Though it was a Saturday – which are big, long days at the Ottawa Bluesfest – the lineup on July 13th, 2013 was light enough to keep me relaxing in my hot and sunny backyard until headliner-time, when a picturesque bike ride along the UNESCO World Heritage designated Rideau Canal delivered me to the tried and true festival site down by the river on LeBreton Flats.
So after an afternoon and early evening of sipping summer ales and skipping out on acts like New Orleans’ Jon Cleary, Texas bluesman W. C. Clark, and Canada’s own indie stars, Stars, I arrived in time to take in a set from Iceland’s favourite dóttir: Björk.
Like most people I had of course long heard of Björk but also (I’m guessing) like most people I had never listened to her music before. But she has always had such positive cred (not to mention unique geographical ties) that I was drawn out of my backyard and down to the flats on such a warm evening and you know what? So were about fifteen thousand others, as far as I could gauge from the main stage crowd.
And it was a really great show too. Unique, interesting, engaging, and obviously highly skilled, Björk was the real deal. She sounded simultaneously new and ancient, subtly foreign and totally accessible; it’s like her music had a thick, endearing accent. Of course I didn’t recognize a single song she played but I didn’t have to. As far as I could tell Björk’s signature was her volcanic strength and icy confidence, overwhelming traits that transcended the individual songs and ran throughout her set as if her very personality was the basis of a concept album.
Did you know that Icelandic people believe in elves? Nasty beings, those elves, and as big as we are, only they are invisible. Now get this: Newfoundlanders believe in fairies. And scary fairies they are too. I’ve had reasonable adults tell me with great conviction that they have seen a fairy and have even explained to me what to do if you ever come across one (turn your pockets out or wear your shirt/jacket inside-out). Heck, there’s a rumoured fairy portal very close to my house.
I’ve been told by many people that there’s a thing about island people*, a commonality that comes from shared isolation. Just a few months after this concert I was fortunate to spend a week travelling solo around Iceland and now that I have been living in Newfoundland for a while I can tell you one thing that I think the two cultures share, and that would be a stoic warmth. And just like the thermal baths that are carved out of the jagged Icelandic volcano fields and the toasty woodstove that sits in the corner of every Newfoundland kitchen party, Björk’s musical aura exudes a surprising warmth encased in stoicity.
At least it felt that way. Then again, it was nearly thirty degrees out even after the sun went down. Maybe what I was actually witnessing was the anguished cries of a melting snow angel? Either way, good show.
*In Iceland, “Iceland” is spelled thusly: “Ísland”. Which explains a lot about a lot.