where they had a stage set up under a big tent- beer garden style. She came on with a full rock band, but sang songs with titles such as "Happy Memories" and "With Love to my Parents", I know that it sounds corny but she was sincere and it was very nicely done:
Next up was a trip back to the Grand Rokk to see something completely different, Vicky:
And they were great. Sample song titles: Robutussin and My Black Lesbian Lover. They definitely had the most fun performing of any group I've seen so far. I LOVE RIOT GRRRLS!
To complete this most eclectic night, I went back over to Fríkirkjan to see Hjaltalínperform with a TWENTY PIECE ORCHESTRA! Every Iceland Airwaves usually has a few moments that are simply mind-blowers and this was definitely one of them:
Fully orchestrated songs with overtones of Ligeti, Stravinksy, and Spector... Phil Spector, that is. Conducted with inspiration by Daniel Bjarnason, this was a full hour of magnificent music. Stunning.