About Yule lads, Christmas traditions and family memories

Svavar Knútur – Hotel Friends, Düsseldorf; December 6th, 2018

After hearing Árstíðir play a Christmas concert the previous day, it felt only natural to go and see one of Svavar Knútur’s Yule shows starting a week of hearing Icelanders singing Christmas songs. 🙂 It was the perfect thing to remind me of the fact that Christmas is close and put me in a bit of a Christmas mood. Of course Svavar played his own songs too. It was a funny, lovely night at a very cozy venue and I went home with a big smile on my face. 

The concert in Düsseldorf was one that had been added late to the tour schedule or at least I don’t remember it being there the first time I checked. When I found out about it I immediately wanted to go, but left the final decision for the day of the show since I’d just returned from Hamburg in the morning. After six hours of work and dropping my luggage at home I was back on a train. The venue, a hotel, was close to the train station so I got there quickly. It was rally cozy too, a small room filled with all sorts of odd chairs and a few sofas. Picked my place at the front, sat down and waited. Soon started chatting with the guy next to me until showstart.

First up were One Eye Open, who had also supported Svavar in 2014 when he played in Wuppertal. They were playing mostly songs from their new album and I enjoyed it a lot. I like their variety of instruments and how they don’t seem to take themselves or their songs seriously. They were joking that they only write love songs and then played something that wasn’t. It was fun, yet made me a little nervous when the played longer than I had expected. I had a train to catch after all. It was still fun though.

Svavar arrived on stage quickly after they left, got ready and then realized he had forgotten his book so he went away again to pick it up. It was a book about the 13 Yule lads, that are really just evil trolls stealing everything are a huge part of Icelandic Christmas, mostly used to scare kids into behaving. 😉 He wanted us to sign it for him so we did. The last time I signed a book for him was at the very first show I saw in Toronto at NXNE back in 2013. He joked about the book before he gave it to us and also mentioned that someone stole it the last time he did a Yule tour. Really? And I thought all of his fans were nice people.

Before he did any of this he played Icelandic Christmas songs for us though. I don’t think I had heard the first one before. It was very beautiful. Of course right after he made us laugh by saying putting the Christmas tree in the smoking room was very Christian because “Jesus was always with the sinners”. He explained that the song was a poem written by a priest who lived remotely in the east fjords and talks about how every child should be praised, because they are all sacred. He then continued to tell us a bit about Icelandic Yule traditions, promoting the culture. Some things I knew already, but I didn’t know that hjól means “wheel”, because the wheel of the year is turning and we are celebrating the return of light and hope. Therefore, everyone in Iceland celebrates Christmas, not just Christians and everyone is wishing each other “Gleðileg jól”. Considering how famous Icelanders are for being late, I found it funny that everything on Christmas eve has to be ready at 6 pm precisely. 

Next he played us a young Christmas song, called ‘Hin fyrstu jól’ (The first Jól) written by Ingibjörg Þorbergs, Iceland’s first female composer to get attention. She had studied composing in the US and that can be heard in her songs. With that came a story about playing a radio show with her and everyone ending up in tears. 🙂 It was another song unfamiliar to me. The one that followed was a song where he claimed that you could not sing that one without sounding drunk. It was ‘Jólin allstaðar’, I have heard Árstíðir play it at one of their Christmas shows. 

Only then we got into “Weltschmerz” and “Waldeinsamkeit” with ‘Emotional Anorexic’ and ‘Morgunn’ respectively. When Svavar started playing ‘Emotional Anorexic’ someone exclaimed loudly how much she liked it and he had to stop and laugh for a moment, saying that was such a cute reaction. Somehow it made him remember another story about Christmas in Iceland and why they don’t have Glühwein (mulled wine) at Icelandic Christmas markets. It was certainly a good story, no matter if he made it or not. Next time I am in Iceland around Christmas I will check if they really only sell ice cold beer there. I’ve been there around Christmas and all I remember is hot cocoa. Without much ado he went into the song then. While I was singing along I heard a woman behind me do the same. It always makes me smile when I know I am not the only one who can’t sit there quietly. After ‘Morgunn’ we got another bullshit story he told some Americans about clothing in Iceland. I liked it so much I think I will use it one day, even though I am not sure I’d be able to tell it with a straight face.

Svavar is always creating his own myths and says he’d love living in a world where some of those where true. Somehow that just makes me think about the German version of the title song to the Pippi Longstocking movies where it says that we create our world the way we like it. 😀 Last song in the first set was ‘Lady Winter’, my current favorite. 😀

During the break I visited him at the merch table, because I’d brought some chocolates he gladly accepted. We chatted a bit, but mostly I listened to him talking in German to another fan. Said fan told him he’d seen him read from the Icelandic version of the book Räuber Hotzenplotz somewhere in Iceland and thought it was cool, but wished he could have understood. I could only imagine and I’ve been trying to ever since Svavar mentioned he did the audiobook for it.

As he stepped back on stage for the second half of the show, he greeted us with “Hello”, then wondered how the song went and ended up playing Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’, because he found it too hard to stop playing once he started. 🙂 He told us about the repainting of his old songs that he started with ‘Ahoi Side A’ and wants to continue, because he likes to share with us how the songs have evolved. ‘While the World burns’ is one of the songs that will probably end up on ‘Ahoi Side B’ and he played it for us then and there. We heard a little more about how different it was recording ‘Kvödvaka’ from recording ‘Ahoi Side A’, where he actually had the means and the time to do it right. 

The next song started with a beautiful story about his daughter, who was 8 at the time falling asleep next to him on the sofa while he wrote it, but before he had asked her what he should write about. She answered to write about being grateful for the good things we have, but being mindful of the people who don’t have so much. How amazing is that for an 8 year old? He also mentioned how he used to make Christmas albums with his band Hraun every year, all home produced and where all the proceeds went to UNICEF. It was a lot of money too, because all their friends bought them. The song is on one of those. The song was really lovely. 

Svavar said how he never wants to play the same concert twice in case people come to more than one. 😀 He gave us ‘Brot’, a song about the breaking of hopes and spirit and families and also about surviving all  sorts of catastrophes. He always performs it with so much passion that I can feel all of this, even without understanding the words. Afterwards he talked about getting up Christmas night to eat leftovers and meeting his dad there doing the same and described how they didn’t speak, but it was perfect anyway and one of his best memories. <3

‘Impossible’ was new to me and as he explained is a song about his aunt. Then we were in familiar territory again with ‘Clementine’ and afterwards ‘Wanderlust’ with a great sing-along. Without saying anything he proceeded into ABBA’s ‘One of us’ and when he was done told us he just loves ABBA. 🙂 He thanked the venue and everyone else who was involved in organizing the concert. Then he taught us how to avoid microphone feedback and played ‘Girl from Vancouver’ for us. Last song in the set was ‘The Hurting’, but not without telling us about his little merch store first and offering up the song for sex shop commercials. 😉

We clapped him back to the stage and to my surprise he read us from “Räuber Hotzenplatz” – in German! It was great. I assume this was inspired by the chat during the break, but he might have planned it all along. He had the book with him after all. I totally loved it. The final song was ‘Heims um bol’, the Icelandic version of ‘Silent Night’ and of course he had some history to offer on how the song ended up being played on the guitar, because the organ failed last minute. It was the perfect end to a wonderful night. 🙂

On the way out I gave Svavar a big hug before hurrying to catch my train. I did not get home until long after midnight, but it was totally worth it. 

Setlist

Icelandic Christmas Song
Hin fyrstu jól
Jólin allstaðar
Emotional Anorexic 
Morgunn
Lady Winter

Hello (Lionel Richie)
While the World burns
A Christmas Song Svavar wrote for Hraun (Höldum Jól?)
Brot
Impossible
Clementine
Wanderlust
One of us (ABBA)
Girl from Vancouver
The Hurting

Excerpt from “Räuber Hotzenplotz”
Heims um bol

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Stage props, acoustic songs and an interactive audience

Árstíðir – Imperial Theater, Hamburg; December 5th, 2018

The tour I’d been waiting for all year that was supposed to be in summer, then in September was finally announced for December: Àrstíðir would play in Europe again. When I saw tour dates I got really excited, but that changed when I realized it was going to be Christmas tour. Don’t get me wrong, I love the yearly Christmas shows in Reykjavík and they are truly special, but that was exactly why I didn’t want them to take that show on the road. Part of the shows being special is that they happen only once every year and you have to make an effort to get there.If they become part of a regular tour, they become something usual, something like any other tour and I did not want that to happen. Most importantly though, I wanted to see a tour accompanying the current album and hear the songs from Nivalis I haven’t yet heard live and I knew that was not going to happen. So while I was looking forward to see the guys play for more than 40 minutes for a change, I went there with mixed emotions, not at all sure I’d enjoy the show. Luckily I was wrong. The band delivered a truly beautiful show, totally worth seeing and I was happy to be there.

My trip to Hamburg was uneventful and I even arrived on time. After checking in to my hostel and having an early dinner I decided to walk to the venue – 40 minutes of fresh air did me good. When I arrived I realized I had left my ticket at the hostel (talk about feeling stupid!) and returned there by subway to pick it up. Half an hour later I was back at the venue and still the first in line. Eventually G. and K. as well as I. arrived and soon they let us in. Strangely, nobody wanted to sit in front row, so I chose my spot. Said hello to Gunnar in passing and briefly talked to Ragnar, who had arranged a photo pass for me. <3 A few more people joined me at the front, but most sat down further back. The venue was a theater and generally the seats go up towards the back so you have a better view from about 5t row than from the front, but here, strangely, the floor sloped down. Anyway, it was a nice theater and the stage looked great. At the back there was a higher platform, which was where the string players would be. There were also some props to be found, like a safe and a phone on the wall, because the theater usually shows crime stories.

It was just after 8 when Daníel, Gunnar and Ragnar stepped up on said platform and started with ‘Carol of the Bells’, just a cappella, no microphones needed. The song has been a favorite of mine at the Fríkirkjan shows and instantly made me smile. It sounded beautiful and from then on I knew it was going to be good. They walked onto the main stage and Ragnar told us they’d been playing Christmas concerts for ten years and how they’d made six albums in that time and would give us a tour through their history, starting with a song they had written when they were “just three duded with guitars and big dreams, sitting on Daníel’s couch”. It was a great acoustic version of ‘Ages’ with Ragnar playing the baritone guitar and Gunnar the guitarlele.

Gunnar talked about how they had translated Crosby, Stills & Nash’s song ‘Hopelessly hoping’ to Icelandic early in their career, recorded it, but never put in on an album. It got picked up by a radio station though and was played. I’ve always loved ‘Með hallandi höfði’ and was very happy to get to hear it. 😀

They introduced Lotta on violin and Guillaume on cello, who joined them for the next songs. Ragnar talked about the black beaches in Iceland and how it is too cold to swim in the ocean, but you could sit there on the beach in warm clothes and how writing poems into black sand is more gothic than romantic. It was the first time I heard Lotta play and I liked it. ‘Ljoð í sand’ always makes people happy.

Daníel pointed out since they were in a theater, they had found props backstage and he’d taken the champagne cooler to keep his water cold. 😀
After ‘Someone who cares’ Gunnar explained how they’d been doing these concerts for some time now, but never took them on the road before. He said they play not only Christmas songs, but also songs that feel christmassy to them, like ‘Scarborough Fair’. It made the smile on my face even bigger and as usual I watched out for Daníel singing ‘Canticle’ while Gunnar and Ragnar sing ‘Scarborough Fair’, just like the Simon & Garfunkel version. It is such a beautiful song to begin with and their version is just amazing. <3

Ragnar mentioned how Icelandic music, especially traditional is very depressing and his theory that it stems from the harsh living conditions on the rock in the sea and how the reality the people sang about was full of death and how to this day even Pop songs are often played in minor keys. The writer of the next song lived isolated for 50 years, but wrote beautiful poetry and one of the poems is ‘Jólabæn einstæðingsins’ (Christmas prayer for a lonely man). It was truly beautiful.

Ragnar joked that they managed to reales two album this year because the summer in Iceland was so horrible. The summer was bad indeed, but somehow I am sure they would have released the two albums either way. ‘Passion’ seemed to have evolved since the last time I heard it. At least it sounded different to me, with subtle drums underneath. I really liked it and it felt a bit like coming home, because the first time I had heard the song was at the Christmas concert in Reykjavik two years ago.

The people sitting next to me were very expression, always commenting on the songs and now the guy said that the song went straight to the heart and was “hotter than the hottest summer in Germany”. I would not have expressed it quite that way, but OK. ‘Moonlight’ followed and it still doesn’t speak to me.

Ragnar said how they had never thought they would spend so much time outside Iceland when they started the band and how funny it is to hear announcers struggle with their band name all the time. He concluded that the title of the next song ‘Þar sem enginn fer’ was almost as difficult to pronounce. It is also one of my favorite songs and was delivered perfectly. 🙂 Gunnar announce done last song before the break and they ended the first set with another one of my favorites, ‘While this Way’. So I left for the break with a happy sigh. <3

For the start of the second set I left my seat at the front and stood further back so I could take a few pictures of the whole stage and get all of them in. Would have loved to go up to the balcony, but it was closed and they would not let me up there. They started a cappella again, this time with Guillaume and again it was beautiful. <3 Gunnar explained how that was one of the happier Christmas songs and told us that almost everyone in Iceland sings. ‘Góda veslu göra skal’ followed, this time introduced as a Faroese Christmas song. It has always been one, they just usually do not say it. 😉

Gunnar told us how ‘Mute’ was inspired by the though of being in a country where nobody speaks the language you speak. I never thought about it this way, it gives the song a new perspective. 🙂 The woman, who sat next to me got up and spoke to Ragnar. He then told everyone it was someone’s birthday (the woman’s mom, who was with them, turned 70 that day) and they sang Happy Birthday for her in Icelandic.

Ragnar spoke about how they are all physics nerds and how the theory of quantum entanglement between particles can be applied to people, e.g. when you think of someone and they call you on the phone. This idea inspired ‘Entagled’. At the start of the song the computer refused to work and play the track correctly, so they had to start over. Second time worked like a charm and they gave us a great version of the song.

Because they could not play two happy song sin a row ‘Nú gleymist ég’ was next. I had not realized how much I’d missed that song until I heard it again. <3 We learned that it was about an avalanche that killed many people in Iceland years ago. I assume they were referring to the one in the Werstfjords in 1995. They also spoke about the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, that almost stopped their first German tour and how they still have lots of ash leftover from their Kickstarter campaign.

The combination of ‘Things you said’ and ‘You again’ followed, before they ended the show with ‘Shades’, telling us how much they had enjoyed it and how interactive it had been. The song always works as and ending song and usually gets audiences excited enough to ask for more. 😉 Not that this audience needed any encouragement. We cheered until they were back and they sent us off into the night with ‘Heyr himna smiður’. It was a fitting closure to a wonderful evening. 🙂

Then it was time to chat with the guys for a bit. Ragnar asked me if I approved and I said I did. The evening was thoroughly enjoyable and even though they left out a few songs I might have wanted to hear I got so many of my favorites that it was a really good mixture. I can go and listen to this a few more times. 😉

Setlist

Schedryk schedryk (Carol of the bells)
Ages
Með hallandi höfði
Ljoð í sand
Someone who cares
Scarborough Fair / Canticle
Jólabæn einstæðingsins
Passion
Moonlight
Þar sem enginn fer
While this Way

Hátið fer að höndum ein
Góda veslu göra skal
Mute
Happy Birthday (in Icelandic)
Entangled
Nú gleymist ég
Things you said
You again
Shades

Heyr himna smiður

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