The word of the night was “mystical” at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall on Monday evening, as the sound of singer Ásgeir Trausti’s bright falsetto filled the room with a sense of melancholy and wonder. Bathed in soft, blue light, the Icelandic folktronica musician captivated the audience, delivering a set of personal, contemplative songs that ranged from mildly pleasant to occasionally transcendent and otherworldly.
Iceland’s signature folk-troubadour, simply referred to as Ásgeir, is no mysterious unknown; in 2012, his debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn took the country by storm — an estimated 10% of Iceland owns a copy — quickly catapulting Ásgeir into the country’s pantheon of popular music artists alongside the likes of Björk and Sigur Rós. Following 2014’s In the Silence — an English rerelease of his seminal album with lyrics translated by American singer-songwriter John Grant — and the vast departure from more traditional folk-songwriting in favor of an electronic atmosphere on 2017’s Afterglow, Ásgeir sought to return to his more modest musical roots. Touring behind his latest album Bury the Moon, Ásgeir has continued his exploration of more contemporary sounds while trying to evoke the familiar intimacy of his previous work. On Monday, at the Great American Music Hall, it was clear that this effort toward a return to form was exactly what audiences were looking for.
Opening act Khushi kicked off the night with a solo performance. Playing one-man show versions of tracks off of his newly released debut album, Khushi’s set served as a perfect pairing with Ásgeir’s. Stripped down to just a resonator guitar and vocals, Khushi’s songs fed off of the silence, setting an introspective mood for the steadily arriving crowd. Khushi’s restrained voice and vulnerable lyricism drew from the atmosphere, creating an aura of extra-attentiveness; by the closing song “Call to Arms,” a beautiful, slow-walking piano crooner, it was apparent that the audience was ready to be immersed.
Ásgeir’s set began with the track “Lazy Giants,” his rising vocals propelled by a pulsing beat and brooding, urgent piano chords. Immediately transitioning into the marching drums of crowd favorite “Head in the Snow,” the somber energy completely shifted into fantastical dancing, followed by another standout track, “Youth.” Partly thanks to the outstanding percussion of drummer Helgi Svavar Helgason, the song radiated a great sense of warmth and joy amid its nostalgic subject matter. Shyly emerging from the revelry, Ásgeir quietly announced that he and his band would be playing songs off of the new record as well as a few in Icelandic, and sincerely thanked everyone for coming. His charmingly timid demeanor was a sharp contrast to the exuberant music, inducing many encouraging smiles and cheers from the crowd.
After performing “Myndir,” the Icelandic version of Bury the Moon-opener “Pictures,” Ásgeir rose out of his seat and grabbed his acoustic guitar, almost whispering as he spoke into the mic, “I’m going to do this next one on my own.” The following song, “On That Day,” washed the room in beautiful, melancholic music. Ásgeir’s voice was a searingly earnest display of wistfulness. The song served as an effective palette cleanser as the set transitioned into its second half.
While Ásgeir’s technically impressive live performance maintained the pensive mood of the night, many of the songs blended together, offering little variation in sound and lyrical themes. That being said, no moment was more arresting than when Ásgeir and company decided to once again shift into Icelandic, this time to perform “Afterglow,” the centerpiece of his 2017 album. This rendition of the title track in his native tongue strikingly captured the song’s sentiments of wonder and hope, invigorating the track with a potent sense of beauty, unfiltered by translation. Through the breathtaking harmonies of the song’s chorus, Ásgeir truly transcended, capturing genuine grandeur.
The beauty of Ásgeir’s music lies in its ability to both pave new ground, while re-enchanting listeners with the familiar. In its greatest moments, Ásgeir’s performance was a powerful testament to the beauty of contemplation.
Highlights: “Youth,” “On That Day,” “Afterglow”
Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].