I’m at the Iceland Airwaves music festival in Reykjavik, something which I’ve long wanted to do and finally somewhat on a whim decided to do. After only just a little over two days, I can unequivocally say to you: If Iceland is on any kind of wish list for you to visit, do it.
Airwaves is a festival that’s been taking place since 1999; it pretty much takes over all of downtown Reykjavik, (plus a few excursion events like afternoon "chills" at the Blue Lagoon) and attracts 8,000 music-lovers both from within Iceland and outside of the country. The sold-out festival is both highly organized and a bit of a free-for-all, with venues all over town, dozens of official events taking place over four days, (all seeming to start and end promptly with 10 minute breaks between bands) and hundred more "off-venue" officially-sanctioned events taking place at every restaurant, coffee bar, hotel lobby and hostel in the city core.
The options are mind-boggling. Many bands, but not all, are playing more than once, but there’s absolutely no way to see everything I want to see, so I’m going with a hit list of must-sees and then letting happenstance dictate what else I see. The festival is sold out, and most venues are small, so the chances of seeing everything are minimal anyway, and there are a few shows that I really want to see later in the week like the rumored last-show ever for The Knife, and the oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-he’s-here Hozier. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Getting there is half the fun
We got to Reykjavik on Tuesday morning at 6:00 Iceland time, after departing from Minneapolis at 11:00 AM, stopping over in Toronto. None of us could sleep on the plane, so we arrived and began the process of just being in Iceland. Our excitement was hampered only slightly by the fact that it was still dark out. Like, pitch black dark, until almost 9:00 a.m. Daylight at this time of year only lasts from about 9:30 AM until 5:00 pm, and shops and businesses kind of follow suit. So our entire hour-long drive from the airport was in darkness, and we didn’t see anything of the countryside. We checked in to our inn, freshened up, and rented a car and as soon as the sun came up… (waited, waited), we hit Iceland’s highway 1 for a drive through some of the most gorgeous, picturesque landscape any of us had ever seen.
I had a minor technical tragedy before I left in that my iPhone camera is not functioning so I had to rely on the kindness of my traveling companions David Lewis, Kate Nordstrum and Bobby Maher to document the trip, so all accompanying photos have been pilfered, er, borrowed from them.
Again, I stress, if you have ever thought about coming here, please make your plans. The landscape abutting the seascape is magnificent. After a few hours of driving (possibly the wrong direction and just maybe in a harrowing tunnel or two), we arrived at Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal bath spa on the edge of a lake. We soaked in it for a couple of hours, ate rye bread (more of a spice cake) that they baked in pots in the ground heated by the hot springs, and felt like new people. From there, we drove to Geysir, and saw the actual geyser that the word geyser is named after, then back to Reykjavik for a version of pho at a stand-up restaurant that was incredible.
All told we drove for about 6 hours, saw a good chunk of the south-east part of the area, and experienced amazing adventures we couldn’t anywhere else in the world, all in one day. By the end, we’d been awake for about 32 hours, and were feeling a bit loopy, but happy. A successful day one.
The Iceland Airwaves festival started on our second day here, Wednesday, Nov. 5. Our first stop was the KEXP Kex Hostel Takeover, where old friend and former Twin Citian Kevin Cole anchors a daily live broadcast from Kex Hostel, a charming working hostel with a cozy bar and tavern that has been hosting this live broadcast for many years. They served a small but lovely menu of soups, burgers, salads and beers for the lunchtime crowd that felt like a true kick-off for the festival. The place was packed with a hodgepodge of wood furniture and quirky accessories that gave it a homey, inviting feel. It was also packed with beautiful people wearing knit hats and wool sweaters. They say Icelanders are some of the best looking people on Earth; that is no lie. You could spread their moss-infused cream cheese with the cheekbones in this room.
Once the first band Kiasmos started, the 300+ crowd stood and started nodding in a chilled out but appreciative unison. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Kiasmos set the musical tone for a lot of what we’d see yesterday: beautiful, down-tempo ambient electronic music that you can groove to but never really lets loose into something with a more explosive vibe. Iceland Airwaves really likes its chill-out grooves.
We also checked out Vök, who more than one person compared to an Icelandic Polica. The venue was an old, slightly run down but still ornate movie theater called Gamla Bio with all the seats removed. It was pretty packed, and the enthusiastic crowd greeted the band with more controlled enthusiasm. The Polica comparison stuck, but while it was pleasant I missed some of Polica’s hooks and song structure. The most striking thing to me was seeing a venue in a new country. Pepsi products and Gull beer coolers were everywhere. The female bartender stood on the second balcony bar to get a better look at the band. People sat on the railing with their feet dangling over the sides. Icelandic fans shoved people aside as they walked by – but with a smile on their face. And literally half the crowd was wearing the traditional Icelandic sweater, giving the whole place a strangely pastoral sense of anarchy.
From there we walked across town to the primary venue and the town’s shining jewel on the harbor, Harpa, a multi-roomed concert hall. It’s one of the most beautiful structures of this kind I’ve seen.
The big attraction for the night was Asgeir, an artist The Current fans might be familiar with. A packed crowd waited almost silently as his 13 piece band filed on stage. I’ve never seen so many brass instruments make such a hushed, muted noise. It was lovely and atmospheric, with beautiful stark projections of trees and robed figures behind him. It was mesmerizing and transfixing, but so filled with bodies and more ambient down-tempo music that we couldn’t endure the whole thing. We also saw a few minutes of Mr. Silla (more female-led chill out vibe music) and a lovely soul singing, blues-tinged guitarist named Lay Low who provided the first fully instrument-driven music performance of the night. As Bobby said, she had a wide-open vowel quality to her voice not unlike Joanna Newsom’s. We left Harpa and walked back over to the Bio and saw FM Belfast with 2000 of the happiest Icelanders imaginable. To describe FM Belfast would be difficult, but suffice it to say it was like being invited to the ultimate local house party, with Dance Band, Koo Koo Kangaroo and old school Har Mar Superstar all on stage at the same time. Burly, half-naked Viking-looking men were gyrating next to me and the entire room was pogoing at the same time, and 1:00 a.m. was looming. After 45 minutes of first loving it and then fearing for my life we opted to get the famed Icelandic hot dogs and some falafels in the main square and call it a night.
Today was a beautiful day in Iceland. The sun was out for a majority of the daylight hours, mixed with just the mildest amounts of misty rain.
We started the day by checking out the harbor, adjacent to the downtown area. The sunshine glinting off the boats and water was glorious, and the smell of the sea and sounds of birds and waves and filled us with joy. It also put us right in the mood for the meal we were about to enjoy: Traditional Icelandic fish soup, courtesy of Iceland Airwaves and the Slippbarrin restaurant at the Icelandair Marina hotel. I must say, one area in which this festival has been killing it is the swag items. Our bags included a knit cap, a bunch of booze, high end chocolate and skin care items, plus a wrist band for free soup and either beer or a cocktail at the Slippbarrin every day of the festival. Since I’m a bit of a teetotaler, I asked for a mocktail, and they delighted me with a house-made rhubarb, vanilla and birch soda that was sweet and tart and balanced the unctuous tomato-based seafood-laden soup perfectly. It was the best breakfast I’ve had in a while. We paid close to $12 for a similar soup the day before, and based on the menu prices I’m guessing the soda was easily $6, so getting the meal for free was an especially sweet deal. We added a few things to the meal, including this crazy-good gratin of buri cheese with honey and pine nuts, and agreed it was easily the best food we have had so far on the trip.
One thing to know about Iceland: it is hella expensive. An average lunch meal is at least $30, with plates of fish stew (basically the national dish) running between $19 – $22 at casual cafes. That buri cheese appetizer was $15. You can find less expensive meals – something like a falafel wrap or a hot dog – but it’s not easy for a tourist. It cost us $60 to fill up our Volkswagon rental car – HALF WAY. And it got great gas mileage. Beers range from $6 to $12 for non-craft beers. No surprise, this is what things cost when you are on an island and everything is shipped in. But when you are visiting and hoping to stick to a budget, it’s a bit of a shock, and you end up eating a lot of noodle soups and hot dogs. Thankfully both are pretty good here.
Our musical day started at a great place that I only wish existed in Minneapolis, The Laundromat Café, where you can actually do laundry, get good food, good drinks, and during Airwaves, see an impressive line up of music with hundreds of other hipsters from across the globe. Seriously, I’d be here weekly if we had one. We saw an artist named Soley who performed with a keyboard and a brand-new (she kept telling us) looping machine. She had that thrift-store-librarian look down pat, and a pretty, ethereal voice that lofted above her music. She got the looping machine, she said, because she didn’t know she would be playing solo until recently, but she seemed to have it mastered, alternating between playing her keys and singing into a boom mic, and maneuvering the machine and singing into a hand-held. The closely-packed audience was transfixed, and held on every word. The vibe at Laundromat was quirky and casual and loose; the bartender was also mixing the Soley set, from behind the bar, which was another first for me as far as venues go.
An observation on Airwaves: the specter of Bjork and the Sugarcubes looms large over the music scene here. Most of the Icelandic bands I’ve seen so far have labored to get out from under that shadow or seemed to bask happily in it: Many female-fronted, experimental electronic and instrument combos with lushly layered vocals that have off-kilter timing and harmonies. I’m a big fan of Sugarcubes and Bjork, but the ennui of seeing that many bands with that genetic code is starting to set in.
I took a walk through town at dusk, got some food, and found that every possible space during Airwaves is a venue, including the parking area next to the hot dog cart and – no lie – the display window of the local version of a North Face store.
After that I checked out two Icelandic hip hop acts, the first being Kött Grá Pje who I could only understand a few words of, all of which were profane. The show was high energy and fun and felt like most American hip hop shows, which shouldn’t have been a surprise to me but somehow was. Following them was Reykjavikurdaetur, a hip hop collective of 12 women who came barreling out on stage and took turns with the mic, taking lead, backing each other up, and generally kicking ass on stage. Again, the only words I could make out were the R-rated ones, which the crowd responded to with a mixture of bemusement and joy.
After a few minutes of that we headed across the street to the Reykjavik Art Museum for a show by Wisconsin-natives, Phox. The performance space in the museum is a large, long, tall-ceilinged white space that looks like a modern take on an armory, but with a canvas ceiling for better acoustics and much better dressed people. Later in the week this will be the site of mayhem when Future Islands plays, but tonight it was a pleasantly packed house, and Phox played it perfectly. Fresh from a gig on Conan, the crowd eagerly and enthusiastically greeted the band’s atmospheric sound, and singer Monica Martin’s soulful voice filled the cavernous space nicely. They have a nice Cocteau Twins-vibe that went over big with the crowd, as did their sincere joy at being at the festival. They also played one of the longest sets I’d seen – 45 minutes to the usual 30 – making me think Airwaves knows this band is set to break out big time. Minnesota, be on the lookout.
That felt like a highpoint for me to go out on after a long couple of days and a really long couple more ahead. Still to come, hopefully: Anna Calvi, La Luz, Son Lux, Caribou, The Knife, Hozier, plus visiting The Blue Lagoon, finding the perfect Icelandic sweater, more fish soup and stew, and whatever other happenstance happens.
Friday, Day 3 of Iceland Airwaves, we were met with a blustery day that came right off the water and really drove home the concept of “wind chill”. It was still relatively sunny but the gusts were so severe that walking up certain streets was difficult. Still, there was lots of music and plenty of sites to see, so after once again taking advantage of the free bowl of hearty tomato soup dished up daily by Slippbarinn, I headed out. The first stop was back to the Kex Hostel for KEXP’s Hostel Takeover with La Luz, a very fun, female surf-punk band from Seattle who’s bright sound perfectly warmed us up on a very cold day. Since we were looking at the sea, it seemed especially fitting to have some surf vibes fill the crammed-to-capacity room, but seeing an ocean of wool caps and down coats instead of surfboards was unfortunate.
After sunning our attitudes if not skin, we walked along Reykjavik’s main shopping and dining strip for a bit, Laugavegur, and stumbled across the Lebowski Bar. Yes, the only bar in the world that is dedicated solely and entirely to “The Big Lebowski,” with menus featuring White Russians and food named after the characters. We only stayed long enough to soak up a little dude-zen, but I appreciated this spot way more than this one.
From there I walked up to Hallgrimskirkja church tower, the Lutheran church and tallest church in Iceland, where I almost lost a finger to frostbite to take a few pictures, but the view is unparalleled. This is what the sky looked like that day.
I warmed up at Kaffibarrin, a tiny off-venue place hosting the Bedroom Community showcase all week. Most days it was so crowded I literally couldn’t get a foot in the door, but I timed it right to squeeze in to see a set my James McVinnie, a Londoner who usually performs traditional works for organ. For this performance he wowed the closely packed crowed with an original piece as well as Phillip Glass’ “Mad Rush”; it was pretty incredible to stand 2 feet away from him while he performed. It was by far the most intimate venue and event of the festival.
My high-art experience of the trip was seeing the Iceland Symphony Orchestra perform the Jóhann Jóhannsson composition The Miners’ Hymns, set to footage assembled by Bill Morrison. It juxtaposes archival images of miner’s going to work in the coal mines with parades honoring the union bosses, to children playing on beaches and then showing the urban centers that have been built on the sites on former collieries. It was lovely to be able to see the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in their home setting, and specific movements within the piece were beautiful and well matched with the footage, but on whole I found the performance hard to completely lose myself in.
I’m going to skip over some of the bad stuff I saw in between McVinnie and the highlight of the night for me – and trust me – there was some bad stuff – but I happily got to see Anna Calvi absolutely slay the audience in the big room at Harpa later that night. (The Current audience might remember her song “Blackout” from 2013.) Calvi’s operatic voice and virtuosic guitar playing, along with her multi-instrumental band, absolutely riveted me and the 2,000 other people packed into the room. A stellar performance.
We followed up Anna with a dance set by Kiasmos, a new project by Iceland’s Olafur Arnalds and collaborator Janus Rassmussen. Olafur is kind of a big deal here, and this was sort of their debut. It went over big, but I had had enough techno, so off we went to see more Icelandic hip hop.
You know what Reykjavik loves? Hometown hip-hop. You know what hometown hip-hop band úlfur úlfur loves? America, apparently. Just check out their Facebook page. Their shows are known to be night-toppers, and by the looks of the crowd by the time we got there, it should have been a night-ender for most people there. They were a great live act and I’d recommend them to any hip-hop fan, as they worked the crowd well and had great hooks. I have zero idea what they sing about, though, so don’t hold me accountable there.
(via David Lewis)
By the time we left the club around 2:00 AM, Reykjavik was looking like the tail end of a Hold Steady song. We stopped for surprisingly expensive sub sandwiches at the hut in the middle of the square, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to witness (or be part of) a drunken sing along, brawl or love-fest. Frankly, all three at once was not off the table. The streets of downtown were a sea of drunken people, lines wrapped around buildings still waiting to get into showcases, and broken glass everywhere. I was really starting to wish I could see Reykjavik’s quieter, sleepier side when the festival is packed up and shipped out. Another time.
Day 4 of the festival, our 5th day here, is another sunny day, and with news of a winter storm watch hitting Minnesota, I’m really starting to wish we were able to linger a while longer, but the pace of the festival is also dragging on us all. We start the day off visiting Reyjkavik’s weekend flea market, which takes place in a large warehouse space across from the harbor. It’s a typical European-style market with some permanent stalls featuring handmade and commercial goods, as well as used, yard-sale type wares, plus a food court showcasing local delicacies and fresh seafood. It’s a great way to while away some time, barter for better prices than you might find in some of the tonier shops, and people watch.
We sat at a sunny café and pondered the irony of Iceland being a warmer spot than Minnesota at that moment and had a typically pricey lunch – $25+ for a salad or a sandwich, and those were the on the low end of the price points – and then wandered around a bit. My companions hit up more of the Bedroom Community afternoon showcases but the room was again packed and I was running out of energy for crowd-fighting.
A side-note: Bedroom Community is affiliated with Greenhouse Studios, one of the preeminent recording facilities in the world, that is based in Reykjavik. The roster of artists that have made a pilgrimage to record there is impressive, and Kate (who programs the Liquid Music series and has presented many of those artists) got to take a tour of the facilities. Greenhouse Studios. Her glee was palpable.
My last Reykjavik meal was a rich, creamy lobster soup from Sea Baron, a must-have if visiting. Sea Baron is a tiny little harbor shack with counter service that serves a limited menu of that soup, and a few kebobs of fresh caught fish that they grill after you select it from the cooler. Soup is about $12, and a single kebob is $15 – $18 depending on what you order; but it is fantastic.
Saturday night was a big night for Airwaves, with shows by Future Islands, Caribou and some well-known Icelandic performers. I elected to only hit up two of the festival headliners, the last-ever (for now, maybe) show by The Knife, followed by Hozier, in adjoining halls in Harpa, the multi-room performance hall. Harpa was a bit of a frenzy from the get-go, with a huge portion of the audience there for those two shows and the security procedures to get in seemingly lax. The way it works is, there are multiple types of festival admission, from GA to press to industry to artist. They people in based on access level and capacity of the venues. Most official venues host a single event a night, and the security was pretty good about using click counters (I saw a lot of them) to track how many people were coming in and leaving, and maintaining a comfortable amount of people in the room. People with higher-level wristbands were given priority to enter, and people with GA wristbands lined up in often VERY long lines to get in. But at Harpa, with multiple rooms hosting many artists one after another all night, the security check points were at the entrance to the entire area, so there was no way of controlling whether 5,000 people were going into one room or another, leading to some very uncomfortable and untenable situations.
Which leads me to my two best and worst moments of the festival, which took place simultaneously. First, The Knife. The hall was packed with people who had been planning for — and pre-gaming for — this moment all week. The Knife had announced they’d be “closing down” the band after this show, so anticipation was high. With literally no security presence or capacity management at all, crowds just kept piling into the room. Their pre-show warm up hype women took the stage, an alt-aerobics instructor who got the crowd pumped up for D.E.E.P. Aerobics (Death, Emo, Electro, Protest), exhorting us all to take care of each other, touch each other kindly, jump up and down, and chant repeatedly “Self consciousness is the illusion that this is only happening to me.”
After 10 minutes of the crowd enthusiastically participating in this surreal workout regime, The Knife took the stage with an 11 piece band… and promptly took the energy level down a couple of notches by starting with one of their trancier, mellow numbers. It was weird. As my pal JT from OPB observed, “Hey, we’re The Knife, it’s our last show, we can do whatever we want!” All in all they put on an okay show, but it was exactly the show they’ve been putting on for the entirety of this tour, without any acknowledgement that this was a career-ender. No old songs, no real audience interaction… it felt oddly bloodless. It was fun and dancey and weird, just like The Knife, but not as special as I expected.
My expectations thoroughly dashed, I went to the room next door to see Hozier, which I’d been looking forward to all week. I’d seen a LOT of electronica and techno by this point and I was really looking forward to some bluesy Irish soul and to sing along to a song I knew every word to. Turns out a lot of other people were too.
Unfortunately, between the start of the show and the tear-inducing closer of “Take Me To Church”, I endured some of the most atrocious concert behavior I’ve ever witnessed. Now, I’ve thought long and hard about whether to broach this, but I feel like I have to. I didn’t want to be the jerk tourist who goes to another country and makes an outsider’s proclamation about that culture based on my limited experience and my hubristic American viewpoint. But there are some aspects about seeing music in Iceland that I do not understand. This happened all week, but it reached its nadir on Saturday night. There is a tendency for people to plow their way through crowds without so much as a glance at the people they shove out of the way; you think Minnesota passive aggressiveness is annoying? People, this is another level all together. It’s as if you aren’t there even though your space is being invaded, your foot is being stepped on, and your body is being physically moved for someone else to stand where you are. No eye contact will be made, no recognition of you as a human will occur. Crowds will surge forward into the most minor of spaces. A mountain of a man will take up a molehill of a space. And during an acoustic performance by a headliner of a festival, people will make cellphone calls at top volume and glare angrily at anyone who tries to get them to change their behavior. Add to that the lack of supervision, the lack of security or attention to capacity, and you’ve pretty much got what the rooms at Harpa were like for all the big shows.
So. That is how I saw Hozier. It was fairly awful. Until “Take Me To Church” started, at which point all 3,000 people in the room stopped everything they were doing and sang along in a cathartic, unifying moment that was one of my favorite moments in recent music memory. It was electrifying. If you have tickets to Hozier at First Avenue, be prepared to be very moved.
And then. Those 3,000 unruly, ungoverned people filed out of that room through two double doors, at the same time that a few hundred more people tried to get into that room to see the band coming on after Hozier, leading to my least favorite moment of the festival. It was legit frightening. I couldn’t get out of the crowd, I couldn’t change direction, speed, location, anything. It was a crush of people. The people trying to get in saw what was happening and didn’t turn around and wait for the room to clear – they just kept trying to push in. Most of the good vibes I’d just experienced with all those fellow music lovers were undone by that experience.
Our last experience in Iceland was – fittingly – at the Blue Lagoon, on our way to the airport. It’s a common and easy way to visit the Lagoon; most US flights leave Reykjavik at 5:00pm, and the Lagoon is about a 15 minute drive to the airport. You can buy a combo bus ticket / Lagoon pass that takes you from downtown to the Lagoon and then on the airport, that is both a good use of your time and a perfect memory to leave the country with. Yes, the Lagoon is very touristy and a little expensive, but ohmigod is it ever a beautiful thing to see.
In addition to the Lagoon itself, the lava fields on the way there are stunning, and the countryside is so unique and picturesque.
The facility itself is like an upscale gym locker room, with plenty of changing areas, showers, and towels and robes for you to rent. Once you change into suits and stow your stuff you emerge into one of the most eye-popping sites you’ll ever see. Our day was misty and cool, so the heat rising off the robins-egg blue water was especially thick.
The water varies between bathwater warm and piping hot as you move around the lagoon, and it really does feel like heaven on earth. We grabbed a glass of my new obsession – green juice, with spinach, apples, ginger and other deliciousness – from the bar in the middle of the lagoon and luxuriated in the waters for an hour, gazing at the moody sky, with mountains and volcanoes in the distance, mounds of lava rocks around us, and clouds of white steam obscuring the faces of our fellow bathers. It was a perfect view of Iceland to freeze-frame in our minds of a lovely place that I really want to visit again when there’s more time to see the countryside and explore the natural beauty of the place.
This trip started on the whim – and thanks to a social media post by David Lewis – but it was a fantastic experience with only a few wrinkles. I can’t recommend a trip or a stopover in Iceland enough. I’m utterly charmed by Reykjavik. If any of your Facebook friends mention that they are going to Iceland, you should attach yourself to that trip immediately. Tell them I said so.