Icelandic blues-rock band KALEO smoked The Novo on Saturday night with outstanding vocals, musicianship and harmonica for the ages. The evening was full of exciting rock material, blues, ballads and lead singer JJ Júlíusson at the piano, performing one song with his band in Icelandic.
20-year-old Michigan country/Americana artist Myron Elkins opened, joined by four musicians of The Dying Breed in a set that brought to mind a cross between James Bay and the next Chris Stapleton. Elkins wore a maroon cowboy shirt, boots and long locks, impressing equally with his seasoned vocal quality and guitar skills. His timeless songs like “Hands to Myself” was one of the best, as was the rockabilly-style “Sugartooth”. “Colder Kind” showcased the swagger that comes along with his old-school country voice and “Nashville Money” had all the right rock elements, sounding at times like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band played throughout The Novo, setting the tone before KALEO took the stage, decorated in inviting tribal rugs and wood crates. The five musicians of KALEO took the stage with two background singers, up against a gray craggy-looking backdrop easing into the bluesy “Break My Baby” with JJ Júlíusson’s amazing falsetto and stellar guitars. Júlíusson was decked out in what looked like a vintage pink and white 1950s high school football jacket and his hair up tight in a manbun.
The Fight or Flight 2022 Tour continued to take shape with a red stage wash flooding the musicians on “Broken Bones”, with lap steel guitarist Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson stepping away to the front of the stage for a delightful harmonica solo, while drummer David Antonsson and guitarist Rubin Pollock provided harmonies.
A big instrumental opening took over the fiery “Alter Ego”, with background singers Jessica Jolia and April Rucker shining in one of their standout moments with the band. It was the perfect blues-rock song, with the entire band packing a punch. KALEO slowed it down for “I Can’t Go On Without You”, with Júlíusson killing it on the alluring whistle intro joined by the lap steel guitar from Davidsson. The swampy yet powerful song showcased Júlíusson’s distinct rock voice beautifully —in moments there was a cry in his voice that broke for ultimate impact. The faint drums and guitars, which also included bassist Daniel Kristjansson kept it mysterious and brooding, rocking out at the chorus, and ending with Júlíusson whistling out the heart-wrenching song that is truly felt in a live setting.
The magic continued with “All The Pretty Girls”, with KALEO surrounded by beams of white light and a pink stage, with delicate plucking on the beautiful bluesy ballad with Júlíusson’s signature falsetto. The banjo and guitars reflected Júlíusson’s vocal beauty, effortlessly dropping from false to a deep octave lower. He shouted and belted during the song’s powerful, rousing ending and it won over the fans with a huge roar.
“How you guys doing?”, asked Júlíusson. “It’s great to be playing live music again”. He apologized for bringing the rain but said it was great to be back in California. The folky, feel-good ballad “Automobile” was next, sweetly complemented by the banjo and tambourine.
“This next one is the only one we do in our native tongue,” said Júlíusson. And they played the stunning “Vor í Vaglaskógi” with KALEO’s frontman pulling out a guitar with the blue, red and white Icelandic flag on it. Nothing was said the entire night about Ukraine, but this felt like a prayer and it was arguably the most beautiful of the night. The folk-rock song featured lovely strumming, huge belting moments from Júlíusson, delivering chills to the crowd on this timeless tune that sounds like a film theme.
Júlíusson held on to the mood, strumming acoustic guitar on the mid-tempo portion of “Backbone”, with other shining moments from the guitars and lap steel guitar hitting an emotional chord and providing the perfect emotional hues. It crescendoed into it’s 90s grunge band glory, keeping its bluesy core.
The post-grunge tune “Skinny” was one of the night’s best, a total badass blues-rock song, with Júlíusson’s voice breaking perfectly on the lyric “you know we are all living in a fucked up world”, belting like he was about to attack.
An extended version of “Hot Blood” packed heat with the stage red and the glorious full band’s opening instrumental, before launching into its danceable energy. Background singers Jolia and Rucker’s standout vocals shined once again to a massive applause as they joined Júlíusson at the front of the stage, singing “get up and get up again” with the fans. It felt like a big AC/DC or Rolling Stone favorite with excellent vocals all around, bringing the place to a roar. The funked-up tune “Hey Gringo” continued the momentum, led by bass and guitar, also featuring bongo drums and maracas and another outstanding harmonica solo moments from Davidsson. A spirited vocal from Júlíusson created a memorable “ooh-ooh” call-and-response between the band and the crowd.
The stage changed to blue for “Brother Run Fast” with Júlíusson taking a seat at the piano for the spiritual song with equally solid guitars. Júlíusson got up with his guitar in a white lacey shirt for the inspiring “I Walk On Water”, a rather cathartic rock song with amazing gospel elements, tambourines and Jolia and Rucker’s hand’s up by the end.
KALEO played the dark, guitar-led “Free the Slave” and Júlíusson wailed on the oustanding “Way Down We Go”, with insane guitars and drum beats. For the encore, the band played their massive hit “No Good”, the drums kicking into full blast, the guitars crying and Júlíusson wailing. He clapped during one of the final chorus moments while the fans joined in. A final “Rock ‘n’ Roller” was played, with further guitar perfection, the harmonica was back, the whole place was clapping to the timeless rock song and the drums were smashing again. Júlíusson screamed and wailed and The Novo erupted in satisfaction and felt much very alive.
Words by Michael Menachem
Photos by Alex Kluft