Perhaps unintentionally, Kaleo raises a long-dormant question: is this a rock band or a pop band? Highly influenced by American roots music, particularly blues, the Icelandic band often sounds very much like a classic rock band from 50 years ago. On the other hand, many songs focus less on the jam and more on contemporary radio-friendly arrangements that lean on catchy vocal melodies.
As teenagers, lead vocalist/guitarist Jökull “JJ” Júlíusson, bassist Daniel Ægir Kristjánsson, and drummer Davíð Antonsson, formed what became Kaleo in 2012 in Mosfellsbær, Iceland. They soon added lead guitarist Rubin Pollock and, later, keyboardist/harmonica player Þorleifur Gaukur Davíðsson. Worldwide, Kaleo has sold millions of recordings, including an EP, Glasshouse (2013), and three studio albums, Kaleo (2013), A/B (2016), and Surface Sounds (2021). Kaleo’s music also has been popularized in the soundtracks of numerous episodes of American television programs.
Kaleo’s upward trajectory has allowed for a few privileges. In pursuit of additional American inspiration, music roots and commercial success, the band relocated in 2015 to Austin, Texas. Júlíusson presently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Kaleo’s current American concert tour was postponed from 2020 and 2021, and finally arrived in New York City with a fairly packed show at Terminal 5 in 2022. Old sounds met new sounds repeatedly. For the old sound, JJ frequently played a resonator guitar, Pollock played a lap steel guitar and banjo, harmonica leads dominated every few songs, and the band even engaged in an extended tribal multi- percussion break. The range of newer sounds spanned from coarse indie-rock (like Black Keys or the White Stripes) to grippingly-sensitive pop ballads (like Hozier or Ray LaMontagne).
Kaleo built the rocking songs on grungy guitar riffs and crying leads, backed by crashing drums. The more somber and melancholy songs often came with sparse musical accompaniment. Although rooted in vintage sounds, Kaleo’s versatility was refreshing, not derivative.
The word “kaleo” means “the voice” in Hawaiian, and Júlíusson’s soulful vocals were the key element that unified the band’s rather unique blend of alternative rock, classic rock, Delta blues, and indie folk. Several songs featured two female background singer, Jessica Jolia and April Rucker, yet Júlíusson’s rich and powerful vocals were the star attraction in every song, whether he used his utterly masculine blues drawl or lighter falsetto croons.
In the end, Kaleo’s performance answered the question posed earlier. Kaleo was closer to being a swampy blues rock band than a pop band, although its softer songs may attract wider attention from the mainstream. Kaleo is a band that a rocking grandpa can enjoy with his teenaged granddaughter.