In Icelandic, itâ€™s a klubbar blueshatidar — a blues club — at least for the week of the Reykjavik Blues Festival. The rest of the year, the Cafe Rosenberg is a 100-seat cafe serving fresh food and Viking beer. It has a tiny stage mostly showing local musicians, although it is thrilled to showcase international musicians as well. Jonathan Richman played there last week.
The festival has two main venues, the Cafe Rosenberg for Icelandic acts and the Hilton Nordica for the international musicians. In a country with just 300,000 people, though, there arenâ€™t enough blues bands to fill the bill for five nights of shows. Hence, the programmers have to be creative. On Sunday, the klubbar featured rimur chant musicians, who sang some of the sagas of the complicated conquests and struggles of people living in a desolate country. In a way, itâ€™s Icelandâ€™s own version of the blues.
Last night, the cafe drew a good crowd for jazz blues music. The first act was the Budget Blues Band, a five-piece jazz combo. They took the stage shortly after 9:00, although the keyboard player, Arni Karlsson, ran up after the music started. The trumpeter, Birkir Matthiasson, was fabulous. They were joined by Olaf Stolztenwald on bass, Asgeir Asgeirsson on guitar, and Magnus Tryggvasson Eliasen on drums. And hereâ€™s the thing: they group formed two weeks ago just to play at the blues fest. Arni told me that they musicians had played together in different permutations over the last ten years. â€œIn Reykjavik, everyone kind of plays with everyone else,â€ he said.
After there set was over at about 10:00 pm, the Budget Blues Band cleared the stage and went into oblivion. In no time, Tomas R. Einarsson was up with his combo, playing a mostly acoustic set, complete with a bongo player. The musicians were strong, but they werenâ€™t playing the blues.
Fewer musicians play the blues these days, whether in Chicago or in Reykjavik. As great as it can be, itâ€™s a genre of a time and a place and a people. Rimur chants arenâ€™t being written about the decline in the krona, nor are there new blues songs about the struggles of General Motors. Tonight, Pinetop Perkins is playing; heâ€™s 95. Is he the beginning of the end?