Long trip, enthusiastic audience and bug squashing

Árstíðir – GABYA Festival, Klaipeda; July 17th, 2021

One year, six months and 20 days had passed since I’d last seen Árstíðir and after more than a year of a pandemic where live shows were few and far between it felt surreal to stand in front of a stage again, listening to them sing and play while doing my best to sing along. The feeling was glorious and I can’t even begin to describe how much I’ve missed it.

When I read about their concert at GABYA festival I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen. Lithuania had high Covid numbers and was in lockdown when the festival was announced. I still felt compelled to check if travel was possible, but at that time not being vaccinated meant quarantine and  I did not even have an appointment yet. So I tried very hard to forget about it and, as I finally got shot #1 in late Mai, I decided to buy a ticket and see what was possible. I didn’t, however, book any travel until some good luck came my way and shot #2 was rescheduled from July 8th to the 1st which meant fully vaccinated on the 16th. then, and only then, I dared to hope.

Travel was more complicated than I would have liked. No direct flights from Germany to the closest airport (Palanga) and no flights from Dortmund to Vilnius on a Friday. There was, however, a flight from Vilnius to Dortmund on Sunday at 13:25 and a train from Klaipeda to Vilnus that would be there at 11. Close call, but doable. The only feasible option to fly to Vilnius was from Berlin. Then, several things happened: hot weather in Lithuania slowed down the trains, the train between Vilnius airport and the ciry center wasn’t running  and my flight to Dortmund was rescheduled to the morning. Thus, I decided to fly back to Berlin as well. And as if all that wasn’t complicated enough, my area of Germany was hit with severe rain storms and flooding in the days before my trip and loads of trains got canceled. Getting to Düsseldorf airport would have been impossible, getting to Berlin was delayed. I arrived at the airport already stressed out, but I made it and everything worked out OK after that. A night in Vilnius, a delayed train to Klaipeda and all that was left was a ferry to get to the island where the festival took place. This trip clearly breaks the record for different modes of transport: Subway, train, plane, bus, taxi and ferry.

Early on Saturday evening I found myself in Smiltynė, took a lovely walk from the ferry to the festival area and was admitted without any problem. It felt wird to be amongst people without masks on and fro the first hour or so I felt pretty anxious. I sat far from everyone else, listening to Ingaja on the smaller of the two stages, breathing slowly, letting the music in. She played lovely tunes on guitar and with lots of backing tracks, gently reminded me of what festivals, what live music, felt like.

Bands were alternating between the two stages and so was I, but I still felt unusually nervous about it and needed down time in between, just sitting on my own and digesting everything. For so long I had feared something might go wrong and I would not make it to the festival after all that it took me a while to shake the feeling.

I checked out Pawa on the big stage, but their music didn’t speak to me. I liked that people were standing in front of the stage and dancing, but didn’t feel the urge to join them. More walking around, breathing, thinking. I was still too much in my head. A while later, Paulius Kilbauskas was playing on the small stage. It was an interesting mixture of flute and drums, all instrumental. I liked it and listened from afar.

Festival mode finally got a hold of me when Saulius Petreikis ir World Orchestra took the big stage. I don’t really know how to describe their music but they were brilliant and soon I joined the people who were dancing in front of the stage. Then and there, everything felt right and I let the music move me.

Had to take a bathroom break and ran into Raggi, who said he was happy, but not surprised that I had come. Of course not, I had to. 😀 We chatted for a bit, exchanging stories of our respective trips there. He mentioned how they all felt a bit rusty and would play and “oldies goldies” set. No complaints here, I was just happy to be able to hear them play.
The rest of the band walked by, saying hello and soon after he had to join him. We hugged goodbye, knowing that I’d have to rush straight to the last ferry after their set.

I listened to more of Saulius Petreikis ir World Orchestra and just stayed there after they had finished – one hour to go. For a while I sat in one of the seats that were to far away from the stage for my liking. I watched the guys as they set up and soundchecked and for a moment I was the only person in the audience. Slowly though, people came back from the other stage and joined me. I went and sat down on the grass in front of the stage and when it was showtime I took my usual spot between Raggi and Gunni on the left, standing a bit away from the stage still so i could see everyone without craning my neck.

It still felt surreal being there, with a stage in front of me and one of my favorite bands on said stage not on some small screen. It was hard for my mind to process it all, but I definitely had a huge goofy grin on my face. The guys looked so happy too, if a bit tense. The only one who seemed totally comfortable was Jean-Samuel. Sverrir, the cellist for the night, looked just a little lost at first, but there was no need. He did well.

They kicked off the show with Himinhvel and immediately I was drawn in by the sound I had missed so much. I had feared I might not get into it so easily or I might not remember the words to any of the songs, but I was wrong on both counts – well, in case of the Icelandic songs the words in my head probably don’t have much to do with what they actually sing, but I sing along something. 😛 It was so beautiful to hear their voices again and after that first song was done, they all relaxed, realizing they could still do this.

‘Things you said’ followed and I was no longer alone at the front. Other people joined me and they were dancing! I too, moved in tune with the music, singing along, sometimes closing my eyes to fully sink into the feeling. ‘Ljóð í sand’ was a good choice – it always appeals to new people and it’s probably the Icelandic song I can best pretend sing. Raggi smiled at me, checking up on my singing at the same time. Yep, I still did remember how to do that. Funnily enough Gunni said ‘Things you said’ was “a song from our second album, but I’m not even sure he noticed and I was probably the only one who thought it sounded funny to hear the same words again for ‘Ljóð í sand’. 😀

The band was fully in the flow of the concert now and the audience loved it. They danced, they cheered happily after each song and enthusiastically repeated the Icelandic words, Raggi was teaching them. He and Gunni shared all of the announcement, while Dani kept quiet and concentrated on singing. It was completely dark by now, so the beautiful stage lights were nicely visible. Not only to us though, they attracted all sorts of different bugs, flying above and around the guys.

‘Someone who cares’ was a happy surprise for me – I will never not love this song. Overwhelmed with emotions I had expected to cry, but was too happy to do it. In the moment I wasn’t thinking about labeling my feelings, but now I can see it felt like being free and having my life back. Strangely, at the same time it felt like picking right up where we left off as if no time had passed at all. With ‘Þar sem enginn fer’ we finally arrived at Nivalis and stayed there with ‘Mute’. Especially the latter was powerful and took on a new meaning for me that night. Every artist who could not perform the way they used too in the past two years must have felt mute in one way or another.

I had brought my small camera, but I wasn’t really feeling it, so I took very few pictures to begin with. When my SD card ran out of space I took it as a sign to stop and I’m glad I did. The first concert in too long should not be wasted worrying about how to capture it. Being there was more important than anything else and that meant enjoying it with my heart and soul.

The guys played a lot of Icelandic songs, even more than English ones and they served well for introducing the band. Two of them were sung a cappella, first ‘Land mins föður’ and then ‘Ísland farsældafrón’. the people next to me decided that was the time to start chatting, but before I could say anything the guy on my other side shushed them. Thank you! Both songs were beautiful and afterwards Gunni explained a little about Icelandic music and Icelandic fifth, saying they used that in the next song too.

it was ‘Nú gleymist ég’ and I was over the moon. Watching closely, I waited for Gunni to go quiet and then loud again during the song and he did. He never fails me and I cannot get enough of it. <3 What an amazing song! After wards he stopped and told us he had to take a picture of the grasshopper sitting on his computer. Raggi added he had accidentally been squashing flies that decided to sit on the keys of his piano during the song.

‘Passion’ was beautiful and ‘Lover’ was absolutely amazing. Then we were offered a beer for pronouncing ‘Friðþægingin’ correctly before they played it. It was the only song that fell short for methat night, because from were I stood the drum samples made Dani’s voice get lost in the mix and I could hardly hear him at times. The audience had fun though, so maybe it was just me.

They ended the show with ‘While this Way’ and I loved every second of t. <3 It is another one of those songs I never get tired of and depending on my mood and state of mind it changes meaning, but it always calls to me and I always will sing along at the top of my lungs. I might be falling off the edge of the world at times, at least emotionally, but Árstíðir’s music is always there to catch me. <3

The audience demanded and encore and the band gave us ‘Góda veslu göra skal’. It was the perfect way to end the show. They bowed a few times and I smiled up at them, knowing I would not get a chance to talk to them again until the next show. Good thing we managed to say hello beforehand. Happily I left for the ferry, finally feeling restored and at peace with the world again. Thank you Árstíðir, this meant everything!

Setlist

Himinhvel
Things you said
Ljóð í sand
Someone who cares
Þar sem enginn fer
Mute
Land mins föður
Ísland farsældafrón
Nú gleymist ég
Passion
Lover
Friðþægingin
While this Way

Góda veslu göra skal

Ragnar Ólafsson: m.i.s.s. – preview

“Listening to m.i.s.s. and it’s bloody brilliant. Four songs in an I already have tears in my eyes and the biggest smile on my face. Despite knowing most of the songs there is so much to discover here. Loving all the musical choices so far. Just wow. Well done!”

The quote above was my initial reaction to Ragnar Ólafsson’s second album. I had been looking forward t it very much and was happy that I got early access to it during his tour in Poland.  I have to admit though that I wasn’t all that excited about it, mainly because I already knew all but one songs and really didn’t expect any surprises. Boy was I ever wrong!

Each year, my CD collection grows considerably. Whenever an artists I like puts out a new album I’ll buy it and there are always new bands to discover as well. Some of these releases are highly anticipated, others I just get to add them to my collection. No matter where on that spectrum an album falls, it rarely happens these days that a new release blows me completely off of my feet and leaves me smiling for days, while listening to it on repeat. m.i.s.s. is one of those rare albums.

It has been three years in the making and that is a long time for any album. During those three yeas I’d heard countless version of some of the songs, Sometimes evolving from rough sketches to staples played at almost every concert. All the songs on the album came into being in July 2017 while Ragnar and a friend were floating down the Mississippi river on a houseboat. At his concerts he will tell stories about this trip to introduce the songs and put them in context, but on the album they all become stories of their own.

Said stories range from casual observations of life on the river to more personal ones, but all told in a way that they remain easily relatable to the listener. Ragnar succeeds as a storyteller, especially because so much of the story can be heard between the lines. This is where much of the power of this album lies, in everyone being ale to find a piece of themselves in the lyrics. The words alone are only half of the story though and would not be as powerful as they are without the music. Every single song on the album has been beautifully sung, played, arranged, produced, mixed and mastered. Not that I know much about arranging, mixing and mastering, but I know what sounds good and this absolutely does.

At this point I’d like to give a shoutout to all of Ragnar’s collaborators on the album from Sólveigh Asgeirsdóttir and Ida Langthjen Christensen who lent him their voices to Unnur Jónsottir on cello, Sigrun Hardaðardóttir, Viktor Orri Árnason and David-Ra Vedding on violin, Baldvin Freyer Þorsteinsson, Kjartan Baldursson, Óskar Augústsson and Valur Arni Guðmundsson on guitar, Hálfdán Árnason on bass and Skúli Gíslason on drums as well as Axel “Flex” Arnason who mixed and mastered the whole thing, not to mention an entire virtual choir, but ‘ll get to that later. Every instrument, every note these people contribute is the perfect fit for the songs.

Compared to the first album Urges with its sparse production and general lo-fi approach, m.i.s.s. offers a full production and amazing soundscapes that are a joy to listen to. Thematically, Urges is a breakup album whereas m.i.s.s. captures a moment in time on Ragnar’s frequent travels and yet in some way the stories told are universal. Urges shows all the anger, sadness and despair that we feel when a love ends, m.i.s.s. offers a much more positive outlook on life. The narrator of Urges is heartbroken, whereas at the end of m.i.s.s. we hear a man at peace with himself. But let’s start at the beginning…

Southern Nights was written as a positive spell for the journey down the Mississippi river and describes the daily life on the boat, including some unexpected adventures. It is the perfect starting point for this album as well and developed from a straightforward guitar song with a country feel into this ukulele based happy song it is now. The best part of it is the virtual choir in the end that seemed like a silly idea at first when Ragnar asked his fans to contribute vocals according to his instructions, but was mixed into something beautiful that gives the song a special community feel and always makes me smile. “That’s the way that we wanna go!”

Needle & Thread  then builds a bridge to the first album, being the last song about the same woman and gives a post break-up status update with a realistic take on the practical side of things. It is a goodbye song that looks back lovingly but no longer longingly at a past relationship. It’s the closing of a chapter and the upbeat melody is a good fit for that.

With Bald Eagles we are back on the river. It’s a snapshot of a day they were looking for shelter from an oncoming storm. The music is calm but slowly builds up like a storm would and thus matches the lyrics, hinting at the dangers life on the river can bring.

Message is the first duet on the album and a powerful one at that, inducing goosebumps every time I listen to it. The song perfectly captures the excitement as well as the insecurities of a new relationship from just rolling with it at the beginning to the point of realizing that both partners have different goals and trying to figure out what that means. Lyrically as well as musically it has just the right amount of drama with strings building up beautifully and sung with so much passion that I want to believe every word I hear.

The song about hope, Deva, is a personal story told through more general words about life, painful experiences and what helps us get through them. It evokes the power of friendship and tells us how sharing our feelings and caring for those we love can go a long way towards healing. The song came to me at a terrible time in my life and has helped me through much of it. “I feel, when our bodies get broken the love we all share becomes real” is the key line here and the music with guitar, bass and drums building up towards the end drives the point home beautifully.

Minor Scratch is my favorite song on an album full of brilliant pieces of music. It’s another duet, but here it is not so much the powerful singing, but the simple, yet universal message of the song. It is a wonderful ode to friendship, one of those big, indestructible ones they make movies about. “I have no fear when I’m with you.” If you’re lucky enough to have a best friend in your life, this is what it feels like and if you don’t this is what you know it should feel like. The song absolutely hits the nail on the had here and thus appeals to everyone who listens to it. And I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeous instrumentation and singing with a simple guitar motif at the core, supported by a second guitar, a bit of synthesizer and just the right amount of percussion. Perfection!

At this point we get a little break from all the emotions with Seamless, a short spoken poem, with some minimal synthesizers underneath. It a stream of consciousness about the outer and inner world of the narrator, in one long sentence describing one moment in time on one evening, concluding in “We’ll be OK” which speaks for the mood of the entire album. Anyone who likes this piece might want to check out Ragnar’s band Ask the Slave as they play with spoken poetry too (apart from the metal music).

Walls has touched me from the moment I first heard it a a concert a few years ago. I can’t really explain what it is about, but it speaks to me on several levels. On the surface it is just a little song with a lovely melody, but below are many layers that I yet have to get to. A line like “In a crowd full of people we pick out the few ones that hurt” not only rings true for me, it already has two different interpretations – I read it either in a sense that if we care to look closely we can always see who is hurting or in a sense that no matter how many people we meet, we are drawn to the ones that can hurt us. And that’s only the beginning, so I will sure return to this song many times.

The next song, Muddy Waters has “don’t take me seriously” written all over it. It was an experiment of “fuck yeah, let’s have some fun and write a blues song” and that is exactly what it is – a fun song to listen to that chases the darkness of Walls away. Ragnar gets really into it and gets away with it, which is noteworthy in itself.

Paper Crane is kind of the odd one out, but that doesn’t mean it should not be there. The song is very prog and was at one time intended for In Siren, one of Ragnar’s bands. So if you want more of this, you should go and check them out. I honestly have no clue what this song is about, it sounds to me like everyday observations mixed with dream sequences and doomsday thoughts. Either way, it sounds great and I’m enjoying every bit of it.

When I hear Beckon the German word “Fernweh” comes to mind, wich could be translated as “longing for far away places”. The dictionary say it means “wanderlust” but that is an entirely different word in German. Anyway, the song sounds like I feel at the end of a beautiful trip to a place I enjoyed being at, with my heart full of memories and happy about all the adventures I’ve had. The song speaks of a sudden clarity and the peace of mind that comes with having learned something. And there its is, in the end, the longing to come back and the knowledge that when you are someone who loves and gets inspired by travel it will stay with you for life. I can relate.

Photograph continues this theme of learning from your journeys and expands on it. This time it’s about a journey to oneself. The song is deeply spiritual, using a fading summer day as a metaphor for how to approach life and learning from our experiences. To me it’s a plea for learning to let go and opening our minds to new experiences that will help us discover who we are, learn to love ourselves and find peace within us. It’s an appropriate ending to this particular musical journey and a good lesson to take home.

Overall mi.i.s.s. is a masterpiece of an album that is a joy to listen to from start to finish and I guarantee it will leave you in a more positive mood than Urges did. Everything about it is just the way it should be. So all that is left to do is raise my glass (of red wine of course) and say: Enjoy!

You can preorder the album on Ragnar’s Bandcamp page