Ragnar Ólafsson – Rósenberg, Reykjavik; September 26th, 2017
Every since traveling to Iceland for the first time in the summer of 2013 I have not been able to resist this country’s call, especially not if it involves seeing one of my favorite musicians play live (he also happens to be one of my favorite persons in the world, but that is only the cherry on top). Since this was the CD release concert for his Urges album, Ragnar Òlafsson had decided to make it special and gathered a full band to support him. It was a great night in many ways, from the songs performed to the guests to the time spent talking afterwards. I loved every minute of it and was happy I went.
I knew there was going to be a CD release gig, so I kept watching out and found it on a ticket website even before he told me. Of course it was on a Tuesday and I should have spent that day at the office, but who was I kidding? Hell or high water would not have kept me from going and I had enough overtime anyway. So I found myself in Reykjavik on a Tuesday afternoon, did the usual (go swimming, eat Skyr, walk around) and finally headed to Rósenberg around 8 pm to have dinner before the concert. Imagine my surprise when not only the café’s sign had been changed, but the door was in a different place. As I walked in I realized the interior had been completely revamped as well. The bar had been moved, to leave more open space in front of the stage, the decor was different, the stage slightly bigger. I liked it. The staff was friendly as always and the food just as good as I remembered. I had a table right in front of the stage and was ready.
Baldvin arrived, said hello and introduced me to his girlfriend, Hálfdan stopped by my table for a chat and eventually Ragnar did too. I was happy seeing all of them again and also excited about seeing Himbrimi support them. I like their album and had tried to squeeze one of their concerts into my busy Iceland Airwaves schedule last year, but could never make it fit. Finally I would see them live. The waiting time went by quickly, as the cafe filled with mostly familiar faces and the musicians gathered by the side of the stage. It was not quite as packed as it gets during Árstíðir concerts, but a good crowd nonetheless.
Knowing how Icelandic concert start times are more of a guestimate than an actual schedule I was surprised when Himbrimi took the stage shortly after 9:30. Hálfdan had told me it would be a stripped down set and they started with an acoustic number before bringing the full band on stage. I liked all of it. The singing, the vocal harmonies, the low key playing. It was enjoyable to see and hear them. At first the lights were not all that great and much too dark, but eventually somebody noticed and turned them up. The sound was good too, better than I remembered. They played for 30 minutes or so and I thought it had been a nice start. If they play Airwaves again tis year I’ll try to catch them. 🙂
As soon as they were done I felt my excitement build up. I had seen Ragnar play with a band before of course, but never had there been keyboards (except for the world’s smallest Casio) or drums. This was going to be interesting! Before the gig he had told me who all the musicians were. Apart from Baldvin and Hálfdan the keyboarder sure looked familiar.
They played the songs in the same order they are on the CD, so ‘SSDD’ was first. It is my least favorite of the songs, because the music has never spoken to me, even though I like the lyrics. Suddenly it came along in a full band version with drums and keyboards that only made me realize the stripped down, lo-fi sound suits the song much better. I started to wonder whether this whole full band thing was going to be too much after getting used to the songs just being played acoustically during the Poland tour. I decided to give it a try though. One song was not enough to base my judgement on.
For ‘Wine’ Ragnar stepped to the front of the stage and incidentally stood right in front of me – there is a nice picture of that moment where you can see my gig face. 😉 As soon as he started tuning the guitar the high e string broke which lead to some laughter, him having to search for new strings and the others improvising for a while to pass the time. It was great, because it made it all feel more real, more human. This music is so emotional it was never made to be absolutely perfect or at least in my mind perfect often equals cold and unemotional and these songs are anything but. Not to mention the improvisation of the band was something worth hearing. 😀 Ragnar took the opportunity to introduce the band: Arni on keyboards, Skúli on drums, Badvin on guitar and Hálfdan on bass. He spoke Icelandic the entire concert, which was fine with me. I could still make out most of the stories. While he was re-stringing the guitar, someone said something about playing Slayer. I laughed. That joke has been around since the ‘Verloren Verleden’ tour and somehow never gets old.Once the new string was on and the guitar turned, ‘Wine’ was truly beautiful. <3
‘War’ was interesting in the full band version. Despite the added instruments it felt softer than the original. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but in the end it worked well. Who would have thought these songs could rock? ‘A Prayer’ of course was brilliant. This song is so full of anger / frustration it fits the rock treatment. It was never played during the Poland tour because Ragnar could not make it work alone and I’d dearly missed it. Since the first time I’ve heard it this has been one of my favorites. With the drums it became even better than it already was. 😀
For ‘Relations’ he did not make us sing like on the Poland tour. It was still pretty stripped down, with just the right instrumentation to make it work for me. I loved it! 🙂 With ‘Bravery’ came the story about off road biking and Jägermeister vanilla. These were the only two words I understood, but I could piece it together from there, assuming it was more or less the same one he had told before. Many people laughed which made me smile in turn. This song is really amazing, especially when performed with two guitars and Baldvin did a great job there too. Such a powerful song and one I can never get enough of. <3 ‘Urges’ gained new power with the band too and my smile grew bigger by the minute. I hadn’t thought I could love these songs any more than I already did, but hearing them a completely new way made that happen. It took nothing away from the lo-fi versions though. I love them still just as much.
‘Petals’ brought the first guest singer on stage: Margrét from Himbrimi. Everyone else left and it was just the two of them. She nailed it! It is brilliant how every singer brings their own personality to these duets and they are always different, but always beautiful as well. I love hearing them and I love hearing how Ragnar adapts his singing to whoever he is singing with. It is brilliant! Before the song, Ragnar talked about working with Magnús Þor. It was the only point in the show I wished I understood. This is by far my favorite song on the album and has only grown on me since I first heard it. I can’t even put my feelings about it into words. A true masterpiece. <3
Surprisingly, ‘Red Wine’ was next, with Ragnar on the keyboards, Halfdan on bass and the cellist from Himbrimi helping out. Everyone laughed when after sitting down at the keyboards, Ragnar realized he might need a mic and had to go get it. The cello was an unexpected and very beautiful addition to the song. It made me love it even more than I already do. <3 *sigh* Next one was ‘Dozen’ with another guest singer, Aldis, who sings the song on the album as well. He told us how Gunnar suggested her as a singing partner for the duet he had written. Finally I got a chance to hear her perform it live. Needless to say it was beyond beautiful. <3 The set ended with ‘Scar’ which of course worked perfectly fine in the full band set up. It was great. I always believed in this song and by now, Ragnar does too. 🙂 I noticed the absence of ‘Vegetate’ and later learned that it just did not work out. That did not matter though, the set was perfect either way. 🙂
We got one encore, a new song Ragnar had written on his summer trip down the Mississippi with John. It is called ‘Needle and Thread’ and had very much of a country feel for me. I instantly loved it, but will need many more listens before I can fully grasp the lyrics. Not that I could not have listened for another hour or two, but the way things were this was perfect to end the night. I could not stop smiling and hugged Ragnar first chance I got. What a wonderful concert it had been. He thanked me for coming and I thanked him for the great gig. It was totally worth it. <3
We ended up hanging out and chatting with a few band members and friends until it was time for me to go and catch the bus to the airport. Some time during that Baldvin noticed I was wearing a Lightspeed Legend T-Shirt so we took pictures. 😀 Had I in any way been able to guess they would not kick us out of the Cafe until 2 in the morning I might have booked a later bus, but as things were I had to leave. It had been a great night though and I could not have been asking for anything more. One last hug to those who were still there and I took off into the rainy night. Thank you for everything and I see you in London!
Árni Guðjónsson – keyboard player Árni Guðjónsson
Baldvin Freyr Thorsteinsson – guitarist
Halfdan Árnasson – bass player
Skúli Gíslason – drummer
Margrét Rúnarsdóttir – singer
Aldís Davíðsdóttir – singer
?? – cello
Needle and Thread