To Be Humbled in Iceland - Adventures in Reykjavik with Wounded Knee, Withered Hand and Benni Hemm Hemm
In a dimly-lit wood-lined bar-restaurant, Burns Night is in full swing. Haggis and whisky are on the menu, there's Irn Bru behind the bar, and the kilt-clad staff more than look the part. In a book-lined corner of the room lined with tat-shop Saltire bunting and a lion rampant, a band are playing My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose, while on the tables Oor Wullie grins cheekily on little tartan flags. Watching over all this on the walls and behind the band is the bard himself, his heroic head-and-shoulders visage captured in an image made iconic by Alexander Nasmyth's 1787 portrait, and made immortal on shortbread tins and poetry compendiums for ever after.
At first glance, such a gathering looks and sounds like a million and one similar events taking place on January 25th. Look closer, however, and you notice that Nasmyth's image of Burns has been altered in such a way that he now seems to be sporting a Nordic-patterned wooly jumper, while a volcano appears to be erupting out of his head. The band, meanwhile, made up of an ad hoc super-group of alumni from Edinburgh's lo-fi DIY music scene, have somehow conspired to imbue My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose and other works from the Scots canon with a drone-based urgency more akin to The Velvet Underground than a more regular Burns Night turn.
One look out of the window of Kex Hostel and the blanket of thick white snow outside is a bracing reminder that this Burns Night is actually taking place, not in some Highland village hall, but in downtown Reykjavik, Iceland, in a former biscuit factory (Kex means 'biscuit') which has become one of the coolest venues in town, where they clearly do things differently. This is something Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, realised when he opened his front door in Edinburgh to take receipt of six kilts for the Kex staff, only to be greeted by just departed Hibs player and Icelandic international, Victor Palsson.
The Burns celebrations form the opening night of Kex Hostel's inaugural Scottish Festival Week, a seven-day celebration of all things Caledonian with gigs every night featuring Withered Hand, en route to a Celtic Connections show and a forthcoming EP on Fence Records, plus Archive Trails veteran Drew Wright's Wounded Knee project, which soon travels to Sweden to play shows with Muscles of Joy. Drummer Owen Williams, who plays in a multitude of acts including The Pineapple Chunks, Two Wings, Eagleowl and Jesus H Foxx, provides the backbone of both.
Also in attendance is artist Tessa Lynch, who has exhibited at the Collective and Transmission galleries, and who did the posters, as well as collating the filmed back-drop of some lesser-sung Scots icons in action. Tom Weir's up there, climbing the hills in his wooly hat in weir's way, as is Jesse Rae, who, Claymore in hand, was an early pioneer of bridging oceans, as his magnificently over-the-top video for his 1983 almost hit, Over The Sea, testifies to.
Making up the rest of a band cheekily dubbed The Sassenachs are Icelandic bass player Pall Ivan Palsson, and local hero Benedikt H Hermannsson, who, as Benni Hemm Hemm, has released several albums in Iceland and the UK. Hermannsson spent two years in Edinburgh, playing and recording with a host of acts, including Wright, Wilson and Williams. While the release of an English-language album from that period is pending, a bi-lingual song-cycle written with Alasdair Roberts has been performed with a choir in Reykjavik. Despite the best efforts of all involved, the piece remains unseen in Scotland.
Kex's Scottish Festival Week was initiated at the behest of Petur Marteinsson - another former Icelandic footballer who once played for Stoke City - and film producer Kristinn Vilbergsson, two of six shareholders in Kex. Like Marteinsson, the other four are also ex-footballers, who got involved in the project after Vilbergsson was sourcing locations, and stumbled on a then deserted building beside the sea which smelt of vanilla, and which had been left behind in Iceland's financial crash. Eighteen months on, Kex has enlivened a part of Reykjavik previously neglected. With cutting-edge rtist-run gallery space The Living Art Museum next door and a dance studio above, that has all changed, with The Living Art Museum hosting an opening during Scottish Festival Week.
The real credit for the week must go to ex-pat and former Dundee University student, Verity Flett, who currently works at Kex, having moved to Reykjavik from Scotland two years ago. Flett had the idea during a brainstorming session on how to lively up an otherwise quiet January, and, despite never having heard of Burns, Marteinsson and Vilbergsson went for an occasion that tallied with their idea of Kex as a 'social hostel'. A ceilidh band was mooted, but the one they approached had a gig in South Korea, so Benni Hemm Hemm was approached instead.
Burns Night begins with solo sets by Willson and Wright, before The Sassenachs join forces for a mixture of original songs by all three writers onstage. These are interspersed with Scots classics normally dealt with in a more timorous fashion. The evening closes with a rousing, startlingly modern take on Hamish Henderson's anthem in waiting, Freedom Come All Ye. With Wright's Scots-accented baritone and two-fingered guitar leading, the song sounds thrillingly like a cross between Sister Ray and All Tomorrow's Parties.
While a tartan-clad ex-pat sings more traditional Scots songs, Marteinsson and Wright are interviewed in a live on- location report for an Icelandic TV news magazine. Wright explains the event's lack of bagpipes as being down to Reykjavik’s only known player being unavailable, before explaining how the banning of bagpipes, tartan and Gaelic after Culloden led to the rise of songs being taught orally via cantarrach, or, which he then proceeds to demonstrate. If any forthcoming Scottish government, devolved, independent or otherwise, is looking for an international cultural ambassador, Wright is clearly the man for the job.
During the second night's Kex show, Wright and Williams improvise a scratchy, free jazz backing, Lynch reads the lyrics to Iceland, a song penned by Mark E Smith in 1981 when his band The Fall were only the fourth contemporary UK act to have played in Reykjavik. The first three were The Clash, The Stranglers and Any Trouble. Smith's song references Megas Jonsson, an Icelandic music legend whose eccentricities and wilful singularity mirror Smith's own. The song is riddled with inaccuracies, according to Hermannsson, but no-one seems to mind, or even notice, even if it is probably the first time the song has been performed in Reykjavik since it was written, possibly ever.
At a Saturday afternoon choir concert that forms part of the neighbouring Dark Days Music Festival, a new piece by Hermannsson is premiered alongside eleven others, including a new work by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Ros. Jonsson, who keeps a close eye on the local scene, is in attendance.
Back at Kex, Marteinsson, Vilbergsson and Flett are loving their Scottish Festival Week, and already have plans for a follow-up next year. They may be onto something. In the current political climate, with a Nordic-Scots alliance being mooted ever more favourably, the potential for further collaborations are endless. Beyond Kex, there is also Airwaves, Reykjavik's premiere music festival, which, since 1999, has made the city even more of a musical hub than ever. In 2011, Kex became a fringe venue for some of the smaller shows, while an American radio station, the coincidentally named KEXP Seattle, used the hostel as its broadcast hub.
With some progressive support on a par with that given to Scottish artists to attend the Austin, Texas-based South By South West festival, there is no reason why independent acts from Scotland couldn't be a force at Airwaves, with Kex as their base. As if to prove this potential, the final night of Kex's Scottish Week moves into another room. Waggishly named Gym and Tonic, by day guests can square up to the vaulting horses and punchbags nestled next to walls adorned with Mexican wrestling posters. By night a set of long tables give what is essentially a function room the air of a mediaeval banqueting hall with what are possibly the best acoustics on the planet.
Tonight's gig will be a more formal affair, with Wounded Knee supporting Icelandic singer Snorri Helgason, whose three-piece band play fifty-seven varieties of quality Americana. Gym and Tonic is hosting some kind of fashion show first, and Kex's bar is awash with what may or may not be a party of Icelandic supermodels. To mix things up even further, a hip crowd from the art opening downstairs at The Living Art Museum show up, as does an older artist in a red leather jacket, who has a show of paintings he made by riding a motorbike over the canvas in another gallery in town, and appears somewhat boisterously over-refreshed by the gallery's hospitality.
Backed by Hermannsson and Williams, Wright sounds more powerful than ever, and the response to his set of reinvented folk songs and amiable rapport with the audience is one of rapt silence. These are songs that need captured on record in all their gloriously raw state as soon as possible. Having honed their set over the course of Scottish festival Week following minimal rehearsal, the band are a unified force by now, and rise to the occasion as a somewhat more demanding foil to the headlining act. Hearing such a full-on conflation of old and new traditions in such a context is fascinating to observe.
Then, with Wounded Knee and co going full pelt at Wright's own song, the jaunty Pentland Jaunt, the long wooden table suddenly starts to shake unsteadily, as if an earthquake was rumbling through the ground beneath. A glance upwards makes it clear that this seismic shift comes from the refreshed red-jacketed artist from earlier who, however unsteady on his feet, has clambered aloft the table and is dancing precariously from end to end like a court jester doing overtime. With the band driving the music on, the not entirely fleet-footed stomper squats low over candles and attempts to entice the females seated at the table to join him before being wheeched off the table in a fireman's lift by one of the be-kilted bar staff, who looks particularly capable of handling himself.
“Thank you for making me feel like I'm back in Scotland,” Wright joshes, before introducing Freedom Come All Ye as a song that Nelson Mandela once suggested should be the anthem of the entire world. In the hands, voices, guitars and drums of The Sassenachs, it sounds even more important than that, as Henderson's inclusive internationalist hymn is reinvented as a poundingly relentless avant-garde epic where ideas both simple and complex rub up against each other. Heard at midnight on a Saturday night in Reykjavik in an old biscuit factory that's been transformed for the twenty-first century, it sounds like the future.
A shorter version of this appeared in The Herald, February 1st 2012