By Rebecca Roudman | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
My cello-centric rock and blues band Dirty Cello has led me on quite a few adventures all over the world, but this past July upped the craziness level when I found myself in a tiny village in Iceland about to do a live concert on a whale-watching boat.
Dirty Cello performs everywhere—we rarely turn down a gig. A hippie commune in the Negev Desert in Israel? No problem. Hauling an entire sound system down hundreds of stairs for a holiday concert at the bottom of Moaning Caverns in California? Why not? We’ve even played nudist resorts. But the twin ideas of Iceland’s freezing cold and a rocking whale-watching boat scared the heck out of me. I’m not a big fan of the cold, and I definitely get seasick. Also, would whales even like cello playing?
On this tour, I was joined by guitarist Jason Eckl, drummer Crystal Holloway, and bassist Alex Farrell. The whale-watching boat concert would be the culmination of our third big tour to Iceland. This particular tour was centered around an Icelandic celebrity’s wedding—actress Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir was getting married and had heard of our band on previous tours. She had asked us to perform at her wedding, and using that as the focal point, we arranged a whole tour around her big day.
The tour had gotten off to a bad start. We were scheduled to play at a venue a local promoter had described as “one of the best” in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. A few short hours after getting off the plane, we arrived at a beautiful hall and were greeted by a bewildered venue staff. This historic ballroom did occasionally host concerts but was best known as a venue for important funerals for politicians. The first guy we met peppered us with questions about why on earth we would hold a rock concert at this place, and while explaining why the venue was best for funerals, rattled off a list of important Icelandic people who had had memorial services there. Between our jetlag and lack of knowledge about Icelandic dignitaries, we were quite confused.
The local promoter was also missing—as was his whole staff. As it turned out, he was on the other side of the country dealing with, as he put it, “a kitchen emergency” and had neglected to provide a door person, security guard, credit card machine, or any information to the venue staff.
Fortunately, Dirty Cello doesn’t give up easily, so as people started to arrive, I acted as the door person, Jason got a crash course on how to use a borrowed credit card machine and how to navigate the decimal points of Icelandic currency, and Crystal and Alex got the crowd seated. The large audience was shocked when we suddenly switched roles from venue staff to band—and then rocked out a big show. In the end, everything went well, and we had a great night, but afterward, while talking with the audience, we still had to explain why we were performing in a hall known best for its funeral services.
Our next stop was a great visit in Akureyri to the Green Hat (Græni hatturinn), in our opinion the best live-music venue in Iceland. Following that we started a long journey to the fishing village of Husavik. This little village was prominently featured in the movie Eurovision: Song of Ice and Fire, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, so the town built a new museum, where we were booked to perform, dedicated to Eurovision.
When we were invited to perform at the museum, we asked about a sound system, and we were sent pictures of what appeared to be a perfectly good set of mics, speakers, and mixer in one of the main areas of the museum. The reality upon arrival turned out to be a bit different. The sound system from the picture was actually part of a display for the museum, and as such, much of it was made up of props—the microphone was fake, the stand wouldn’t raise up, and the speakers weren’t plugged in. The audio mixer was real, but no one had seen the power supply in quite a while—this proved to be the biggest challenge.
Fortunately, we travel with a lot of our own gear, and we were able to cobble together a functional sound system. This involved borrowing a power supply from the museum’s computers and microphone cables from a local guy who was visiting with his kids. We taped together the mic stand. The result wasn’t perfect (and may not have been fire safe), but the concert came together well.
The next day, after some well-deserved time at a thermal bath, it was time to play at the wedding. As a string musician, I’ve played quite a few weddings, but this one was beyond memorable. Iceland spends a lot of the year dark and cold, so it is my theory that Icelandic people save up their fun and energy for the summer, when the sun doesn’t set. The energy at this wedding put every other wedding I’ve played to shame.
As we pulled up to the venue, we hadn’t even begun unloading when we were accosted by an inebriated person, who grabbed Alex by the arm and screamed at him, “You have to play ‘Country Roads’!” This began a theme of the night that still confuses us—large numbers of the wedding attendees, upon seeing our instruments, insisting we play John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Even the janitor requested it, and people kept singing it to us.
Our confusion stemmed from the fact that, as a band, Dirty Cello doesn’t play that song, and we still don’t know why it was so important for us to play it. But we weren’t about to turn down a bunch of drunk Icelandic folks, so over dinner we did our best to prepare the song and did end up performing it later that evening. It wasn’t a great rendition, and I’m sure I butchered the lyrics, but we did get the chorus more or less right while a bunch of party people line-danced and sang along. We had a great time throughout the evening, and when we left after 4 am, the party was still going strong.
Our final day of performance brought us to the dreaded whale-watching boat concert. The idea had been hatched a year before on a different tour, when a group of hard-partying Icelanders told us that if we would come back to the very small village of Hjalteyri, they would borrow a boat for a concert. Although we were skeptical, they were true to their word, and we found ourselves figuring out the practicalities of performing on the water.
Step one involved talking a local into lending us a sound system that we then had to incorporate into the electrical system of the boat and find a way to secure to the deck—again, probably not fire safe. After that, we had to deal with the drum set, which wasn’t really designed to be used on a violently rocking surface. The solution was to duct tape the whole thing, seat and all, to the deck of the boat. Finally, we handled the issue of how to perform for a capacity crowd that would be surrounding us on various parts of the boat. Our solution was to each face a different direction as we played.
Once we set up, a local restaurant treated us to an amazing dinner. Crystal and I had the risotto, the guys had reindeer steak, and we all enjoyed the Spanish wine. With full bellies, possibly a little tipsy, we wandered out to the boat only to be greeted by the sight of the audience being issued bright yellow cold-weather suits. If they needed the suits, how were we going to be able to stay warm and still look like performers? We took a quick detour to the car and put on every layer of clothing that we could, under our performance outfits.
After dressing as best we could, we got on the boat and were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd. With a cue from the bearded captain, we opened with Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” The boat lurched away from the dock, and I barely kept my footing, but the drum set stayed put. While the boat cruised a beautiful fjord, I focused on the music to stave off seasickness, and we ran through our repertoire while the audience clapped and kept a lookout for whales. We even reprised a bit of “Country Roads,” which was a huge hit again.
Both relieved and exhilarated, after about an hour and a half we returned to the dock. The captain ran the boat in circles while we wrapped up our rendition of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and then the boat parked. This concert was the culmination of an amazing, if quite crazy, tour of Iceland. We played incredible shows, met great people, and had a lot of fun. But since none of them showed up, sadly it seems that whales don’t like the cello after all.