With just a girl and a guitar on a stage, it’s easy for focus to pull to the jackasses in the back who won’t stop talking during the music. This was regretfully accurate at last Wednesday’s La Zona Rosa show. Icelandic singer Ólöf Arnalds’ guitar was a lilting, soft background to her quietly burbling voice, while the chatter from the room was like an annoying backing track that you wished you could shut off.
Despite the background noise, she was enchanting. If you’ve never heard her, but do know anything from Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, she absolutely nailed Veloso’s sound and spirit in a spot-on cover of “Maria Pequeña”. Another artist she resembled, who if you are from Austin you may have seen around town: whispery local folk singer, Dana Falconberry.
While the lyrics came across without problem, her between-song banter was endearingly quirky but difficult to understand at times. With a hesitant grasp of spoken English, she obviously was a bit frustrated in her attempts to talk to the crowd, who connected more with the music. Four or five songs in, her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” got the crowd humming along, unified in enjoyment for the first time in her set, and even a broken string couldn’t derail her momentum. Borrowing a guitar from Blonde Redhead, she re-tuned within a minute and kept on singing.
Ólöf Arnalds felt like a mismatched opening act for Blonde Redhead. Don’t be mistaken, the people at La Zona Rosa enjoyed her set. Compared to the noise of the band to follow, though, her delicately plucked guitar – while likely stunning in a different context – seemed too soft and bland.
Blonde Redhead was face-melting. If you have never seen them, they are definitely worth the ticket price. A word of caution beforehand: Kazu Makino has a history of short-temperedness – years ago, she ended a set at Emo’s after three songs because she was unhappy with the sound. But the sound was apparently good enough for her Wednesday, and they rocked their way through well over an hour and a half of music drawing from all of their 17 years and 8 albums as a trio (though with some additional help on keys for the tour).
Despite the band’s rocking out, the crowd was oddly still – perhaps entranced by the demented carousel of noise, lights, and frenetic movement in front of them. All around, people were mouthing the words, eyes glued to Makino. She danced her way around the stage, donned and doffed an eerie mask at whim, and wailed into the mike with otherworldly, banshee-like vocals. The Pace brothers supported, the backbone of Blonde Redhead’s sound, with Amadeo occasionally taking his turn on lead vocals.
No matter their past live behavior, they didn’t want to leave the stage this time. Finally, two songs into the encore, they sadly cited the venue’s midnight hard curfew and wrapped their set with one last song. The packed crowd flooded the merch booth before slowly wandering out.
(Blonde Redhead performed at La Zona Rosa in Austin on Dec. 1, 2010)