We spotted Ólafur Arnalds on the lineup for Seattle’s annual Decibel Festival, but because my wife was traveling for business that week and not returning home until the afternoon of the show we figured we probably wouldn’t make the show. But when we found out a week ago that our friend Arnór Dan Arnársson of Agent Fresco fame was coming to town to perform some vocals for Arnalds, reprising his role on For Now I Am Winter, that changed everything. Tickets were purchased, plans were made.
Arnalds has done a number of performances for Seattle’s KEXP radio over the years, and the morning of the show he, Arnór, and their string performers did a roughly 20 minute live set over at the studio. I reached out to a friend and he was kind enough to invite me down to watch, which was fantastic. Not only did I have a chance to see Arnór for a couple of minutes, but I also got to briefly meet Arnalds who was great. They played four songs – two instrumental (one from For Now I Am Winter, the other from Living Room Songs) followed by two off the new album that featured Arnór singing, “For Now I Am Winter” and the absolutely brilliant “Old Skin”. The guys sounded great, and despite bets being made in the studio as to whether or not Arnór would be able to hit the high notes during the performance that he kept missing during practice (I believe the wager eventually involved Arnalds putting up an airport lounge pass, his health insurance card, and $10 Canadian…), he nailed both songs and sounded amazing as always.
The show itself was held in the perfect venue for Arnalds – the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, a 536-person room designed specifically for great acoustics. German composer Nils Frahm opened the show with his ambient electronic and piano arrangements and was joined on stage by Arnalds for one number. This was my first experience with Frahm and I found that there were parts of his performance that I liked a lot, particularly those that were less electronic based and had more emphasis on his piano skills. His pieces are long, making them somewhat challenging, but I felt he got stronger as the set progressed (that may say more about me becoming more attuned to what he was doing than anything else) and he ended on a high note with the long piano part to close his final song, which was the pinnacle of his night.
Arnalds was joined on stage by a violinist and a cellist, just like he was when we saw him at Airwaves last year, but this was a much more enjoyable and intimate venue when compared to the raised stage and crowd sitting on the floor that made him seem a million miles away during that show in Reykjavik. One of Arnalds strengths as a performer (as opposed to simply being a fantastic musician) is that he engages the crowd, not only being funny and telling us a bit about his songs (one of which was composed following a drinking bout during an overnight van ride while traveling to a gig in Poland, for example… “Sad songs don’t have to always be a out heartache… there are other kinds of sadness too!”), but also about how he was using technology during the show, capturing samples on his iPad and then layering them into the song as it continues. Another of his strengths is that he loves to showcase the talent around him as was evidenced by the strong violin parts written into some of his pieces, one of which involved an extended solo that he simply sat and watched, obviously relishing it.
Arnársson joined Arnalds on stage for two songs it the second half of the set, the same two he performed at KEXP earlier in the day. It was apparent that at least some members of the crowd knew Arnársson from his work with Agent Fresco, especially given that someone shouted the band name from the back of the hall when he was introduced (it was’t me, Arnór!). He was emotional and brilliant, with Arnalds understanding exactly how to get the most out of his singer’s voice and showcasing it much as he did the strings. And yes, he hit the high notes. Frahm joined the entire ensemble on stage for one of these songs as well.
Overall it was a very enjoyable night of music. With so much talent in the room you knew you were going to be impressed throughout, and blown away at times, and Arnalds and friends came through. And given that Arnalds is only 26 years old, I suspect we can expect decades more of great music from him, and I for one will be watching… and listening.