Only a couple of weeks before Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik Calling is a consolation prize for those of us who don’t have tickets to Reykjavik. The concert, hosted by KEXP and Iceland Naturally at Neumos is part of the annual Taste of Iceland event. It is a collaboration between Icelandic and local musicians that exposes a local audience to emerging Icelandic artists and generates new connections between some of the most promising musicians in both scenes. It was also the final item on my Reykjavik staycation itinerary.
This year, the show opened with Icelandic singer-songwriter Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson, who performs under the name Júníus Meyvant. His challenge, besides developing a set with local band Cataldo in a matter of days, is to avoid comparison with Ásgeir Trausti. He mostly accomplished this by exhibiting an crass and inappropriate sense of humor completely at odds with the pretty, folky songs he sings. He and Cataldo’s Eric Anderson cracked wise back and forth throughout their set.
Anderson explained that the reasoning behind their pairing was obvious – red beard, slicked back hair.
Well, that and the brainy, emotional, folk-inspired songs sung in the Death Cab style.
Next up: Sóley. She has been a KEXP favorite for years, and has a lot of fans in Seattle. The opening of her set was full of the the homespun chatter that a lot of Icelandic artists use, and she sounded quite good. I had not realized that she worked like Imogen Heap, recording and looping vocal snippets during her show, in addition to singing the melody. Eventually she brought out her local partner, Say Hi, the one-man dance project of Eric Elbogen. I got the impression that they had the least amount of time to work together of the pairings. Unlike Cataldo and Júníus Meyvant, their sounds were very different. Both are electronic artists, but Say Hi is upbeat and danceable where Sóley is dark and melodic. He played on one of her songs, and she sang on one of his, and otherwise the two took turns, not even sharing the stage for large parts of the set. The resulting stylistic shifts were a little jarring and didn’t really show either artist to their full potential.
The final pairing was Sin Fang with the Seattle Rock Orchestra. I saw Sin Fang play an art gallery in Reykjavik when I was there in April, and my daughter’s violin teacher plays in the Seattle Rock Orchestra, so this was my main interest for the night. Sindri Mar, the mind behind Sin Fang and one of the artists participating in the Odin’s Eye exhibit, began alone. The sound at Neumos was so much better than the art gallery show, or even on his album, Flowers, that I was kind of surprised how good he is even though I already counted myself a fan. On this night, he dropped really heavy bass beats, making the angular, indie rock songs from the album take on the feel of a DJ set. Since he spoke Icelandic the last time I saw him, I had not realized how funny he is.
“Since I flew here alone, I didn’t have any band to play with me, so I got on Tinder and found these guys,” he said by way of introducing the Seattle Rock Orchestra. Then he added, “I’m lying. I’m really more of a Myspace guy.”
I think one of the signs of a good artist is when their songs work in many different contexts. Sin Fang’s album is straightforward indie rock, but it worked as a dance set. It worked with orchestral backing, too.
On the other hand, the Seattle Rock Orchestra is a little bit like salt, or cheese. Good on their own (they covered Björk), they also make everything else better. After a few songs with Sin Fang, each of the other Icelandic artists came out for a song with the orchestra. Júníus Meyvant should always perform with a string section.
For his last song, “Young Boys,” Sin Fang brought out a surprise – his collaborators from last year, Kithkin. Tree punks, orchestra, and arctic indie rocker made a surprisingly good combination.
As a grand finale, everyone who had been on stage all night came out and performed a final song together: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” As you do.