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There are many things I could say about Iceland Airwaves and just as many ways this festival has been described, but it’s still difficult to convey what it feels like to be there, to live and breathe the festival’s air for five days (and nights), to go with the flow. There was music of course, lots and lots of it – a total of 219 bands performing in 13 official venues and countless (free!) off venue shows in bars, stores and hostels, but there is so much more.
The entire city of Reykjavik goes Airwaves for a week, and even though I heard there were still “regular tourists” in town who actually managed to be awake in time to get their hotels’ breakfast, I rarely spotted one of these strange creatures. Instead, I met people hectically running from venue to venue trying to take in as many bands as possible, and others who had long given up their original plans and just went wherever it seemed convenient. Some were happily drunk on excitement all day, others on beer, some took great care to get regular meals, while others decided that food, as well as sleep, might just be overrated. One thing they all had in common, though: As soon as you asked them how Airwaves had been so far, their eyes started shining and they started telling you tales of the amazing bands they had seen.
Yet for the festival guests who might actually want to do the “tourism thing” and see more than just bands, there are plenty of options, with some of Iceland’s most exciting natural wonders only a day tour away. All it takes is to skip the off-venue shows for one day and start with the evening’s performances to make space for a trip to Geysir or a glacier. Reykjavik itself has plenty to offer as well, and even those who weren’t bothered with planning any trips out of the city were treated to Northern Lights in the night sky on Saturday.
2014 was the 15th year of Iceland Airwaves. It started out in 1999 as a talent show for foreign record executives and has since become one of the most interesting and well-received annual showcases for new music. Sure, there are some big names every year, from Iceland and around the world, but the focus is on introducing new talent. And believe me, you can find talent in great abundance from many different genres. The organizers must have had a tough choice – for every Icelandic band that was playing (a total of 41), 4 were rejected (200 in total). I have no numbers for the international acts, but my impression after the festival is that the choices were carefully made.
Apart from the wonderful music it was all about community, communication and connections. After a while you notice the same faces over and over – on stage as well as off. In Iceland, especially Reykjavik, everyone seems to know everyone (at least if they are musicians) and everyone plays in more than one band. So if you are wondering if you have seen this drummer or that guitarist in a different band just a few concerts ago, you are probably right. In case you want to meet people, you can talk to just about anyone you run into – just start with the music and go from there. Most of the people you may never meet again, but I loved the randomness of it all and collecting tips for bands I had not seen yet. It made everything more interesting.
I’m not a festival person, meaning big open air festivals that involve camping are not my thing at all, but some multi venue festival like this works well for me. I got to see a great selection of bands, for 30 – 40 minutes each, and could easily move on to the next one. Most venues were walking distance from each other and the festival as a whole was well organized. Of course there were schedule changes and long lines, but that was to be expected and didn’t spoil the fun. All in all I managed to see 34 different bands at 17 venues, took well over 3000 pictures and had loads of fun.
DAY ONE (NOVEMBER 5TH)
As a festival first timer, I felt a bit overwhelmed in the face of all the options I had. Armed with my wristbands and a rough plan for who I might want to see, I set out on Wednesday afternoon to catch some off venue shows at the cities bars, hotels and stores before hitting the festival’s main venues later. So far, so good. When returning to my hotel after midnight, I had learned that you can’t expect off venue shows to be on time, while the main venue shows are timed precisely and it pays of to just go with the flow.
On the first day I saw the amazing and soulful Una Stef, heard dreamy melodies from Klassart, enjoyed fine pop from 1860 and a beautifully orchestrated set by Ásgeir. I sampled some electronic sounds by Mr. Silla, listened to melancholic pop by Lára Rúnars and fell in love with the music of The Anatomy Of Frank.
VENUE: AURORA REYKJAVIK
The day started at Aurora Reykjavik, the northern lights center where I arrived in time to catch the end of Jakobsson’s set at the cafe. It was two songs, not much to go on, but I liked it. Very listenable, but I have no idea how to categorize them.
Klassart, the band I had come to see, played in the other room where the aurora show is on display. They are generally a nine people big band, but performed as a duo with the siblings Smári Guðmundsson on guitar and Fríða Dís Guðmundsdóttir on vocals. Their dreamy melodies carried by Fríða’s beautiful voice and Smári’s delicately picked guitar blended in well with the background of the aurora time lapse that was displayed on the screen behind them. The music invited the listeners to close their eyes and be carried away for a little while. Most of the lyrics were in English, but they had some Icelandic songs as well. They describe themselves as a Blues band, but I also heard some folky elements in their music. Either way, I enjoyed what I was hearing. It was well worth the walk through the windy city.
VENUE: BUNK BAR
A bar on Laugavegur (the main shopping street of Reykjavik) was my next stop. The plan was to catch the 17:40 show, but when I arrived they were already behind schedule and I was treated to the last songs of Árný. Her vocals were lovely and I wanted to see her again, but it never happened. Indie Jazz band Milkhouse were up next. With Jazz not being one of my favorite genre, I hadn’t planned seeing them, but I cannot deny their live qualities. They put on an entertaining show that got the audience going. While their music didn’t really speak to me, they performed it enthusiastically and were visually interesting, wearing Venetian masks. Each one of the band members knew how to play and they had so much fun, it was contagious.
Singer/Songwriter Una Stef was the one I had been waiting for and she did not disappoint. She sang her heart out with her very own blend of pop and soul. Soon the audience was clapping along and grooving with the music. The band played in a reduced setup without drums and with the trumpet player on guitar. She claimed they didn’t really know what they were doing and that it was all improvised, but they surely rocked. Una’s amazing voice carried the performance as well as the playing and enthusiasm of the others. They put on a great show that stuck with me so much I decided to see them again later that night with the full band.
VENUE: HLEMMUR SQUARE
Further on up the road to the hotel/hostel near the central bus station. The plan was to see Var, a band I already knew and liked, but instead I heard the last few songs of The Anatomy Of Frank and instantly wished I could have seen their full set. The likeable Poprock band from the US performed their music in a quiet manner, but drew the audience in immediately. The instruments used ranged from guitar and drums to the more unusual banjo, xylophone and accordion, all spiced with some good storytelling and lovely harmony singing. They were so good they made me forget all about missing the band I had really come to see. I immediately decided to check out if they played again.
The Indie Pop band 1860 started the main venue shows for me, and for the first time that day I truly realized how international the audience was, hearing not only Icelandic and English, but several other languages in front row alone. The band played catchy songs that invited us to tap our feet and they had some fun doing so. They played jokes from the beginning, starting with the singer announcing everything in Icelandic and the bass player introducing himself as “Gunnar, your translator”. It was a solid performance of pop tunes with a folk-rock edge, played by a band in a good mood during their only show at Airwaves and the audience enjoying it.
Mr. Silla was one of the names that stuck with me after reading an article in the Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s free alternative English language magazine. Thus, I decided to check her out. She started her show alone, bathed in blue backlighting. It worked beautifully with the spherical sounds she used for samples and her soft voice. Later, she picked up a guitar and was joined by another guitarist. The lights never got much brighter though, matching the music. Her songs were stripped down, but never boring, her laptop providing some unique electronic sounds that intertwined with the live guitars. Towards the end of the show she let down her hair (also literally) and everything became a little more laid back. It was a strong performance, if not really my style.
I changed from Harpa’s Silfurberg hall to Norðurlós hall for Lara Rúnars. She sang soft, melodic and melancholic Indie Pop that I enjoyed, backed by a four-man band. Her lyrics alternated between Icelandic and English, expressive movements underlining the often dark songs. I liked her sound, especially the melancholia of it all and was glad to have checked her out.
Ásgeir was clearly the most popular performer at Harpa Silfurberg that night. The venue was packed with fans, some of which had been holding their spots in front row since the beginning of the evening. The first surprise? The sheer amount of people on stage. During the long intro the band walked on one by one and they were many, including a full string section. That was certainly unexpected. Especially after the release of his first album in English, his music is well known even outside Iceland. However, I do prefer the Icelandic versions of the songs and was happy to get to hear those. The melancholia of his music came across well, nicely supported by the multiple instruments on stage. Ásgeir was playing guitar and keyboards, while his voice transported many emotions, which leave you guessing what the songs may be about. He sang beautifully and the fans were not only cheering loudly, some were singing along too. It was lovely.
My first festival night ended at the bar Fredriksen with seeing Una Stef once again with her full band this time. In short: they rocked! Not only is she an amazing singer, but she also has a great band to boot, including a full brass section. They obviously had just as much fun as the audience did, giving all they could give. People were dancing happily, lost in the music. Their soulful performance, Una’s strong voice and the unique mix of Pop, Soul and R’n’B was the perfect way to draw me in and put a big smile on my face. I felt it could not get any better from here and headed home right after.
Admittedly I was overwhelmed by the variety of music, the rather short sets and the different sound, light and atmosphere at every venue on this first day. Everything mixed in my head into a big blur that left me with a happy and slightly confused feeling. I find it impossible to give ratings for each band here, but overall the day gets 8 reindeers from me.
More photos of all bands in the gallery, link in top section!
DAY TWO (NOVEMBER 6th)
On the second day I felt I had an idea what I was doing and planned accordingly – not so much running around between venues this time was the plan. There was even a break between off venue and evening shows with time to hang out with friends, and when I got back to my temporary home late that night, I had learned that being more relaxed about the whole experience and not regretting the bands you missed is the way to go.
Day two treated me to two shows of the always wonderful Árstíðir, the surprisingly cool Júníus Meyvant and the great voice of Rachel Sermanni. I listened to Singer/Songwriters Marius Ziska and Dísa, rocked with The Town Heroes and dreamed to the pop melodies of Ylja.
VENUE: KEX HOSTEL
For the first four days of the festival, Seattle radio station KEXP had set up camp at Kex Hostel and broadcasted / streamed five to six concerts daily. Each oft them lasted around 25 minutes with long breaks in-between. I had set out early, but was still surprised by the amount of people crowding around the stage an hour before Árstíðir’s gig. All the early guests got to listen to the soundcheck before the real concert started and by the time it did, the place was packed. The band played a set of mostly songs from the upcoming album “Hvel” including the live premiere of their new single “Things You Said”. I must say I missed the drums from the studio version a bit, but it was a lovely rendition nonetheless. The entire set was perfectly selected and skillfully played, with Unnur Jónsdóttir playing the cello this time around and doing it well. Time went by too quickly and nobody in the room wanted to let them go when their set was finished. KEXP’s moderator was full of praise and I can only agree: It was a beautiful set.
Júníus Mayvant and his band were up next, a Folk Pop band I had already heard great things about. Nine people crowded the stage with a brass section, violin, keyboards, piano, drums, bass and two guitars. Their music immediately drew me in, they visibly enjoyed being on stage and all of them are good musicians too. Judging by the audience’s reactions, everyone felt the same and when their set was over, people clapped so much, they even got an encore. It was a soulful and joyful concert. They don’t have an album out yet, but I will sure keep them on my radar.
After a long break to recharge my batteries, the evening started at the bar Fredriksen where I arrived just in time to hear the end of Marius Ziska’s set. Immediately I regretted not going earlier. The Faroese Singer/Songwriter played nice tunes and I really liked his voice.
US Alt Rock duo The Town Heroes really kicked off the evening. With only drums and guitar and hadn’t expected such big, anthem-like sound from them. The played and sang their hearts out, pouring all their energy, power and passion into the music they played. Their performance was quite intoxicating and left me longing for more. By the time their set was over, the guys were drenched in sweat, but looked ready to play much longer. Unfortunately the tight schedule didn’t allow for it. It was a fun show and a welcome chance to rock out between the more quiet gigs of the night.
Quite the opposite in terms of noise level and rocking songs, Scottish Folk artist Rachel Sermanni invited us to listen closely. Her beautiful clear voice rung out over a backdrop of intricate melodies played on piano and guitars. The music was soft, but never too much in the background, just perfectly complimenting the singing. I especially enjoyed the softer songs where Rachel could best show her vocal skills. It was an impressive performance that stuck with me for a while after.
Soon it was time to move on to Harpa, Reykjavik’s opera and concert house, to stay there for the remainder oft the evening. This time around I only stayed at one venue there. Ylja was the first band I saw. Their dreamy Pop melodies were just the right thing at that point in time. Still soft enough to not kill the quiet and peaceful mood I was in after the last concert, but exciting enough to catch my attention. Intriguing soundscapes and worlds were created right then and there that I wandered though with my ears wide open.
Singer/Songwriter Dísa was next and downed my mood a little bit for a while. Her vocals have been described as “angelic”, but they did not work for me. She certainly is a good singer, but her music is just not my style, with too many “modern” elements to work as listenable Pop for me. It served well to pass the time until the concert I was really waiting for.
For the second time that day and the last concert oft he night I saw Árstíðir again, this time around on a much bigger stage. I’m still not quite sure how it was possible, but this second concert was even more beautiful and amazing than the first one, and not only because it was almost twice as long. From the first note of “Someone Who Cares” to the last sound of “Kill Us” ringing out, everything fit. The guys seemed more relaxed than during the radio performance and talked a bit more. It was after midnight when they started playing, but if they were tired it didn’t show. The sound and the lights were beautiful, creating an atmosphere where anything seemed possible. After taking pictures for the first half of their set I found myself hanging on to the edge of the stage, watching and listening in wonder during the second half. My personal highlight was the amazing rendition of “Silfurskin”, so beautiful it made me cry. It was the band’s only evening performance this year, and they absolutely nailed it.
Day two felt less overwhelming to me than the first one, as I had gotten more into the groove of the festival and finally felt at home with the short showcase performances and the many options. It left me curious for what was to come. My memories are clearer and I have a more distinct feeling for every band. Still, there won’t be a rating for each band, just an overall 9 reindeers.
More photos of all bands in the gallery, link in top section! (Landscape photos: K.Weber)