Even though the international appeal of the blues was never in doubt—not since the British Invasion, at least—the recent successes of the blues-folk-rock quartet Kaleo, and their path to performing at Sloss Fest in Birmingham in July, remain curious.
Iceland, the band’s home, is a beautiful but mostly uninhabitable rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean known primarily for its ethereal sonic exports. Think the outlandish Björk, or Of Monsters And Men’s tambourine jangle. There is very little in the way of rhythm-heavy native musical traditions. Despite this, and despite having (at the time) little to no personal experience in the U.S., the 20-something-year-olds of Kaleo managed to tap into a convincingly bluesy strain of rock’n’roll on their self-titled debut album.
The album’s release in late 2013, along with a soulful hit cover of the Icelandic folksong “Vor í Vaglaskógi” and the band’s reputation for energetic live performances, quickly earned Kaleo a large following among young Icelanders—and the ire of close-minded critics and fellow musicians in Reykjavik’s notoriously insular music scene, who derided the band as derivative. Kaleo’s ascension was so rapid, in fact, that it was clear they were on track to eventually leave Iceland. The musicianship, songwriting and high production quality of tracks like “Glass House,” “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Pour Sugar On Me” were calibrated for the kind of mass appeal that an island of 300,000 simply cannot provide.
This year Kaleo finally made the jump, signing a record deal with Atlantic and relocating to Austin, Texas. It seems like a perfect fit for a band so strongly influenced by Delta and country blues. After all, on the blues revival track “Broken Bones,” singer and rhythm guitarist JJ Júlíusson imagines a convict going “down deep Texas, Mississippi state / hoping things might go my way.” Meanwhile, Kaleo actually has gone “down deep Texas,” and things are going their way. The band has already crisscrossed the country while playing gigs and recording new tracks. They played a couple of slots at SXSW in the spring, and will get 45 minutes during Bonnaroo’s Saturday lineup to win over the crowd in Manchester, TN. Then there’s their upcoming appearance at Sloss Fest, a festival also hosting the likes of Sturgill Simpson and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
Ironically, “All the Pretty Girls,” the new single that went viral online and that prompted the major label deal, represented a break from the sound of Kaleo’s album. Lyrically melancholy but musically starry-eyed, it’s an acoustic pop number more in line with the widely accepted Icelandic sound of some of Kaleo’s better-known compatriots. The band returned to form in the recently released song “I Can’t Go On Without You,” a downbeat blues number that features Júlíusson whistling and jumping octaves like an eerie latter-day Tommy Johnson.
One hard fact to avoid about the boys of Kaleo, whether listening to their album or—especially—watching them live, is their sheer level of talent. Júlíusson possesses a vocal range that never has to hide behind a mixing board, and Icelandic-American lead guitarist Rubin Pollock guides his bandmates gracefully behind his picking and sliding like a veteran band leader.
Interviewing the band in Iceland last April, I asked Pollock who his musical influences were. Before name dropping Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong, he emphasized his indebtedness to Led Zeppelin. When I pointed out that Zepp wasn’t a dead ringer for the sound of the first album, Pollock agreed. “I love their music,” he said. “I’ve been inspired by it. But it doesn’t have to reflect in our music. We don’t want to sound like other bands. But it’s kind of hard with rock’n’roll.”
Luckily for Kaleo, rock’n’roll and its blues ancestor set up a big tent for later generations. There’s room enough for old sounds and new ones, even for a band from Iceland—by way of Texas or not.

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.