Wednesday was our last night in Iceland and the second-to-the last night of the Reykjavik Blues Festival. It was a great show to end on, too. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was hot on harmonica, Pinetop Perkins made a cameo appearance, Icelandic bluesman Mugison brought the house down with his rock lyrics backed by acoustic blues, and Andrea Gylfadottir showed why she’s one of Iceland’s perennial contenders in the Eurovision Song Contest, if not exactly a blues singer.
The crowd at the Hilton Nordica was a little smaller than on Tuesday night, but not by much. And Icelandic crowds seems to be a bit more controlled than American ones. The hotel has plenty of free and easy parking, no one checked my bags, drinks are served in real glasses, and flash photography is condoned. I didn’t see a single bouncer; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has tighter security. The concert was scheduled to begin at 8:00, and at 8:02, Halldor Bragason opened the festivities. He and the fine Gudtmunder Petursson played guitar for Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, whose eyes are not all that big, by the way. The band was tighter than on the first night, and Willie Smith was hotter. He was a total pro, switching smoothly between voice and harmonica. He was wearing a loose shirt that hid a special harmonica holster, making it easy for him to switch instruments or play without. Smith tried to walk into the audience, but that was tough because his mike was corded.
Pinetop Perkins came on for two songs, “Got My Mojo Working” and “Down in Mississippi”, both of which he had played the night before. The audience was thrilled because they were not expecting to see him; tickets for Wednesday were 1,000 krona (about $8.00) cheaper than for Tuesday because Pinetop wasn’t on the bill.
Mugison came on next, accompanied by a friend. Both played acoustic guitars, and they were fierce. His songs were original, with lyrics in English.
I really liked Mugison. He’s young and brings a fresh take to the blues. His lyrics reflected a modern understanding of relationships, which is a bit more than just “my woman done me wrong”. Instead, we have “your love will pull me though, I owe it all to you”. He brings some introspection to the pain. Mugison is the person who will write the blues song about the banking crisis. His blues are original: not jazz blues, not Chicago blues, but the blues of a European making his way through early 21st century turmoil.
Before the concert began, a man I had talked to the night before flagged me down and handed me a CD of Mugison’s songs, so you can see if you agree.
Andrea Gylfadottir played last, a Nordic beauty resplendent in a long red dress and funky platform sandals. She isn’t a blues singer by training; she mostly sings jazz and classical. Her song selections were straight from the blues canon: “I Put a Spell on You”, “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She seemed too cool for the blues, but the crowd loved her, and she seemed to be having a great time performing.
The Reykjavik Blues Festival was a lot of fun. The musicians were having fun, and it’s always better to see people who love their jobs. The Chicago imports, Willie Smith and Deitra Farr, showed everyone why the blues is so great, and Mugison and Gudtmunder Petursson showed how hot it might be when the legends, like Pinetop Perkins, finally pass on.
My biggest disappointment: the organizers maintained a guest list, so I have no fancy laminated press pass as a souvenir of my foray into music criticism.