Last night was the stórtónleikar, or "big concert", and it sure lived up to its billing. It was 6 hours from the time we set foot in Laugardalshöllin until the last amplified guitar buzz hummed out in the stacks. The concert was a benefit for the Icelandic environmental movement, a new development here in response to a variety of proposed and actual colossal-scale aluminum smelting projects. The concert roster was a who's-who of Icelandic musicians.
We were among the first in the building, and bypassed the activist tables, heading straight into the main hall. Laugardalshöll is a combination sports arena and concert venue, and has that nice gritty dual-purpose Worcester Centrum feel, but without chairs at all on the main floor. There were a few spots left along the barricade right at the stage and we grabbed 'em. I had never been this close to the stage in probably 50 rock shows, and it was quite a thrill. We peeked under the scrim at the roadies lifting cases and hauling amps. Directly between us and the stage, in a narrow aisle, was the photographers' pen. The men-with-compensatory-cameras paced back and forth in front of us the whole night like deranged animals, light sticks glowing next to their all-access passes. I was wearing my new cross-of-Iceland stocking cap and this was apparently interesting enough to warrant 10-20 pictures from each media jackal. (I'm still waiting on the Séð og heyrt 2-page special.)
We met some friends and waited there by the barricade as the hall filled up to the bass thrumming of a giant waterfall projected on the scrim. Then the music started, with some acoustic folky numbers by KK, to get the audience's blood flowing (at least weakly). The show was a rollicking, flashing, tumbling roller coaster. There was so much to see and remember. Some of my personal highlights:
Björk played second in the show, and came onstage in a brilliant green dress and eye makeup almost as big as the dress. She was accompanied by just one harp, and sang some a capella. The photographers quickly forgot about my hat and rushed in to the center en masse to cover her. Her stage presence was electric and seeing her from so close by was the treat of a lifetime. I don't remember a peep from the vast sea of people behind us while she sang, and the air around her was charged. She held the entire 5000-person crowd in the palm of her quivering, clenching little hand. In characteristic mischievous fashion, she switched from an Icelandic song to an English song by telling the audience the next one would be in "útlenska". She ended her last song just feet away from us, and shot me a "nice hat" look before she danced off the stage.
In the "too cool to play that much" department was Sigur Rós, the only band to play just one song. It was Heysátan, the last track on Takk... and of course it was tremendous. They sang in a tight circle with Jónsi on a tiny keyboard and a few brass players accompanying. I watched Kjartan tap his foot and Jónsi look across and saw firsthand how closely these guys work when they play together. When the music started it was a wall of beautiful, sad sound. This band has some kind of goosebump machine that they turn on halfway through each song, the way lesser bands use fog machines. The simple song was executed with the emotion and precision of a group of musicians from a top-flite symphony orchestra, not a scruffy bunch of twentysomething Icelanders. Then it was over, a quiet "takk fyrir okkur" and they dashed from the stage.
Damien Rice, one of the few non-Icelandic artists, hit the stage sometime after Sigur Rós. He's got a helluva voice, that cat, and really blew me away on the first song, "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You". Lisa Hannigan sang beautifully along with him, and that song made for one of the most emotional moments of the evening. Unfortunately, he shattered the mood with his second song where he went all nouveau-Fleetwood-Mac and pawed at his guitar crazily, trying to fill the hall with as much British-folk-and-tea-flavored noise as possible. It didn't work out so well. But the first song was a keepah.
Playing runner-up to Björk in the stage-presence department was Mugison. He danced and sang and grimaced and got completely carried away in his music. The teenage girls behind us squealed. He did two or three numbers, and then introduced Icelandic reggae superstars Hjálmar, who surrounded him onstage and backed him up with their 16-foot-wide groove while he sang and danced in front. Hjálmar kept going after Mugi left, playing several from their new album. They were tight and serious and happy and all infected by their own groove. Their art-school-girl clarinetist kept shooting the bass player admiring looks while he soloed and spun around slowly and tried to keep his dredlock-cap on.
Metal-rockers Rass ("Ass") came out each dressed in a wife-beater and kicked the metal-heads in the crowd into high gear. Their waif-thin lead singer introduced each song with a slowed-down Maslinesque growl as he hid behind silver-rimmed sunglasses. For their third song, they brought out a middle-school marching band from the side of the stage. Prepubescent trombone, sax, and clarinet kids in oversized red marching band jackets clustered together right above us. The kids were led by my old upstairs neighbor (and perennial party guest) Lárus who was himself dressed in a matching red marching-band jacket. When Rass fired up their dark-metal riffs, the kids all joined in, reading off their sheet music and trying to keep up with the drummer's steadily increasing tempo. It was the kind of collaboration that seems almost expected in Icelandic music, but one I can't imagine happening back in Massachusetts. At the end of the song, the kids lined up along the front of the stage and took a big bow and looked really happy. The audience roared with approval.
After Rass came another band again featuring the lead singer of Rass, this time singing backup, and this time dressed in nothing but shiny pink stretch pants and high heels. And this time the lead singer was a beefcake of a man who came out in a ski mask and threw yellow dish gloves out of a bag into the crowd. He then tore off his ski mask and barked out his song, himself wearing yellow dish gloves, and once exposing his vast rock'n'roll gut for the pleasure of the crowd. These guys were good. I have no idea who they were.
Ghostdigital was a strange amalgam: ex-Sugarcube Einar Örn, a 10-year-old kid on piccolo-trumpet, Bibbi Curver on some Futureman-esque electronic instrument of his own design, and a turntablist. The beats and sounds coming out of Bibbi and the DJ were big, booming things and that carried the day. But Einar looked and acted like a Robin Williams portrayal of a sad and clinically insane man. One song had him rabidly flinging himself around in front of us while endlessly chanting "Nei! Nei nei nei! Nei nei nei nei!" in his all-white getup. Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, was sitting back where he thought nobody could see him behind the DJ during this mania. But then he joined the strange crew for one last song, something he had cooked up about the evils of aluminum smelting. British chap that he is, the word aluminum had five syllables, and good thing too, cause he needed those five to fit the meter.
Last up was Bubbi Morthens, fronting his band Egó, a bunch of guys who haven't played together in probably 10 years or more. The crowd, having just been revved to frothiness by the preceding death-metal-in-pinstripe-business-suit crew (Ham), was ready. Behind us teenage boys in braces were chanting "Bubbi Konungurinn" (Bubbi the King) and Bubbi didn't disappoint. He had the stage energy of a guest host on Latibær, doing plyometric straight-jumps during solos and leaping around the stage like a 250-lb. Baryshnikov. He commanded the crowd like no other musician had done the whole night. He is a giant of a man, and his shaved head makes him all the more frightening. He sang like he loved it, like he was the Icelandic Elvis that he is. And the sweaty, manic, exuberant crowd wanted more. Finally it was all over in a shot of stage-front pyrotechnics and confetti. And we walked out into the cold night together and thought that we had just seen something tremendous.