WERS Presents: Reykjavik Calling

 Last year WERS teamed up with Iceland Naturally to bring you Reykjavik Callinga live collaboration between the best acts out of Iceland and Boston. This year Reykjavik Calling coming to the Paradise Rock Club once again on March 9th, 2013. Stay tuned to WERS and wers.org for more details. Read below for a recap of last years event!

At the end of WWII, the US Air Force set up a base at the Keflavik Airport in Iceland, forty minutes west of Reykjavik. The base, which operated from 1947 until 2011, was United States and NATO a stronghold for air deterrents during the Cold War. But the rock and roll music the American soldiers brought to the base, and the country, inspired a generation of musicians. Over the years some have been struck by the demonian through direct contact with the base while up-and-coming Icelandic songwriters take their cues from contemporaries like Tom Waits and Gillian Welch. This past Saturday night at the Paradise Rock Club, our chickens came home to roost.

Backstage during soundcheck at Reykjavik Calling, the WERS sponsored concert featuring four Icelandic artists (Mugison, Petur Ben, Sóley Stefánsdóttir, and Lay Low) and four Boston-based artists (Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Will Dailey, Dave Munro of Air Traffic Controller, and Amory Sivertson), I caught up with Amory and Lay Low working on one of Lay Low’s songs written in Icelandic that the pair performed. While Eli Reed’s booming voice pulsated against the walls while he soundchecked with Mugison, Amory sat with her eyes fixed not on the Icelandic words in front of her but on her counterpart, both withdrawn from the world around them and locked in on one another. It was an apt preamble to this extraordinary night as Lay Low and Amory played, surrendering the inflections and eccentricities of each other’s native tongue for the musical language they best communicated through.

The Paradise was filled to the brim by the time Amory and Lay Low took the stage (joined by guitarist Mike Moschetto) at nine o’clock. They traded songs off their new albums—Amory’s Human and Lay Low’s Brostinn Strengur—and shared flawless harmonies reminiscent of First Aid Kit, the Swedish sibling duo, and a musical kinship nearly as strong. Amory’s folk-pop vocals and staccato piano playing brightened Lay Low’s more visceral-pop sound while Lay Low’s intensity added a brooding wisdom to Amory’s clever songwriting, which has become characteristic of the singer/songwriter to critical and fan delight. The set rounded out with the first of several audience-stopping covers of the night, a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that the duo pop-ed, folk-ed, and harmonized into a timeless sound (if not for our universal recognition of the hook it could have easily come off as modern).

Sóley Stefánsdóttir opened the next collaboration with a solo set, challenging the audience to listen and engage on a deeper level with her music. For those who went along for the ride, they were far from disappointed. Sóley uses self-looping techniques that bring to mind American artists like tuneyards. But Sóley’s sounds are purely organic, using various mouth noises and rhythmically intricate clapping to surround the petite pianist with a stage full of textures and motifs.

Dave Munro and several members of Air Traffic Controller took the stage to the cheers given to true hometown heroes. The crowd took to moving with the same force that Dave stomped on the hardwood below his feet. “Bad Axe, MI” tells the story of Boston-bound Michigan songwriters with such integrity you have to follow Dave throughout the story, knowing right from the start you won’t be rewarded with a proper resolution, and perhaps intrigued all the more. The Sóley/Dave Munro collaboration on Sóley’s “Pretty Face” from her new album We Sink was an impressive demonstration of just how much these artists were able to pull together with just a couple days of even knowing one another, let alone rehearsing.

Back in the green room, preparing for their set, Petur Ben and Will Dailey shared chords and laughs on whoever’s guitars were strewn about. “Something like this could go so wrong,” said Dailey, “but I don’t expect it,” he finished through a knowing smile directed at Petur. Wine For My Weakness, Petur Ben’s new album is only one facet of this multitalented artist’s toolkit—a trained composer and arranger whose written for theater and film in addition to his own albums. But this night was not about eloquent arrangement (though it would be hard to argue there was none in attendance after watching Ben and Dailey’s set). Will Dailey’s “300 Dollar Man” poured into the crowd, reminding us all that the art of insight and the hands of history are not entirely lost from rock and roll. Petur Ben’s minimalist riffs and confident songwriting punched through in English with a talent that must be unmatched in Icelandic. His lullaby “Skype Song” breathed a Springsteen-style narrative into the soft-spoken complexity of the duo’s set. They too moved us all to awe with their cover: The Doors’s “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” with Dailey playing every inch of a large bass drum to compliment Ben’s revival of a song not many dare to try outside of open-mic nights and with good reason, it takes a true player to do it justice. No doubt it was served a handful at the Paradise. Dailey called the event a testament to the “music culture of Boston…not many American cities could do that,” he said as he was welcomed back into the dressing room by longtime and newfound comrades alike.

By the time Mugison, or Mugi as he is affectionately known, took the stage, the crowd had been touched, rocked, and wholeheartedly entertained. The only rightful place for the music to go was a hard left turn towards excessive and both Mugi and Eli “Paperboy” Reed proved to need little else but a solo guitar to take us there. Mugison appeared onstage with an all-American Budweiser in one hand, and his beat up acoustic Gibson run through an old Fender Champ in the other. In his suspenders and plaid suit he had the look of one type of gentleman and the mouth of another. He ripped into “I Want You” a song with a kind of rock and roll honesty few American artists seem to be able to touch these days: “I want you/and guess what?/I shaved my beard” he snarled at us, unapologetic for his disregard for poetic lyricism. Earlier in the day, Mugi and I were talking about his rural town in Iceland of about 100 people where he says every true citizen of the town has lost at least one finger. While he’s still counting ten on his hands, he pulls and pushes on the strings on songs like his hit “Murr Murr” with such force and brutality you’d think he must be chopping his own hands to play like that, as if he’s recreated some sort of modern-day Robert Johnson at the crossroads style mythology.

In a pairing that was startlingly right on, Eli Reed emerged after Mugison’s set in his dapper 50s-style regalia and launched into a set of his Sam Cooke-inspired songs, both playing off of the energy left in the room from Mugison’s roaring set and quickly building his own pulsating vibe. The two traded verses—and traded choruses with the crowd—on “Stand By Me” before welcoming up the entire night’s performers for one last hurrah:

As Will Dailey played the memorable opening chords to “I Shall Be Released” I remembered a observation I’d made in my notebook earlier in the evening during setup and soundcheck. Everyone appeared warm and welcomed into each other’s worlds but still with a sense of waiting. A wonderment of what the show would bring to these eight groups who not one week earlier were still practicing how to pronounce each other’s names. “I Shall Be Released” seemed at that moment, a perfect ending; a song of kinship for the travelers and travelled alike. In the moment all eight seemed released into some non-place where accents and languages were secondary or even tertiary to the bond they’d built together through song. Reykjavik Calling, the first of its kind on the east coast, proved to be an evening for which the words “in the end…” do not apply. It was a night of beginnings, as only the best concerts are. Over the next few days and weeks we’ll be bringing you a slew of exclusive interviews, performances, videos and more from Reykjavik Calling so stay tuned to 88.9 WERS and wers.org!

Click here for the complete Reykjavik Calling slideshow

By Jake Sorgen and Judy Jun

Photos by Martin Grossinger


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