During the week of October 12-16, I absented myself from my Los Angeles-based obligations to once again attend the greatest international music festival ever hosted in the North Atlantic -- Iceland Airwaves. Since 1999, approximately 200-300 bands/performers and 10,000 attendees make the most of a rainy, chilly week in Iceland's capital city, Reykjavík, squeezing into music stores, bars and cafes during the day, and night clubs, concert halls and an art museum at night to catch bands from all over the world (I'd estimate that between 60%-70% of the bands were Icelandic). As anyone who writes about Iceland will remind you, the entire nation's population remains well under 400,000, yet the wealth of high quality bands, from just about every genre imaginable, exceeds that of most American cities.
As much as I have been drawn to the Iceland Airwaves festival for the bands, I have been equally if not more impressed by the fans that make the journey to the North to enjoy something a little bit different from the typical American or European music festival. Just as I did last year, I met delightful people from all over the world, genuinely interested in music, excited about acts they'd never heard of, some having engaged in fairly extensive research of the local scene, not at all snobby and driven to have as much fun as possible, often staying up until the early morning hours to dance, chat over a kebab, or have a few extra overpriced drinks. Airwaves provides an unusually friendly and open atmosphere where one feels just as comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger from another country as a member of the band one just saw perform.
To answer a few questions people typically ask whenever I go to Iceland:
1) No, although Iceland is quite north, in October the amount of daily sunlight is approximately similar to that in South California,
2) Yes, the weather is cold, but nothing worse than a very chilly, rainy day in Los Angeles in February -- you can handle it quite easily, with a decent jacket, especially if you are from the frozen American Northeast or Midwest!,
3) The language they speak is Icelandic,
4) Yes, that's a real language,
5) Yes, I did see Björk! and she was amazing,
6) While traditional Icelandic food features some very unusual meats, most people most of the time eat the same food we eat here: pizza, kebab, sandwiches, burgers, pasta, hot dogs,
7) Almost everyone speaks English quite well, often as well or better than the average American you'll meet on the street, and
8) Yes, the economy is totally screwed, but no, most people you'll meet are not the bankers/politicians responsible for the crisis, so no need to feel resentful towards the Icelandic public. Furthermore, at least according to Paul Krugman, signs indicate that things are getting better in Iceland better than many other European countries.
This is a long festival report, so I've summed up the highlights here:
Musical Highlights: Björk at the new Harpa venue, Retro Stefson, Gus Gus, Active Child, Yacht
Non-Musical Highlights: Afterparty Sunday night following the final act of the festival, chatting with strangers from around the world while eating kebab at Ali Baba, sitting in a jacuzzi at the Vesturbaer swimming pool Saturday morning
Lowlights: Wednesday night hangover waiting in line outside Nasa club to see Of Monsters and Men, locking myself out of an apartment and sleeping in a doorway, rain and wind
Do I recommend this festival?: Strongly, especially to those in Europe, on the East Coast of the U.S. (or near any U.S. city that has a direct flight (NYC, Seattle, DC sometimes)). I'd recommend it to anyone who likes music, even if that person knows little about Icelandic music specifically. At the risk of coming off all Burning Man (ICELAND AIRWAVES IS NOT LIKE BURNING MAN) I didn't meet a single person there who didn't love it, and come home with more friends than when they started.
The festival officially started on a Wednesday, October 12, but unofficial festivities began the day before.
My Icelandic friends were shocked to discover that the duration of my connecting flight from Seattle to Keflavik Airport was but a few minutes under 7 hours, and my entire journey slightly under twelve. Still, having slept only 1.5 hours on the plane, I was not feeling particularly refreshed as my American friend C´s German friend M drove us (in the car of one of my more favorite 1980´s era Icelandic performers) in circles around downtown Keflavik in search of a gas station. Exhaustion notwithstanding, I was struck by the colors in the sky just forming above the horizon as dawn broke in the minutes before 8:00 a.m. Excited about the festival, yes. But was I ready for 5-6 days of near non-stop stimulation? I reacted as I typically do as we drove down the highway into town (encountering a surprising burst of rush hour traffic as we entered Reykjavik) wondering "Will this be my final visit to Iceland? Will this trip feel as special to me as have my pasts trips here? Am I coming down with a cold?"
My dear Icelandic friend D´s home (in which I will be residing for this journey to Airwaves) is conveniently located in Vesturbær, a seaside neighborhood about a 20 minute walk from downtown Reykjavik, where one can sometimes see birds returning from the sea, as well as the many university students commuting to and from the University of Iceland. After greeting D and playing Santa Claus for my first several minutes (I had brought a bag full of presents, which included single malt whisky and makeup from the duty free shop, cake sprinkles, cartoon bandaids, and an iPod from the USA), I took a long nap from which I was awoken an hour and a half late by uncharacterisistically warm and bright sunlight pouring through the window into my eyes. Time for Airwaves to begin!
My stomach still growling (it was 3 a.m. LA time and it had no idea how it was supposed to feel), I dropped by the Centrum Hotel in downtown Iceland to pick up my festival bracelet, listening to the sounds of Icelandic spoken by the others in line, everyone clearly excited and also confused as to whether he or she was in the right place. After a wristband was securely stapled around my arm, I headed straight to Bæjarins Beztu (the most famous hot dog shop in Iceland, and possibly the world -- famously patronized once by former President Bill Clinton) for a hot dog. Over the course of a trip to Iceland, I typically eat at least 10 of these.
After years of borrowing clothes for my trips to Iceland, I finally gave in and shelled out the big bucks for a traditional Icelandic lopapeysa (from unspun Icelandic wool) at the Nordic store and a fancy rainjacket from Ellingsen in Western Reykjavik. For the afternoon, I caught up with C at the Fourth Floor Hotel and had my first Icelandic chat of the trip -- with the Singaporean woman who worked at the front desk. I was surprised at how much I was able to say! Dinner was with Icelandic friends A, E and E at the Tapas Bar downtown, which was celebrating its birthday. A large amount of Miller lite, scallops, bacon wrapped dates, unidentified but delicious fish, prawn, and lamb was consumed, and all at a reasonable price.
The first music of the festival for me was at the Kex Hostel downtownan, an off-venue (aka 'free'). We walked upstairs to a huge room full of Icelandic hipsters (as my friends insisted they must be), girls wearing the bowl haircut so popular among female music/art fans here, guys with tight jeans and blond hair combed over the top and parted, beers served in either giant or gigantic stein glasses (when i ordered a 'stor bjor´, the bartender asked to confirm that I really wanted the larger of the two). When I first heard soley's solo act, that is, without the rest of Seabear, the band of which she is a member, I was initially unimpressed, writing her off as overly cutesy (in the somewhat over-the-top twee manner indulged by many Icelandic bands), but loved her first full length release We Sink. I was not disappointed by this performance. She played both keyboards and guitar, accompanied only by a drummer, looking out at the crowd of hipster glasses through her very own (and larger) hipster glasses. Her voice, although high, carries through, and her live set maintains a sense of seriousness which I sensed her first EP lacked. For me the highlight was 'Smashed Birds', which I think is a very pretty song.
9:45 p.m., Kex Hostel, Prinspóló
For the most part, I had only been familiar with one song by Prinspóló called Niðrá Strönd ("Down to the Beach"), which tells the story of the narrator gawking at a girl and hoping to approach her. While I don´t understand most of the lyrics, I get the sense it is cleverly written, and that this is also the case of most of the band´s repetoire. The lead singer seems to speak virtually no English, as most of the English stage banter came from the drummer, but was dressed in a bright, multi-colored sweater that reminded me vaguely of the Russian customer service guy from those Discover card commercials. Their stage presence of great, and the slightly folksy rhthym of the music got me to my feet after about 2 songs, at which time I noticed several members of FM Belfast but a few feet away singing along to all the lyrics (I had forgotten that FMB´s Loa is also a member of Prinspolo). After the show, C and I cornered FM Belfast´s Lóa and attempted to discover why they were not performing at this year´s Airwaves, even though they were clearly in town. The answer we received was not satisfying: "We are having a strike." "Why?" "It´s a long story''. This didn´t stop me from gushing to her over the new album and most recent music video.
Day 1 (Wednesday, October 12, 2011)
Before seeing any music, I stopped by Babalu Cafe (where the Mugison video "A Little Trip to Heaven" was shot), and had some breakfast while reading the Reykjavík Grapevine (to get any last minute tips on the festival), and to eavesdrop on an unidentified Icelandic band flirting with a German tourist.
1:00 p.m., Kex Hostel, Gus Gus
The first official off-venue performance of the festival is also one of the most impressive. Gus Gus has been making electronic, dancy music for a long time, but I had conveniently ignored them in the many years prior to my becoming a fan of Icelandic music. I shuffled through painfully cold rain to the out-of-the-way Kex Hostel, and ran up a flight of stairs to enter a room packed to the gills with fans, impressive at this early hour. I rushed to remove my jacket, raincoat and sweater, almost immediately started sweating, but so almost immediatly started the band playing, the heads in the packed room beginning to nod. The vocals are heavily modulated, the echo covering up any weakness in the singers' voices, but the beats and the quality of the (only two) songs performed for this KEXP sponsored event are so strong that it doesn't matter. Here, I met Mohamed, an extremely friendly Sudanese, currently living in Dubai, and editor of the music publication Quint. He shows up frequently throughout the rest of the festival, and we both remark on the strength of the performance -- even though we were not initially planning on squeezing in to see Gus Gus play their "big show" at the Art Museum on Saturday night, this live performance of "Over" has convinced us. Throughout, the windows are fogged opaque, and the rain comes down hard.
3:00 p.m., Kex Hostel, For a Minor Reflection
Another strong performance by this entirely instrumental Icelandic band, perhaps describable as "math rock lite". The musicianship is strong, the band members young, and everybody in the bar is feeling happy drinking liter sized beers. I spend the set at a table in the back of the room with a New York-residing Brazilian and two Californians, one of which speaks Icelandic, due to a month and a half course he took here in 2007. I've had trouble motivating myself to listen to much of FAMR at home (in fact, I didn't follow them closely enough to know they had just played a series of shows in L.A. the previous weekend...), but their talent translates much better live.
One of the themes of my second trip to Iceland Airwaves was the noticeable decline in the reliability of the published schedules. I show up to Hresso, possibly my favorite of the off-venue sites (easy to find a place to stand, easy access to bar, decent sound, often a great line-up, close to everything else) with no clue as to whom I'll be seeing play. Berndsen, whose electro-pop I'd found appealing when reviewing the Airwaves line-up prior to the festival, doesn't disappoint. He's dressed in an almost overly clichéd hipster getup -- pink sweater with a big heart on the front, and Williamsburg style beard -- and the show relies mostly on pre-recorded tracks, charisma and to a lesser degree songwriting (rather than singing or live musicianship), but the show is strong. A group of young Icelandic girls are singing along to each of the songs, and Mohamed shows up in time to offer Berndsen an animalistic headpiece to wear for the second half of the set. The song "To Your Heart" features a surprisingly bizarre and intricate guitar solo, contradicting my suggestion that the band is weak on chops.
5:00 p.m., Hresso, Retro Stefson
One of the strongest performances of the festival (I later regret not having the opportunity to see them play their late night set later in the festival). Retro Stefson is a mixed race band -- uncharacteristic for an Icelandic band -- but extremely talented and charismatic (which is not unusual for an Icelandic band). From the moment they start playing, Retro Stefson has everybody dancing. Between songs, lead singer Unnsteinn instruct the crowd to "imagine you are at a football game. Think about about your day. What you did. What you could have done better" before exploding into afro-pop/electro dance music. The room is laughing, clapping, dancing, as the band leaps from the stage and leads us in a conga line around the bar, and later crowd surfing. The same young Icelandic girls are still jumping and screaming. I can't wait for these guys to break through to the American audience.
The Iceland Airwaves Festival cannot be discussed with mention of the new venue, Harpa, a monstrosity/boondoggle for the Icelandic taxpayer, but in my opinion (as well as that of many of the festival attendees), an architectural masterpiece. Taking over 5 years to complete, and housing at least as many venues (each of a difference size and atmosphere), it looms over the Reykjavík harbor, blinking (as some have described) like broken Christmas tree lights or a "like a 64-inch TV inside a caravan" (referring to its grandness amidst the ruined Icelandic economy). A truly wonderful place to see live music -- I hope it works out for Iceland. Náttfari played in one of the smaller rooms, instrumental rock, creating what I described at the time as an "interesting space", although I'm not exactly sure what I meant by that. The seats in this room were comfortable, but less so with the several layers of jacket I was wearing.
9:40 p.m., Harpa Kalalón, Nolo
This psychadelic two piece didn't leave a particularly strong impression on me, but to the small extent it did, it was positive. I recognized one song (check it out, it's a cool song), but wasn't particularly intrigued by anything that happened on stage.
Supposedly the guy behind Yagya is a great guy, and he's a friend of a friend, but I wasn't particularly drawn by his DJing, nor the genre of "Deep House." I was also panicking somewhat at the time over having lost an important item of mine, and having replaced it with one I did not know how to operate. I had an extremely drunken conversation outside the venue with a guy from the Faroe Island. I attempted to speak Icelandic to him, but it only went "so so".
Of all the bands I saw perform at Iceland Airwaves, Of Monsters and Men is the most likely to break out into the international mainstream. I've long heard them described as a combination of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford and Sons (both of which I think are apt comparisons), but lately (and I sense this is more prescriptive/aspirational than descriptive), I have heard a comparison to the Arcade Fire. Their song "Little Talks" is indisputably catchy, and belongs on KCRW (89.9) (eventually to migrate to KROQ (106.7) and eventually to MYFM (104.3) and later the KOST (103.5)) as these types of songs often do ("Young Folks", "Pumped up Kicks", "Rolling in the Deep", etc.) but whether they make the leap is more an accident of promotion than talent or taste. Supposedly they were signed to Universal right after the festival, so things look optimistic. It's a large band, playing mostly acoustic instruments, both male and female singers. But my discussion of their commercial potential must be necessarily overshadowed by what was going on in my own head during this performance -- the hangover of the century, which followed a not to be repeated day of Icelandic beer drinking. I ran into an Icelandic guy I had met the year before, and had a great chat in line with 3 Germans (some of which was in Icelandic, some in Swedish...), but the pain shooting through my skull at this point in the evening was too intense to bear. I went home early, only to find that I had lost my keys (they turned up the next morning in my pockets), so went to sleep in the doorway of my friend's apartment at which I was staying, due to the fact that the buzzer seemed not to be working. I was later awoken by a neighbor, arriving home late from vacation, who allowed me to enter the building.
Day 2 (Thursday, October 13, 2011)
I arrived downtown a little early and ran into Dr. Gunni, lead singer of S.H. Draumur, one of my all-time favorite Icelandic bands, one of the performers at last year's Airwaves, a children's music composer, a tv host and one of Iceland's most prolific rock music historians. I introduced myself as a big fan. "Do you like post punk?", he said.
Possibly the most up and coming of the artists coming out of the Faroe Islands (Iceland's much smaller, and more obscure neighbor, about halfway between Iceland and Scotland), Guðrið is an incredible talent, has a wonderful voice, and as strong a sense for rock as for folk. I only caught the second half of her set, but was mesmerized by her combination of English and Faroese lyrics (Faroese is the closest spoken relative of Icelandic -- I was able to pick out a number of words, even though all the Icelandic people I spoke to claimed that it was "very different" from Icelandic). I don't love the Nordic House as a venue, because it smells of seriousness, and all audience members are seated (either in chairs, or uncomfortably on the floor, as was I). I was so impressed by her show that I immediately bought her newest CD, Beyond the Grey. After the show, I was lucky enough to meet another big Faroese star, Petur Zachariassen, of Zach and Foes (currently on hiatus), that I saw play an incredible rockabilly set last year. On the way back into downtown, I walked past the lake that sits in central Reykjavík. I love this place.
3:00 p.m., Hresso, Borko
Based on the inaccurate published Airwaves schedule, I thought I was going to Hresso to see Pascal Pinon, but due to the inaccurate scheduling, I saw Borko, one of the members of FM Belfast, one of my favorite Icelandic bands. Although I had the pleasure to speak extensively with Lóa, another FM Belfast member, before the show, I wasn't extremely impressed with Borko's music. I didn't hate it or anything, just wasn't that intrigued.
I climbed the very crowded stairs to the top floor of the overly crowded Eymudsson bookstore to squeeze into a standing room only spot to see Hellvar, the current band of Heiða, a fixture of the Icelandic music scene since the early 90s. She's played in another successful band called Unum with Dr. Gunni, and has collaborated very successfully with Páll Óskar, Iceland's biggest domestic pop star. In my opinion, of all Icelandic singers, her voice is most like that of Iceland's biggest star of all time -- Björk -- although their styles are quite different. She introduces a song as Ding an Sich, supposedly based on a concept discussed by Immanuel Kant and assures the rest of the crowd that the Germans in the audience would be readily familiar with Kant and his writings. "It's all incredibly deep", she says. The song has something to do with "the thing in me", which happens to be "Rock and Roll". Throughout the very spirited show, she throws her guitar over her raised knee, thus holding the guitar at all times close to her face.
I run fast down Laugavegur to catch IIRIS, a young singer from Estonia, accompanied now only by keboard, at Barbara, the only gay bar in Reykjavík. She engages in cutesy banter that I find a bit much, innocently announcing that she "didn't even know about this show!" until she was on the plane. She's got some talent though, with a voice somewhat reminicent of Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom, banging on the piano for effect: "I didn't bring my 40 kilo baby...my baby grand!" Oh how adorable. How do people who speak such poor English manage to compose songs with such elaborate lyrics. If I were to write a song in Icelandic, it would probably sound like "I Like Fish, Fish is Good!", while this lady is going on and on about dreams, and magic and thunderclouds. Well la. ti. da.
This band is legendary in Iceland, led by the towering Högni Egilsson, who looks exactly what you'd picture if you were to imagine an Icelandic viking -- tall, blond, long hair and beard. But despite his frightening appearance, he's got a fantastic voice (probably my favorite thing about the band), and the songs are surprisingly uplifting, although occasionally (as complained a friend of mine) veering into the stylistic territory of American musicals. The highlight was, of course, their big hit "Feels Like Sugar." One of my favorite aspects of live concerts over listening to music at home or in the car is watching everybody else enjoy the show, belting the lyrics out along with Högni. Before entering the venue, security made me leave my pre-mixed bottle of rum and orange juice outside. When I left the show, it was waiting there for me. Thank you Reykjavík!
10:00 p.m., Nasa, Young Galaxy
Unimpressive Canadian band, but I was not offended by their lack of originality. It is debateable how closely their style resembled the Smiths, but they surely lacked the substance. I suspect that they put on a much better show as a local band in Montreal (where they are from). My pre-mixed bottle of orange juice and vodka was quickly and unceremoniously snatched from my hands by a staff member while I was watching this band.
11:00 p.m., Nasa, Active Child
Hailing from Los Angeles, he was one of the festival highlights. My friend and I squeezed onto the floor, and I desperately tried to capture a decent photograph of Active Child with my unprofessional camera, watched him blissfully playing the harp, singing pretty Bronski Beat style. A perfect combination of classical elements and electronic music, the crowd ate it up. People kept talking about Active Child for days. Supposedly, my friend at Short and Sweet NYC has an interview with him, which I'll link to once it is up.
12:00 a.m., Nasa, YACHT
Thursday closes with an explosion of white spandex and electronic beats with YACHT. Based on the performance I saw at Coachella 2011, I wasn't expecting this sort of energy, but Claire Evans kept the audience's energy high (and focused on her) with a see-through costume and DANCING. My friend C and I were so pumped up from the show that we danced afterward on the floor of Nasa to the Austra track playing as the crowd exited.
4:00 p.m., Hresso, Murmansk
I started the day way too late, but was lucky to start strong, with this fabulous rock band from Finland. Driving drums that kept me tapping my feet, and hands and head, and a strong female vocalist. They seemed young, but very enjoyable and with a lot of potential.
5:30 p.m., Kex Hostel, John Grant
Again with the rain and the faraway venues. Luckily, my friend D and her friend A were waiting in the front of a very long line, and I left my ethics in California and joined them. Once again, the relatively large space was packed tight with festival goers, super excited to see this American singer/songwriter. I grabbed a liter beer (forgive me, I was starting drinking late), and waited for him to start. Unfortunately, because of the setup of the venue, the crowd, and large posts blocking my view, I couldn't see a thing. He sounded vaguely like Elton John. I ran into a number of friends and acquaintances while there, and it took a while to get out of the venue once the set was over, only to emerge into...the pouring rain. Of all the nights of the trip, this was the most punishing, my jeans completely soaked with rainwater after walking across town. Despite this, I'm having a great time, and super excited about the bands lined up for the evening, starting with...
8:30 p.m., Nasa, Samaris
A vocalist (also in Pascal Pinon), a DJ and a clarinetist, Samaris is one of the buzzed new bands in Reykjavík despite having hardly released an EP. I've heard them described as something like "witch rock", which I guess is fairly appropriate. Slightly less dark than Fever Ray, but they wear all black, witch like costumes, and their music could be described as "haunting" (although the lyrics are all in Icelandic, so hard to say what they are all about). I love the look, but the sound is slightly jarring. Still, I see a big future for these guys, just based on the talent alone at their age (17?). I loved the feather drawings that were make up-ed under their eyes. I ran into them later that evening at Harpa (and several more times at the festival) -- very friendly!
8:50 p.m., Harpa Norðurljós, Hljómsveitin Ég
For reasons I cannot explain, no one that I know who is familiar with this band seems to like them much, and the room where they played was not terribly full. I thought they were spectactular. Listen to this: good right? Groovy, psychadelic, funky at times. Lead singer had huge sideburns and a hat. They engaged in what seemed like hilarious Icelandic banter with the audience. Later on in the restroom at Harpa, I met a friend of theirs who had appeared on stage with them for one song. He was super nice and offered to get me a signed copy of the album.
9:40 p.m., Harpa Norðurljós, Mugison
A combination of the Black Keys, Sufjan Stevens and Zach Galifianakis, Mugison is an extremely expressive stage performer mixing folk, blues and rock, his very expressive drummer pounding away. Mugison's songwriting is at times a bit conventional (earlier in the day some Canadian friends described it as "Canadian Rock"), but he knows how to make a room have fun. He even sang his new Icelandic song "Stingum Af", which I think is very pretty.
10:30 p.m., Harpa Norðurljós, Ólöf Arnalds
Another of the Icelandic artists I was most looking forward to seeing, OA's voice is very distinctive, and borders on the overly cutesy, but avoids reverting to cutesy sayings and appeals to Icelandic stereotypes to win over the crowd. Rather, she wins them over with vocal control, songwriting, and some excellent covers such as (on this evening), "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man". After singing it she remarked: "It's crazy, there are so many words in Tambourine Man!" She seems somewhat uncomfortable speaking English, but this is not a problem, as her Icelandic lyrics work so very well. Here's a recording she did of "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man" for KEXP during Airwaves, harmonizing quite prettily with her sister, who is pictured above to the right of Ólöf, who is standing to her left.
11:00 p.m., Art Museum (Listasafn), Dungen
I LOVE the Dungen album I own, and was very much looking forward to this Swedish group's performance at Airwaves. But...I was disappointed here. They played a few of the songs I know and love, but perhaps because of my distance from the stage, perhaps because of the sound, perhaps because of their lack of energy, I wasn't feeling it. I spent the show chatting with an Icelandic guy, a chef, that had once lived in California, and that I met last year at the festival, and ran into again this night. He and I left early to grab a hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu. Earlier that evening, I had grabbed a hot dog from the same early 20s guy working at the stand, and while measuring out my payment in Icelandic Kronur, was mouthing along to the Stone Roses song he had playing on his stereo, which led to him telling me about how he had bought the album in Manchester, which led to a discussion of the Smiths. This conversation continued during this second visit to the hot dog stand.
12:10 a.m., Glaumbar, Of Monsters and Men
Once again, an incomplete set from Iceland's most-likely-to-break-on-through-into-the-mainstream band, but this time I felt a million times better than I did Wednesday night. And this time we were at a small downtown bar, rather than one of Reykjavík's biggest clubs. The Icelandic chef and I had run into my friend C, and the three of us (or was it 4?) ended up standing on some chairs, singing along to "Little Talks", along with the rest of the bar, including some nurses from Kansas City, of whose story I never really figured out. It's moments like these that are very hard to find in L.A., even for our most beloved local bands. That is, a moment when all pretentions are dropped, everybody is friends, and everyone knows and loves the band. I must have spotted at least 3 other fairly high profile bands in the audience, everyone we encountered looked thrilled. Spirits were high, and stayed that way for a long time.
1:30 a.m., Nasa, Totally Enourmous Extinct Dinosaurs
I bypassed the line down snaking around the block by falsely claiming marriage to a friend with a media pass in order to catch this apparently well known British DJ, who also ended up being one of the more talked about acts of the festival. Decked out in what looked like an Indian headdress, or maybe it was meant to look like Stegasaurus horns, and accompanied by several wigged dancers (whose costumes changed throughout the show), TEED had this late night crowd dancing and very happy. In later discussions with friends and acquaintances, I learned that many others I knew were there that night. I was too busy gawking at the stage to notice any of them.
2:30 a.m., Nasa, Bloodgroup
Last year I saw Bloodgroup between 2 and 3 times, as I had been so impressed by their songwriting, singing, and danceableness. I even drove out to Palm Spring (through a snowstorm no less!) this March to see them in Southern California. This year's performance was slightly disappointing (but only slightly), although I can't exactly put my finger on why. By this later hour, the crowd had thinned slightly (some had no doubt migrated to any of the many downtown non-music venue bars that are open until at least 5 a.m.), and I had room to place my rain jacket, jacket, sweater, and long sleeve shirt in a pile in order to facilitate dancing. A somewhat ornery Icelandic girl, who claimed to have just turned 21, and had a bowl haircut and her pushover boyfriend made-out throughout the set. She kept giving me really dirty looks.
Day 4 (Saturday, October 15, 2011)
While walking into town, I ran into a protest against the Icelandic banks, which seemed to have a flavor similar to Occupy Wall Street.
4:00 p.m., Reykjavík Downtown Hostel, Samaris
Despite having seen them the night before, I decided to give Samaris another try. The setlist was basically (or identically) the same, but the costumes were toned down, and the crowd packed tight into the tiny space. I sipped on an americano with whipped cream, and attempted to take photographs over the heads of those who had made it into the hostel before me. I really like them. Here's a video I found of this show.
5:00 p.m., Eymundsson Austurstræti, Lay Low
"Hi, I'm Lovisa. I think I'm going to speak English." The face of the Icelandic child sitting to my left sank immediately. In a room packed full of children and parents, Iceland's Lay Low played a perfect set of countryish tunes, with Billy Hollidayish vocals, often employing a call and response with her 3 backup singers. One of my regrets from last year's Airwaves was missing all of Lay Low's several sets (due to scheduling conflicts), so I was quite satisfied to finally see her play (that is, since I saw her open for Emiliana Torrini, years ago at the Troubadour.)
8:00 p.m., Glaumbar, Pascal Pinon
Another of the bands I had been most looking forward to seeing at Airwaves, I disappointed myself by only catching the final few songs. Jófríður Ákadóttir, one half of Pascal Pinon, is also a member of Samaris, but plays a completely different role in this folksy duo (plus supporting characters). The harmonies were sweet, although Jófríður's twin sister Ásthildur seemed slightly bashful when it came to performing. Pascal Pinon does a nice job alternating between both Icelandic and English lyrics, and is otherwise much more accessible than Samaris. I ran into my Canadian friends, and was sad to learn that they had lost the camera they brought to the festival. As far as I know, it was never discovered.
9:00 p.m., Art Museum (Listasafn), Valdimar
From the stateside perspective over the last few months, Validimar seems to be one of the Icelandic bands that has been getting the most buzz from locals (i.e. constant facebook posting, and publicity from Gogoyoko). While I was standing far back during the set, and was only generally familiar with their work, I thought they sounded good, kind of like the Police, but with a really, really, large lead singer (like the singer from Canned Heat). And a horn section.
10:00 p.m., Art Museum (Listasafn), Other Lives
I had been looking forward to seeing this Oklahoman band quite a bit since checking them out on the Airwaves page weeks before. Perhaps it was just the nature of the venue (very deep, crowded, not amazing sound) or where I was located (far away), but I couldn't get excited about them. Based on the positive reviews I heard from people standing closer to the stage, I'd consider giving them another try.
11:00 p.m., Art Museum (Listasafn), Austra
Austra, on the other hand, was a blast. I had been introduced to the band during my interview (almost a year ago!) with fellow Canadian Diamond Rings, when I asked him about his favorite Toronto bands. I've seen Austra twice now in L.A., and her very dark, but still very fun Feel It Break album is one of my favorites of 2011. Although I entered the venue alone, by the time I squeezed my way to the front of the crowd (before the set started), I discovered that I was surrounded my friends and acquaintances I had met earlier during the festival, including people I had met over a year prior. Due to the large amount of fog (the band uses it to create atmosphere), it was very difficult to take photos with my point and shoot camera, but the music was fantastic. A number of others besides me were singing along, lead singer Katie Stelmanis performed her trademark (or was this started by Siouxsie and the Banshees? Or was it Stevie Nicks?) arm waving for punctuation. Later on at the festival, I heard that she was a bit snotty to some folks that tried to interview her, and for this I'm a bit put off. But the quality of the show as A+. There was a guy in the audience waving around a pineapple throughout. I heard later from others that this same individual had terrorized Airwaves in a similar manner the previous year.
12:00 a.m., Art Museum (Listasafn), Gus Gus
Possibly the highlight of the evening. I had never considered myself a Gus Gus fan in particular, but after seeing their 1:00 p.m. Kex show on Wednesday (and finding myself dancing, sober, at that ungodly early hour), I knew I couldn't miss this. Hjaltalín's Högni Egilsson, Gus Gus' newest addition, towered over the others (all of whose voices seemed heavily modulated and enhanced -- again, it sounded so good that I didn't care), belting out with one of the best voices in the Icelandic rock scene. The foreigners in the front seemed ecstatic -- the only qualifying negative factor being the 1-2 extremely drunk local guys who insisted upon bumping into everyone, pushing and screaming in ears. This was a small price to pay for a very energetic and catchy show.
1:30 a.m., Nasa, Team Me
I paid almost no attention to this, but they seemed like a fairly ordinary rock band.
2:30 a.m., Nasa, Sykur
After meeting up with my Icelandic friends A and I, my New York friend C and German friend M, we stood in the side area of Nasa, drank Brennivin shots and drunkenly danced while this super young electronic band got the pit dancing. The band has received a much noticed improvement in their new singer (Agnes Björt Andradóttir?), a purple haired (wigged) Icelandic girl who dances and raps as well as anyone. This video from earlier in the festival captures about half of the energy that she displayed at the Saturday show. The number of words coming out of her mouth was insane.
Day 5 (Sunday, October 16, 2011)
8:00 p.m., Harpa Silfurberg, Björk
Probably the highlight of the festival, and I'm a bit afraid to say much about this jawdropping performance, for risk of not doing it justice. To give a sense of my level of anticipation for this performance by without question the biggest star to come out of Iceland, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. PST in order to purchase this ticket (months ago) at noon GMT. On a Saturday. I've said quite a bit about the Harpa venue already, but I must again emphasize the impressivenss of the room she chose for her Biophilia performance. Björk performed on a central stage, surrounded by both standing space and seats, none of the spectators more than 20 or so meters away from her, with a choir of about 20 Icelandic singers/dancers, one of the best/most interesting percussionists I've ever seen (he performed all of the musical accompaniment for the encore "One Day" on a set of kettles), a giant tesla coil hanging from the ceiling above her providing electric lightnight bolts as "beats", a harpsicordist and a very large string musical instrument built into a pendulum (I couldn't figure out how it worked). I must admit: I don't think the new album Biophilia, from which most of the songs in the show came, is that great from a songwriting perspective, and most people with whom I have spoken tend to agree. That is, when she would play her older songs, the difference in quality was striking -- the old songs get under your skin in a way that you find yourself singing them in the shower for months, or while taking out the trash, or maybe mid-conversation. The strength of the new material seemed to lie much in concept, while they lacked catchiness. But...as far as pure performance goes, this show as spectacular, and in expressing pure energy and soul on stage is where I think Bjork towers over all other artists. Each song was accompanied by a video, each illustrating a scientific concept (viral replication, tectonic plates, the moon's cycle, a time lapse video of a dead seal consumed by sea stars, DNA/protein replication (this was one of the most impressive visuals I've ever experienced, and as far as I can tell, scientifically accurate). So my eyes were constantly torn between these stunning visual images, and the live figure of Bjork and her backup singers. The acoustics were perfect, her voice was perfect, her gigantic red wig was perfect, and the stunned near silence of the crowd suggests that everyone knew that they were experiencing something special. Also, because no cameras were allowed, this was a rare show where I could focus my eyes on the performer and on the other visual offerings the show provided, rather than be distracted by a sea of iPhones, each recording a low quality video. Afterwards, while waiting at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor of Harpa, I ran into a guy that I had seen that morning, at about 5:00 a.m., the first in line to get "free" tickets outside of the Smekkleysa music store, and asked him about his experience, and whether it was worth it to fly out from Seattle, and then start waiting so early in the morning. His response: "I think I'll be happy for the next three years."
11:00 p.m., Amsterdam, Q4U
Still reeling from the Bjork show, very tired, and somewhat sad about the festival winding down, I only stayed at Amsterdam for a small while, but I'll make this short comment: Q4U was one of a number of post-punk, punk, garage, rock bands featured in the classic Icelandic music documentary Rokk í Reykjavík which documented the burgeoning Reykjavik music scene in 1980-1981. Among the bands featured in the documentary was Q4U, who provided a somewhat appealing contribution with "Creeps" (the song had been in my head for days after I heard Q4U was playing). Another band on that documentary (and it's classic soundtrack) was the very energetic Tappi Tíkarrass, led by a 14 year old named Björk (check out "Hrollur" from the same documentary). While it seems clear in retrospect that Bjork was an unusual talent at the time, without hindsight, the two bands made fair peers. But now, the contrast was painfully striking. As discussed above, I had just watched Björk perform a mindblowing, extremely innovative, and grand show, that several hundred people had paid good money to see -- something which I'll rememeber forever. Q4U, 30 years later, is playing the same songs, the same style, in a tiny, half filled room.
11:00 p.m., Nasa, Hjaltalín
I only caught a small portion of this set. What I saw compared pretty closely to the earlier Listasafn show, but I was so tired at this point and kind of ready for the festival to be over. I think I spent most of the time standing in the back, no drink in hand, chit chatting with some of my new Airwaves friends.
12:00 a.m., Gaukur Á Stöng, Mammút
I had seen Mammút play a few times at last year's Airwaves, and had been so impressed that I purchased one of their albums in the interim. In fact, of all the bands currently playing in Iceland, Mammút reminds me most of the classic band Tappi Tíkarrass, and lead singer Kata's voice reminds me much of the young Björk -- howling, screaming, but spirited and, in a way, controlled. The bandmembers are all very young, but they put on a very entertaining show. I'd take them over Paramour any day. After the show, I witnessed an impromptu dance routine to JD McPherson's "North Side Gal". I had assumed that this would be the last show of the festival, but I was quite wrong.
12:00 a.m., Nasa, Rich Aucoin
A small group of new friends rushed a few streets over to catch the last few songs from Rich Aucoin, a Canadian with a schtick very similar to Dan Deacon. Lots of crowd participation, literal crowd surfing (with a surf board), a giant parachute, confetti, large messages displayed on screens, and constant reminders to the crowd that they need feel excited. I think I would have enjoyed it more with a bit more to drink in me, or maybe if I wasn't feeling slightly depressed about it being the end of the festival. Or was it....?
Postscript, 1:00 a.m.-4:00 a.m.: One of the best small parties I've ever attended
After saying goodbye to some friends for the evening, and probably for the rest of the trip I began my long walk home...only to run into a large group of foreigners, standing around a street lamp, apparently amused by something. I never learned what it was (a break dancer?), because suddenly they all began running across the square, into an alley (I followed), where we encountered another large group of foreigners. Suddenly there began an impromptu street dance-off, reminiscent of that in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video. No one seemed to be clear as to what was going on, nor what anyone was doing, but the next thing I knew, the entire crowd was being lead down Laugavegur by Sykur's Agnes Björt Andradóttir to Ingólfsstræti 8, which while essentially an apartment, also functions as a small music venue and party space. My best intentions told me that I must go to sleep NOW, and be refreshed for my long travel day on Monday, but this party was irrestistable. I rushed up the stairs to find people dancing (more like jumping up and down) to FM Belfast's "Underwear", wine bottles everywhere, members of several 'big time" Icelandic bands in attendance, and otherwise general mayhem. Again, somehow a large number of the people I had incidentally befriended over the course of the festival happened to be present. I complain often about parties here in LA -- the music is rarely of a sort that moves me, and whenever anything I like comes on, everybody else tends to sit down. Here was quite the opposite. Despite being only a beer or two past completely sober, I spent the next few hours with a tightly packed room, half foreign, half Icelandic, dancing to Le Tigre, Justice, and Iceland's biggest dance hit of the minute: "Djamm í Kvöld". We danced and chatted and laughed and did our best to stay out of the cold until the party was broken up by the Icelandic police at around 4:00 a.m. Fantastic night, and I couldn't have asked for a better end to the festival. [11/7/2011: Just found this blog post (with many good photos) and accurate commentary about the party: http://oracleroulette.com/2011/10/28/no-sleep-for-the-wicked/]