Beginning Friday with something we would only do once this weekend – namely making it down for the hotel breakfast – we’re fresh and ready to check out some of the vast off-venue gigs that take place from early afternoon up till around the time the main venues kick off. In the gorgeous and spacious Kex hostel Seattle radio station KEXP have set up shop and are broadcasting live over the whole weekend. They have an impressive line-up of acts popping in to do intimate sets and the first we catch are Oaklahoma’s Other Lives. They are a hairy lot, and play a folk-rock with layers of sound coming from strings and various analogue instruments. Incredibly melodic, each song has a habit of gently hooking you in and it’s fair to say we get nicely lost in the show.
Friday afternoon in Reykjavik is a perfect time to pop into the legendary 12 Tónar record store. Most surprisingly we are greeted immediately by one of the owners with a handshake and a “welcome back” despite only having darkened the door once, this time last year. Having made a selection, and received recommendations we are shown to the couch-filled listening room in the back and delivered a free espresso. As we trawl through the back catalogue of Jóhann Jóhannsson and many emerging Icelandic artists the owners come and sit to talk about the local music scene and the brief life of their Copenhagen store. An hour and a half passes effortlessly before we leave with our purchases, and a wealth of knowledge about them. If only all record-buying experiences could be like this.
It’s back up to a full-to-the-gills Kex to see John Grant. Playing solo, he make the 20 minutes he’s got seem like two hours. His gentle piano and baritone voice could stop anything in its tracks and it’s the ideal trojan horse for his poetic rebuttals of bad love, especially during the high-point, “Where Dreams Go To Die”. While State explained to a German beside us (who complained that the music was too romantic for her) that it contained the lyric “I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye” the crowd cheered for an encore for almost as long as the set itself, but to no avail.
Rain is sheeting down so we opt to stay at the hostel to see Caged Animals but before they appear a grey-haired, middle aged dude is chatting on-air to KEXP about how Icelandic people know they are on an island that could drop back into the sea any day and live their lives accordingly. He turns out to be the President of Iceland sitting here in a youth hostel talking to an American indie station. Fantastic.
All of the five or six Caged Animals are head to toe in white. They begin the set in a summery, jangly way and end up effortlessly rising to the point where front-man Vincent Cacchione is eyeballing the crowd and shouting/singing in their faces while the fuzzy, summery continues in the background. The perfect wake-up to begin the evening proper.
Honningbarna are intending to wake us up even more in the Gaukur club. The frontman is politely attired in a v-neck, shirt and tie while an assortment of others sport bright vests. The ensemble seem to make all hell break loose on stage in a matter of seconds and then hold it up just as quick. These Norwegians have an expertly honed coil/release thing going through the songs and even the introduction of a cello into the singers hands doesn’t stop him almost destroying it when the song inevitably hits the most rock of moments. Our eyes were glued to every second.
The queue is so vast in advance of tUnE-yArDs that you can’t even get near the entrance while Niki & The Dove are playing. Queues are always huge at the Nasa club so timing is of the essence when planning which of the main acts to see around the city. We return after the gig has started which enables us to slip in and thank Christ we do because Merrill Garbus and her odd band have set the room alight. Live, she’s a possessed, warpainted fulcrum on stage, looping her drums and building a frenzy with her eyebrows alone. The double saxophone throughout ‘My Country’ blows the roof off and Merrill breaks her focus to allow a grin or two while the crowd are losing it.
Straight after the high of tUnE yArDs, Suuns are engaging in is some moody drone rock sounds in Gaukur. The tiny, sweaty venue is perfect for the more darker and rockier of the bands and while there’s a very enthusiastic crowd bunched around the touching-distance stage, it’s too much of a shift down in mood from our high.
To cap the night we are back to NASA for Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. A guy dressed as a Stegosaurus (best guess anyhow) crossed with a Native American Indian amongst other fanciful people and costumes on stage. Though a live gig it it has the feeling of a DJ set with dancing and singing girls. Ideal Friday night fayre, it’s quirky electronic pop with a dress sense to match for a keen-to-dance post- crowd.
Though only just past 2am, Reykjavik is alive and it’s into the breech we go in search of the famous bar Kaffinbarrin which should see us nicely up to 5am.
Some other acts in brief
YLJA – Great harmonies from two ladies and their acoustic guitars. Opening with a Fleet Foxes cover and ending with a Simon & Garfunkel one and a selection of their own in-between, they justly receive warm applause.
MURMANSK – A real disappointment. Vocals are buried in too much reverb from a band touted as being ‘goth’ in the local press. If they are goth then I am the ghost of Leif Ericsson.
SAMARIS – Great set from these three youngsters. Wearing black robes their brand of dark brooding electronica goes down a treat in NASA.
CHEEK MOUNTAIN THIEF – Folk-rock band fronted by Mike Lindsey, a Briton who relocated to Husavik in northern Iceland and recruited local musicians. Another great gig in the youth hostel, Kex.
NIKI AND THE DOVE – Looking like something from a Jane Fonda workout video and sounding a bit like Siouxsie Sioux, this Swedish songstress and her particular blend of electro pop is easy to love.
BLOODGROUP – Synths and general getting on down. Great show helps wrap up the night at a respectable 3.30am, leaving us an hour and a half to get the last beers in.
Additional reporting by Emmett Mullaney
Photos by Jacob Bekker-Hansen