An Airwaves virgin’s first time in the land of fire, ice and wind...
After Superstorm Sandy caused chaos in north America, he travelled north, hitting Iceland on Friday 2 November, the middle of the five-day Airwaves music festival. Although he carried no rain, winds of around 85mph - with gusts up at 116mph - were recorded in the Reykjavik area. Those who attempted to go out that morning were walking at an angle, pushed from the north north west. Emergency crews were out repairing damage to buildings, waves broke out over the harbour to engulf passing cars and 19 people were admitted to the hospital following falls and accidents.
The weather affected the festival in that two of the biggest acts of the line-up - Swans and Poliça - had to cancel their shows due to the grounding of flights from the US. But the wind also feels exciting, and festival goers are in high spirits, turning up in venues bright eyed and red cheeked, with tales of lost hats and high seas. It seems appropriately extreme for this uncompromising country which recently arrested many of the bankers involved in its 2008 financial collapse.
Airwaves has been running every year since 1999, as a way to both showcase Icelandic music to a wider audience and attract international acts to the country. Held in October, and this year in November, it is also extends the tourist season, bringing in visitors in what - as we experience - can be fairly unforgiving climate. The venues are scattered around the city - from small tatty bars to the vast and gleaming new Harpa concert hall.
The Mayor of Reykjavik Jón Gnarr is a former sitcom actor and member of a surrealist punk band and was voted into office in 2010 as a member of the ‘satirical’ Best Party. He meets international journalists wearing an anarchy symbol sweater, accompanied by his minister for culture and tourism, Einar Örn, founder member of the Sugarcubes - the punk band that introduced Bjork to the world. It seems odd that such counter culture figures can be in these positions of power but individualism and rock n roll seems to be in the blood of this city, the most northerly capital in the world, home to just 180,000 people.
As well as running the culture and tourism committee, Einar Örn has a electro punk band Ghostigital, who play on Saturday night and quickly stake their place as the best act of the festival. At 50, Örn is still a taut and charismatic figure - proclaiming simultaneously insurrectionary and surreal lyrics.
The revelation of Airwaves for this reviewer is a showcase for Iceland-based label Bedroom Community at Iðnó. Composer Nico Muhly and folk musician Sam Amidon’s perform their collaboration, a deconstructed folk song The Only Song - each element of the song is broken down and pushed to its limits before it is eventually reformed: a beautiful, special moment, as is Amidon finishing with his cover of R.Kelly’s Relief.
A highly anticipated annual event at Airwaves is the Blue Lagoon Chill, a party in outdoor geothermally heated pools of iridescent mineral-rich water, which contrast with the freezing air in plumes of condensation. This year, DJ Maggi is accompanied by legendary (in Iceland) Gus Gus singer Daníel Ágúst and although the wind has died down from the day before, it still whips at the water as does people’s dancing. Submerged in hot water, within a brutal volcanic landscape, holding a cocktail, swimming to house music: this is a bizarre multi-sensory feast.
At the freshest end of the scale we have Oyama, a new young band from Reykjavik who play a show on each five nights of the festival - a hardworking strategy that pays off as by the end they are playing to full rooms who have picked up on the buzz about their woozy 90s-influenced noiserock.
Of the international acts, at the Art Museum on Saturday night, NYC’s Friends put on an unexpected 80s pop style show with an extra drag queen member but it’s the Dirty Projectors who are stunningly brilliant - all syncopated rhythms, killer melodies and genius harmonies.
On the final night of the festival, what could be more appropriate for a first time visitor to Iceland than a show by Sigur Rós? This is the first time the band have played Airwaves in eleven years and the Laugardalshöll arena has sold out all 6700 tickets, the most ever in Iceland by a native band. Jonsi’s ringing, incomparable voice is always the forefront element in a two-hour show that comprises theatrical staging and film. It’s almost a greatest hits set including 1999’s Svefn-g-Englar and 2005’s Hoppipolla but a new song Brennisteinn (‘Brimstone’) in the encore shows there’s fire in the mountains yet.
Words by Amy Liptrot