Iceland Airwaves festival day three – Thunderpussy bring the boogie, King the glorious sonics

A gloriously old fashioned dose of early 70s hard rock provided one of the highlights of the festival so far

Day three of Iceland Airwaves kicks off with the president. That’s not the name of the latest laptop wunderkind or an ironic moniker for a new synth duo. No, all of the journalists and assorted media types who have come to cover the festival are taken out on a coach for an official audience with Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, newly inaugurated as the sixth Icelandic head of state, unless you count Björk, which you always should.

“Welcome to Iceland,” Jóhannesson says, standing before us with the First Lady, Eliza Reid, in the grand drawing room of their house, which just happens to be white. He starts talking about the “Icelandic music scenery”, and how much Airwaves has done for the local economy. He even reads out some quotes from the world’s press, about how it’s “the hippest long weekend on the annual music-festival calendar” (courtesy of David Fricke of Rolling Stone, who is here), and how this year’s one “starts in a toilet”, a reference by yours truly to John Lydon’s inaugural address on day one at the converted public convenience that is the Icelandic Museum of Punk. He proposes a toast to “music, cooperation, and having fun” and tells us to either “clap or rattle our jewellery”. You can’t imagine Theresa May opening the Great Escape with a John Lennon gag.

From the president to King. When I wrote about these three Los Angelenos back in 2012, they seemed mired, in the best possible way, in the 70s celestial soul of Minnie Riperton and her Rotary Connection. Tonight, they appear to have moved on a decade, the sound coming from Paris Strother’s panoply of keyboards and computers evoking the shimmering R&B of super-producers Jam and Lewis. It’s a very mid-80s electronic soul sound, with none of the murk or rhythmic idiosyncrasy of today’s avant-R&B. The actual songwriting could do with a bit of oomphing up – that’s an Icelandic phrase – but the sweetness of their female attitude, their dovetailing harmonies and the actual sonics are glorious.

Helsinki musician Ringa Manner, who operates as solo laptop artist the Hearing, draws a big crowd with her quirkily bleak, oblique, electronic melancholia. It’s nice to see Dolores Haze, more alumni of the Guardian’s new band of the week column, doing well with their girl-group goth-grunge. Dressed a little tardily for Halloween (one of them sports Elvira chic, another has on a skeleton mask), they cover all indie bases. Frontwoman Groovy Nickz whispers and screams as the band veer wildly between shoegaze and punk, emo and C86-style shambling indie. They even have a song named after Brit alternative rockers Placebo. But it’s all quite catchy and poppy.

Axel Flóvent is an Icelandic singer-songwriter masquerading as a band, with a guitarist, bassist, drummer and female backing singer bolstering his derivative but effective voice. It must be effective because his songs – think a solo Chris Martin – are being synced all over the shop, from the Vampire Diaries to European TV commercials. One minute it’s soaring high like a choirboy’s, the next it’s evincing a light rasp to suggest this 20-year-old native of fishing village Húsavík has had his share of hard-won experiences.

Lake Street Drive are a four-piece from Minneapolis configured like Abba (two male, two female); an Abba who play instruments: double-bass, guitar, drums, vocals, and play them well (they studied at the New England Conservatory of Music). And those vocals, courtesy of Rachael Price, are powerful and soulful, only utterly devoid of the intensity of someone like Amy Winehouse, but with a similar fondness for 60s R&B and Motown. Clearly, Price could go solo and have a career of sorts, but she would struggle because the world doesn’t need another big-voiced solo artist. But operating within a band context, one capable of such note-perfect homages to classic pop and soul, she stands out. Lake Street Drive are refreshingly unalternative, and accomplished on a variety of fronts.

The highlight of the day – indeed, the highlight of the festival so far, give or take Dizzee Rascal on Friday night – are Thunderpussy. The Seattle band are a revelation, if not quite a revolution. That name suggests a near-novelty bunch of comedic pasticheurs, and there are references in their Airwaves brochure write-up to Madonna and Prince so I was expecting something pseudo-funky. But this is not that at all. An all-female outfit, the parts of their bodies not covered by tattoos are clothed in, variously, sparkly hot pants, tassly blouses, silver vests, black spandex pants and patent leather thigh- high boots. They resemble a glam Runaways, forgotten early-70s band Fanny, or the Lemon Twigs’ slightly older sisters. The music, though, isn’t glitter rock; they just have some of the fashion trappings – you can picture them hanging out, during the post-Woodstock doldrums, at a US rock festival circa 1972, as honorary hard-nosed female drinking buddies of Steppenwolf and Skynyrd, surrounded by Hells Angels dropping ’ludes. No, this is straightahead, no-nonsense, unreconstructed vintage hard rock and tightly-constructed boogie, with all the trimmings – orgiastic grimaces, dirty riffing, and lashings of solos.

They writhe, they cavort, they strut - the whole lexicon of early-70s stage-craft. Meanwhile, lots of bearded men in the audience nod in appreciation – this could catch on. “If you don’t dance to this one, Molly might come and lick your face,” says guitarist Whitney Petty of frontwoman Molly Sides. Cue dozens of Icelanders shouting: “Nobody dance!”

Frankie Cosmos won New York magazine’s pop album of the year award for 2014, and they’re another 50/50 male-female outfit purveying a neat line in tightly rhythmic indiepop. Greta Kline – the singer/guitarist who goes by the name of Frankie Cosmos – is so preppy and collegiate, New York and shy, laconic and cool, she should be in Girls (but then, her mum and dad are Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates). And they get extra points because the bassist is called David Mystery and he is wearing a Pavo Pavo T-shirt.

Minor Victories is a veritable indie supergroup, featuring Rachel Gosling of Slowdive, guitarists Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai) and Justin Lockey (Editors), and filmmaker James Lockey of Hand Held Cine Club, who play blisteringly, beautifully loud set at the art museum. Finally, there’s American-Swedish band Fews, specialising in space/kraut rock and avant drones. Their motorik boogie, linear grooves and mantric repetitions – pure early-70s Detroit meets early-70s Düsseldorf – provide ample opportunities for wigging out in the early hours of Saturday morning.

  • Paul Lester’s trip to Iceland was paid for by Iceland Airwaves


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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