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. 

pictures of this concert

Setlist

Nóttin var su agæt ein
Hin fyrstu jól
Jólin allstaðar
Emotional Anorexic 
Morgunn
Lady Winter

Hello (Lionel Richie)
While the World burns
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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