The Band: Of Monsters and Men, March 22 2012. An Icelandic band that is neither Björk, Sigur Rós, nor the Sugarcubes, these indie folk/pop rockers are on the verge of releasing their first US album next month. The six-pack of players (augmented by one on this tour) got together in 2009 but hit their stride in their homeland when they won the annual Icelandic battle of the bands, Músiktilraunir, in 2010. Why am I picturing people bundled in furs and wielding clubs and mic stands? Either way, this is a band that believes the glockenspiel, melodica, and accordion have a place in rock. I, for one, agree.
The Venue: The Independent, San Francisco. While it holds 500 people, the times I’ve hit this club in the past have seen it much emptier, enough so that people could freely pass between the candlelit round tables set up on the floor. Not this time – the show was sold out and the floor and balconies were packed. Bless the Independent for lining one side of the venue with benches – we got there early enough to snag seats Stage Right and kept thinking we’d move to the floor when the band came on. But then, why? Hence all my photos of the band are shot in profile.
The Company: There’s not a Northern European band that my Swedish friend Maria lets pass; keeps her in touch with her frozen family tree. Last busted for trying to sneak chocolate chip cookies into a Lykke Li show, she came up with a new approach for getting a whole Ziploc bag of oatmeal/coconut/sugar cookies by the bouncers: making me carry them. No, my ass is not that big. That was a bag of cookies tucked into my Levi’s Curves.
The Crowd: As white as the barren expanse of Iceland, not that I’ve been there. Wait. Didn’t the explorers name it Iceland to prevent the secret of its sylvan beauty from getting out? In that case, as white as the barren expanse of Greenland. Thirty-something, and myopic judging from the plethora of Geek Chic glasses. Exceedingly mellow. Looked like everyone came from their grad school English seminar to attend.
The Opening Act: Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir, aka Lay Low. It was just a gal and her acoustic guitar and her wonderfully expressive voice. Singing blues-tinted songs in English and Icelandic, I kept thinking, “Who does she remind me of? Whose voice is like that?” and avoiding for as long as possible the only answer.
Björk. She sounds a little like Björk. Minus the flourishes and swan costume, plus a much warmer sound. Loved her.
Age Humiliation Factor: Through the roof.
It wasn’t when we had to ask the young bearded man next to us on the bench who the opening band was, and then couldn’t understand what he said anyway. It wasn’t when we felt compelled to offer him and his girlfriend some of Maria’s butt-bag cookies (they both looked so thin!) It wasn’t when he said, “Did I hear you say one of you has a kid turning 18?” It wasn’t his repeated use of the phrase, “You Ladies” to address us, which is the same phrase I use when I talk to the 80-something women at my church.
It was when young Dan from Seattle said: “Aw, you ladies are great. You can’t be more than half past forty, right?”
He nailed our ages with 100% accuracy. That was when.
Cool Factor: High.
It’s kind of special to be present in those short last weeks before a band breaks big. This was one of those nights. Right now, Of Monsters and Men is still surprised when fans show up in the front row decked out in facepaint as homage to their “Little Talks” video – enough so that they asked if they might take a picture from the stage. Between songs they peered up into the balconies and across the sea of people and said, “Wow, can’t believe how many of you are here!” They are hugely talented, but totally authentic. May they keep that magic.
Worth Hiring the Sitter? Hey!
If you’re not hearing “Little Talks” on the radio where you live yet, it’s just a matter of time. Vocalists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar þórhallsson toss lines back and forth to one another with the rest of the band (and crowd) chiming in with a hearty Icelandic “Hey!” while trumpets layer over the whole piece. I was struck by how immediately catchy their songs are – “Six Weeks” and “King and Lionheart” had everyone singing along on the chorus, and I can’t imagine I was the only one hearing those songs for only the first or second time. Maria says these guys are the Icelandic Mumford and Sons – great musicality, distinctive voices, and an irresistible beat.
Also: the bass player looks like a young, blond, Rick Astley. I could Rickroll ya, but I won't.
My guess is the next time they play in San Francisco, it’s going to be at a much bigger venue, and it’ll sell out. Let’s hope Of Monsters and Men never does.