After a morning spent studying at the public library, Mark and I headed out for Day 2 (Evening 2) of Iceland Airwaves. Given the increasing wind (13-20 km/hr for today and the rest of the weekend) and dropping temperatures over the last few days, I can only imagine that this has been a rather abrupt introduction to Iceland for arriving travelers, but spirits appear to still be reasonably high.
Because Mark is an excellent itinerizer (I invented that word, yes) and band-researcher, and because I have been following a handful of Icelandic performers from long before we moved here, we had a very promising line-up planned for the evening. Our first stop was to see blusey-folky-mildy-country singer Lay Low, whose (English-language) 2008 album “Farewell Good Night’s Sleep” and more recent “Brostinn strengur” (her first album in Icelandic, by the by) have been in heavy rotation in my house for the last few years. (There’s a deal on her website to buy three of her albums digitally for $20. It’s totally worth it, and I highly recommend you taking advantage!) Lay Low was playing an off-venue show at the Eymundsson bookstore where, she later told us, she actually used to work. We arrived in time for set before hers, that of Low Roar, a San Francisco singer-songwriter who relocated to Reykjavík and whose first album apparently “chronicles the challenges of starting anew in a foreign land and is an honest depiction of the struggles to acclimate, find work, and support his family in the Icelandic winter.” (I didn’t make out many of the lyrics myself, but he does sound a little like Thom Yorke.)
I had never actually heard of Low Roar before, but he apparently has quite a following–the third floor where the shows are being held was packed shoulder to shoulder with early-arrived attendees who were all sitting cross-legged and eager. Mark and I were able to get spots standing on the stairs where, at least at first, we could see the performance. However, there were at least 40 people crowded in behind us and more down the stairs by the time the second song finished, many of whom were less than self-conscious about pushing their way up the stairs and into whatever cranny hadn’t already been filled on the floor.
After Low Roar’s set the crowd briefly thinned enough for us to move up and take a seat, although everyone was eventually asked to stand so that more people could fit. Lay Low is not a terribly tall lady, so we couldn’t actually see much of her set–a shame, because she’s actually a dynamic mover for a bluesy balladeer and would have been fun to watch. But she has delightful, cute-not-cloying stage patter, and a really rich vocal performance live, so it was still a great set. Her live versions of some of her more popular songs–“Little by Little,” and “By and By”–varied considerably from the recorded versions, which I know some people might find frustrating, but I actually enjoyed these new interpretations with different rhythm and ever-so-slightly adjusted lyrics. I was also very pleased that she played a song off of “Brostinn strengur,” Horfið, which is one of my favorites off that album. She played a pretty short set, and for her last two songs, encouraged audience participation. “I really like sing-alongs,” she admitted. So she taught the more obliging among us to “ooh-ooh-ooh” in the right places and in a semi-ironic turn, congratulated us when she finished her song. “Oh, that was just beautiful–thank you!”
Via Youtube, the video above was recorded live at the White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut on 14 July 2012.
After Lay Low, we thought about stopping by to see the mayor, Jón Gnarr, play some songs with one of the members of HAM, a very popular Icelandic band from the late 80s and early 90s, but the line was out the door, so we opted to head up the hill to see hot-young-things Retro Stefson play an enthusiastic set under an outdoor tent which had been erected between the skate park and the new downtown Apple Store. (Humorous ‘Small World’ moment–we actually rented a short term apartment from two members of Retro Stefson’s dad when we first arrived in Iceland. We hadn’t heard of the band at that point, and didn’t know that we’d shortly be seeing their faces and names all over Reykjavík, but one of them came over to help us with the cable at one point. So yeah, a rock star fixed our TV on our second day in Iceland.)
This was definitely designed to be an “Only in Iceland” sort of set–six of the seven members of Retro Stefson wore thick coats, gloves, and knit caps while they did their sound check. (Their lead singer, Unnsteinn, made due with just a blazer and tie until mid-way through the set when fashion had to make some concessions to the cold, and he added a scarf and mittens.) Everyone under the (unheated) tent was also decked out in winter wear, but Unnsteinn was valiant in his attempts to get everyone pumped up for a very dancy, synth-infused set that at various high points, sounded an awful lot like Soul II Soul. “Imagine you are in a really cool club!” he encouraged. “Get your hip hop fists in the air!”
This is the official music video for Retro Stefson’s single “Glow,” and not only features a tandem bike and a great ice-cream cone related plot, but also will show you around a good part of downtown Reykjavík.
Retro Stefson’s music could, in its calmest moments, still be described as ebullient and although most of them looked like they might have been freezing up there, they put on a very energetic set. Like Lay Low, Retro Stefson enjoys crowd participation–mostly jumping, waving–but Unnsteinn has worked out a full-proof way of making sure that everyone get into the spirit of things. During one of their last songs, he instructed (in English and Icelandic) that on his call, the audience should jump four times to the right and then four times to the left, and then go back again. I was very much enjoying myself, but am not generally a jumper (I also, full disclosure, have a very hard time telling my left from my right). I scoped out the woman next to me and determined that she didn’t look like a jumper either. Whether she was or not, though, none of us had any choice in the matter. If one person at the end of a row starts jumping into you, you start jumping into the next person, and so on, like dominoes. So I don my knit cap to Retro Stefson: you got me to jump.
Energized but definitely chilly, we took a warm-up/dinner break at a very tasty, inexpensive restaurant (Durum) and then made our way to Bar 11 for one last show, that of the all-female, Danish punk rock trio Nelson Can. These (really well dressed) ladies were awesome–rich, gutsy vocals, spare music–they just have a bassist, a drummer, the occasional cowbell or egg full of sand and vocals–and a whole lot of punk rock, feministy energy. (The lyrics are often simplistic to the point of goofiness–“I was sitting there/eating [an] apple/it was really good/in my mouth”–but this is hardly the point.) Whoa, though, was the venue packed to the gills. We ended up in a back corner, clutching our beers, and listening to more than one (English-speaking) attendee hope that the fire door behind us would open in case of an emergency. It is a tribute to Nelson Can that I was able to enjoy their set as much as I did and not hyperventilate when yet another wave of spectators crushed their way into the small room and sent me further back into the corner. (Also maybe a sign that I am getting a handle on this growing claustrophobia thing–small victories, yay!)
Anyway, I plan to find as much of this band’s musical output as possible, and intermix them with Le Tigre when I need some super-catchy, awesome quasi-angry lady music.
We could have kept going, but that seemed like more than enough for one evening. So ends Day 2. For Day 3 we have a number of Icelandic musicians I am not familiar with on the docket, so that should be very interesting.