Ready for this? An Icelandic band, by way of Austin, with a Hawaiian name, that plays a bluesy folk-rock hybrid typically born in the U.S.A., sold out two gigs this past weekend at The Fonda Theatre. Welcome to our globalized world, everybody.
Kaleo, their name Hawaiian for “the sound,” is the latest musical export from Iceland. Sigur Rós, Björk, and Múm, they are not. Considering that much of the internationally popularized Icelandic music is often generalized in to a category of “otherworldly,” it is unexpected to hear a band from outside Reykjavík tap into Stevie Ray Vaughn’s roadside energy. But Kaleo does.
Their sonic brew echoes riffs and thump from The Black Keys (“No Good”), Justin Vernon’s falsetto, the ’80s rock yelp and swagger of Van Halen, a dash of David Gray’s intonations (“Save Yourself”), and a bit of Willie Watson’s throwback vibe (“Automobile”). Add in a slave spiritual, and there you have it.
On tour in support of A/B, Kaleo’s 15-song performance was musically dialed-in and equally slick in visual production. Under a menagerie of well-timed stage lights, they channeled a certain brand of foot stompin’ FM radio-ready uplift, as if they’re paying royalties to Marcus Mumford.
Frontman Jökull Júlíusson has a focused and stern presence, often playing a resonator guitar. He commands a dynamic range that covers the entire vocal spectrum, not to mention a head of hair and jaw line that elicited a playful jab with a friend about “Vanilla Ice-land.”
The rousing unreleased track “Alter Ego” flaunted the chemically driven strut of “Mr. Brownstone,” while the narrative in “Broken Bones” referenced a “six shooter” as if the piece was used in Reno, just to watch a man die.
Kaleo’s version of the meditative Icelandic traditional “Vor í Vaglaskógi” (“Spring in Vaglaskogur”) came about two-thirds of the way through their A/B-heavy performance and was the only song sung in their native tongue.
The delicate “All The Pretty Girls” broke hearts like a North Atlantic “Skinny Love,” while “Ladies Man” intertwined some SRV with the punch of White Denim’s psychedelia.
Wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of an Icelandic band appropriating regional sounds leads to some thought-provoking post-show questions. Namely, is there anything wrong with this?
Does an Icelandic upbringing take away from the legitimacy of a man singing about all-American elements? Would a UK band “get away” with cribbing these sounds more than one from near Reykjavík since we are more accustomed to being introduced to ex-U.S. music from the British? (Here’s looking at you, Mick and Mumford.)
If Kaleo came from Portland or other corners far from the deep South, would we think it strange to hear them play a slave spiritual like “Broken Bones”? Or am I given pause because Kaleo hails from a country that didn’t experience that dark history?
Who is to say? If not bogged down with these questions, there is little doubt about the quality of Kaleo’s songs or how they were executed. This is a high-energy live band. Daníel Ægir Kristjánsson’s bass work on “Backdoor” had a reggae bounce that led him to joyfully skip across the stage to meet lead guitarist Rubin Pollock for a jam.
Meanwhile, Pollock strangled his axe on crushing solos and masterfully added slide guitar licks that transcend borders and preconceived notions about what should or shouldn’t be borrowed. If this was appropriation, it had to be appropriation as homage. And what’s wrong with that?
Kaleo is back in LA for a show at The Roxy on December 5th, and tickets are still available.
Kaleo at The Fonda Theatre Setlist:
I Can’t Go On Without You
Pour Sugar On Me
All The Pretty Girls
Vor í Vaglaskógi
I Walk On Water
Way Down We Go
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