Kaleo keeps blues, classic rock alive at The Fillmore

Imad Pasha/Staff

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From good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos and Tennessee-twinged country to simple, lyrical folk and melodic Icelandic tunes, it seemed like Kaleo had every seminal genre of American music hidden up its sleeve as it powered through a sold-out show at The Fillmore on Thursday. Hailing from Iceland, the band, composed of JJ Julius Son (vocals, guitar), David Antonsson (percussion, vocals), Daniel Kristjansson (bass) and Rubin Pollock (lead guitar), relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to record its recently released sophomore album A/B.

The enormous talent and musicianship possessed by all four members was clear; in particular, Júlíusson’s deep, sultry vocals and Pollock’s virtuoso guitar playing. This is not a band that buries lead vocals and solos under the crunch of overwhelming guitar — every vocal line was crystal clear, mixed well above the instrumentation, and every guitar solo was crisp and impressive. The hall at The Fillmore made dramatic shifts between rock shredders and folk lullabies and, to the band’s credit, the crowd never seemed to waver in energy despite the whiplash.

It’s inarguable that the set was filled with “wow” moments: Pollock’s effortless, shredding guitar solo during “Glass House,” Júlíusson and Antonsson’s haunting vocal harmonies in “Vor í Vaglaskógi,” the falsetto-baritone contrasts in “Save Yourself” and “Can’t Go On Without You.”

The story could theoretically end there. The floor shook, there was dynamic range and variety and gorgeous vocals and instrumentation. The band’s city-oriented pandering even rang true, bookended around a song such as “Automobile,”: “Here I come San Francisco … hang by the Bay.”  

But that wasn’t the whole story. Musically, the band demonstrated surgical precision in its ability to draw on the best parts of the genres it is steeped in and leveraged those elements in a performance that, in a lot of ways, felt like a trip through time and geographic region. Some songs, such as “Way Down We Go,” blend the uniqueness of the band’s background and its love for American genres for a song that stands on its own as being uniquely Kaleo’s. The band also excelled in its showcase of “Vor í Vaglaskógi” in its native Icelandic.

But for nearly the rest of the set, the creeping sensation of overt influence grew stronger. “Automobile” could have come straight off an Arlo Guthrie album in the ‘60s — he even has his own motorcycle song. Meanwhile, “Glass House” and “Hot Blood” could easily find themselves on an AC/DC or Guns n’ Roses album from the ‘80s or a Black Keys album in the early aughts. “Broken Bones,” with its delta blues roots, could pass for an actual delta blues track, with enough crackles and pops added in for effect.

The problem is that Kaleo loves those bygone genres a little too much for comfort. It’s a complaint levied more at the band’s album than its performance of it, but it still affects the way the audience receives the music.

But that might not necessarily be a bad thing. During the reign of river blues and folk, and even into early classic rock, most music produced was built on ubiquitous standards of structure and composition, differentiating primarily by the talent, uniqueness and personality of the musician. As long as it’s done well, is it clear that revisiting those genres is unconscionable?

Perhaps the broader question is whether delta blues and classic rock shouldn’t be dead genres at all and have a bit more left in them.  

Kaleo may well be the only non-cover band really living those styles today. Would anyone pay just to see those bygone genres in a modern setting, originality aside? The talented musicians in Kaleo breathe energetic life into each song they play, and if the reception at their sold-out show was anything to go by, it would seem the answer is apparent.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].