Iceland Airwaves 2013 Day 3: Syrian electro-pop bliss

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Omar Souleyman performing at Harpa. (Photo by Travis Hay)

Omar Souleyman performing at Harpa. (Photo by Travis Hay)

The below content was originally posted on Life in the Vinyl Lane

There are lots of reasons people come to Iceland Airwaves.  For some it’s a convenient “excuse” to get to Iceland and experience both the incredible natural beauty of one of the last truly unspoiled places on earth while also getting to see some cool music.  For others it’s a chance to party like it’s 1999 and soak in (and soak up) Reykjavik’s notorious evening party scene.  And some of us are here chasing the dragon.  Going to shows and secretly hoping for that next “high”, that next experience with some band you’ve never heard of who totally and completely blows your mind and makes you fall in love with them, like a junkie trying to recapture that first big hit.  That experience seems to become more and more rare over time, but if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone you might capture it, and if you do you’ll remember what life is all about.  ”…if you try sometimes, you’ll find… you get what you need…”  I got what I needed last night.

But before we get to that, was saw lots of other great bands yesterday.  First we hit a few off-venue shows at the Nordic House, which has a small room seating maybe 50-70 people and fantastic acoustics.  There we saw an impressive young band from Denmark called Shiny Darkly who channeled the long-dead spirt of Warsaw in impressive fashion.  We liked ‘em enough we’re going to try to catch them again on Sunday at their Lucky Records in-store, and I can promise a full post on them sometime soon since I bought a copy of their brand new vinyl EP (the second copy ever sold apparently, since someone else got to them just before I did… doh!).  I will be keeping an eye on them.  Halleluwahfollowed with a nice, short four-song set that was, I believe, all new material.

From there it was off to Harpa to see an off-venue show by Singapore Sling that sort of spilled out of the 12 Tonar record store.  Unfortunately the gear didn’t seem set up too well – it was way too loud to the point of distortion, and you could barely hear the singing at all.  Turns out they sounded way better from inside the venue’s downstairs bathroom (true story); maybe they should have moved everyone down there to listen.  It doesn’t always need to be turned up to 11 to be good.  We then headed out to a bar called Dillon in hopes of catching Brain Police, but it was so packed we couldn’t even make it to the top of the stairs to reach the room… so back to Harpa for the on-venue program.

Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band is exactly as advertised – this band is BIG.  Like 18 performers big.  They play a fun style of Afro-funk fusion with horns and guitars and bongos and just about anything else you can imagine and are a wonderfully enjoyable live experience (we saw them a few years ago as well).  I picked up their new double album on vinyl and can only hope it captures their live energy.  Valdimar was up next with a sort of folk rock style that was pretty good, and certainly enjoyable.

That brought us to American ex-pat and now Iceland resident John Grant.  Grant was given a longer than normal time slot (a full hour) and he’s the toast of the town, so we figured it would be packed – and it was almost beyond packed, really.  Our best guess is about 1,500+ people crammed into that room to see him, and they didn’t leave disappointed.  I wasn’t familiar with his music, but was captivated by his lyrics – Grant comes across like he’s having a conversation with you more than singing to you.  His lyrics are either the most deeply honest and personal I’ve heard in a long time, or he’s totally full of shit.  I’m not 100% sure which is which, but I’m thinking the former.  Lots of songs about frustration and lost loves and ego and pain.

And that, my friends, brings us to that dragon I’ve been chasing.  He came to me from an unexpected place – Syria.  Yes, that Syria.  The one that’s been in the news due to the ongoing unpleasantness.  He’s a 40-something pop singer named Omar Souleyman and within 30 seconds of hitting the stage he owned the 1,000+ person crowd at Harpa.  Souleyman’s brand of electronic dance pop is infectious – there are some typical dance beats in the background, but mixed with very Eastern sounds and instruments all capably put together by the guy running his electronics and keyboard.  And Souleyman himself… despite speaking three words of English/Icelandic the entire set (“hello” and “thank you”) he had the crowd dancing at full throttle, making him his playthings and getting them to clap or raise their hands at will.  There was dancing.  There was crowd surfing.  A bunch of coins made it out of my pants pockets and ended up on the floor because even I was dancing.  And someone puked all over a garbage can.  Afterwards the room smelled of spilled beer and body odor.  It was unquestionably one of my Top 3 all-time Airwaves shows… and may actually be in a first place tie with FM Belfast at NASA a few years back.

This is why we work.  So we can save up some money and chase these incredible life experiences, like totally losing yourself in some Syrian electro-pop with a thousand of your new friends, dancing into the night.  It’s the journey that matters.

Vinyl Lane Jeff

About Vinyl Lane Jeff

Jeff is an Icelandic music aficionado and the author of the music blog Life in the Vinyl Lane.