The Reykjavik Blues Festival was started in 2003 by Halldor Bragason, a blues guitarist from Iceland who studied music in the United States. Halldor has performed with many of the greats, and now that he is back in Iceland, he brings his American musician friends back once a year. The festival has a lot of fans in Reykjavik, but it also draws people from other parts of Iceland where, I am told, every small town has a blues or jazz club. There is a healthy tourist contingent, too, drawn by the cheap krona, but itâ€™s still small: Halldor talked only in Icelandic, which no one speaks outside of Iceland.
Pinetop Perkins was the centerpiece performer for the festival, playing on April 7 â€“ yes, a Tuesday. Easter is on Sunday, and many Icelanders will be heading out to their summer houses. Before they hit the road, they packed a ballroom at the Hilton Nordica to see the Nordic All-Stars Blues Band, Deitra Farr, Willie â€œBig Eyes” Smith,, and, of course, Pinetop Perkins. Seeing as he is 95, there may not be many more opportunities to see him.
The concert was scheduled to begin at 8:00, and at 8:03, Halldor was welcoming us to the show. It warmed my Type-A heart, let me tell you; I could never be a music journalist, because I love punctuality too much. The opening act was a guitar and harmonica duo wearing standard-issue Blues Brothers costumes. They were a bit rough, but then I saw them in the lobby at intermission and realized that they were also very young. Twelve? Maybe 15? That was impressive. The Nordic All-Stars features KK, also known as KristjÃ¡n KristjÃ¡nsson (and pronounced like â€œKal-Kal” in Icelandic). He is, apparently, a big deal in Iceland, and the man sitting behind me said that he had taken guitar lessons from him. And thatâ€™s impressive, because KK played a mean guitar.
Pinetop Perkins went on last, and he was okay. His voice is weak with age, but he still puts on a show. He had his pork-pie hat and forest-green suit, and he gave the crowd a good show. He played for about a half-hour, joined by Willie Smith on harmonica and Gudtmunder Pedersson, also known as Gummi Pi, on guitar. He didnâ€™t play â€œPinetop Boogie Woogie,” but he had the crowd going with â€œIâ€™ve Got My Mojo Working.”
The real mojo worker was Deitra Farr. The Nordic All-Stars did a fine job playing uptempo standards until she came out and turned them into a tight rhythm and blues machine. She knew who she wanted playing behind her voice, and when, and how, and she let the band know it â€“ and without the slightest bit of condescension. She just wanted them to be their best, and they were when she was on stage.
Blues may be a menâ€™s genre. I so often want to shout, â€œmaybe if youâ€™d treat your woman right, she wouldnâ€™t be leaving you on your own.” And yet, itâ€™s the ladies who often give the music the right measure of pain and joy: Koko Taylor, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith. Last nightâ€™s show could have stopped with Deitra Farr, and we would have gone home happy.