05.11. – 09.11. 2014 Reykjavik, Iceland
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.
Interactive photo gallery at the end of the text
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.
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.
DAY THREE (NOVEMBER 7th)
By day three routine had set in: wake up, find out that I had missed breakfast, check previous night’s pictures, plan schedule for the day ahead and find food on the way to or at the first venue of the day. It was the day of the grayest weather, the darkest official venue, the best atmosphere so far and the longest night for me. Finally back at my hotel, I had learned that even the best camera has its limits and renewed my faith that pretty much any genre of music can be interesting when heard live.
On the third day I grooved to Electronic beats by Kajak and 80ish Electro Pop by Berndsen, enjoyed Singer/Songwriters Greta Svavo Bech, Lindy Vopnfjörð and Pétur Ben,
still loved The Anatomy Of Frank and got to hear Klassart again. Also on the menu was fun Alternative Rock with Rökkuró, more Eletronic Pop by Kiriyama Family and François Pernel playing harp.
VENUE: IÐA ZIMSEN
The first stop of the day was a café and bookstore where The Anatomy of Frank played in front of the shelves. Since the beginning of the festival, they had already gained a following and rumor has it the same happened the previous year. With this in mind, the band announced they were going to play at least one different song at each gig so people would not hear the same over and over again. Everyone but singer Kyle was playing multiple instruments and he turned out to be a great storyteller. Letting us know how they had planned to record one album on each continent and sharing stories about family and friends. They brought such positive vibes that everyone in the audience was smiling throughout the concert. With each song, people got more involved, and when they brought a friend on stage to sing with them, the cheers grew even bigger. For the last song of their set, Kyle divided the audience into two groups and taught us (just with gestures!) which parts we had to sing. Nobody refused and the sing-along made for a grand finale. I was amazed how happy the beautiful and somewhat folkish songs made me feel. Maybe there was a chance for another taste of it later on.
Wait what? A concert at EU Info center? With sandwiches, cake and beverages? Why of course! I’m willing to bet Airwaves has seen stranger things. I arrived in the middle of French musician François Pernel’s set. He played somewhat mystical songs on his harp, ranging from folkish elements to experimental sounds. It wasn’t the type of music I would usually listen to, but I was quite taken by his skillful playing and enjoyed what I heard.
Singer/Songwriter Petúr Ben was next. He played a good mix of his own songs and cover versions. His music was straightforward and honest, no frills, just a man and his guitar. It was typical Singer/Songwriter Pop/Rock music, just the way I like it.
VENUE: THE LAUNDROMAT CAFÉ
With a spot by the bar across from stage I was ready to see Rökkuró at The Laundromat Café. However, I had not expected to find myself in the middle of the action when the bass player decided he had to play on the bar. OK, cool, I liked being close and it made for some interesting pictures. The music? It was awesome! Beautiful contemporary Indie Rock with the power to draw people in. Their songs had a wonderful variety, some rocking out, others rather soft. They were clearly enjoying their time on stage, took the audience over by storm and left me wanting more.
The evening started at Fredriksen again with Faroese singer Greta Svavo Bech who played many “really depressing songs”, according to her announcement. She was on stage alone with just her guitar, an electric piano and a keyboard, but when her strong voice filled the air, it became clear that she didn’t need any support. It’s difficult to pinpoint her musical style, since she used elements from many genres. A bit of Pop here, a bit of Electro there, some Classical influences and other sounds that defy or at least expand the Singer/Songwriter categorization. With the diverse music she created on her own, I could not help but wonder how she would sound like being supported by a band or even an orchestra. It must be interesting to check out some of the collaborative work she has done. Either way, I enjoyed her set very much.
Lindy Vopnfjörð may have a very Icelandic name, but he is actually Canadian. He entertained us with his stories and his guitar, singing songs about love and life and daily events. Some of his songs I loved, others I did not care for, but overall it was fun. He proved a great sense of humor, joking how he’d be surprised if anyone wanted to talk to him after the gig. He even paid heed to his roots by incorporating an Icelandic song into an English one about his grandfather and getting the audience to sing along. It was fun!
Across the road, long lines were waiting outside Húrra in the cold, and inside it was so packed that it got incredibly warm in no time. I had arrived just in time for Electronic duo Kajak, getting much more than I had expected or even hoped for. Not only did I find their songs very listenable, but they immediately made me want to dance and soon I found myself swaying to the beat. Many others did the same, some really dancing ecstatically. While they played they projected landscapes on the screen at the back of the stage and created surprising soundscapes in front of it. The drums and tribal sounds in their music spoke to me wordlessly and held my attention. It was fun to watch them interact with their fans too. One of them was handed a drumstick and got to beat the drum together with Kajak. What a great gig!
One of the more well known artists of the festival was Berndsen, reinventing and recreating 80ies Pop music with Electronic elements reminiscent of OMD or Ultravox, to name a few. Attending this gig was pure joy and absolutely worth watching. Not only the audience, but also the band on stage was moving and dancing to the beat. David Berndsen was not afraid to get close and soon commented “Did I scare some of you? Don’t worry, it’s gonna get much worse!” It was hilarious and awesome at the same time, music to get lost in and forget anything bad in one’s life. After a furious finale they came back for one encore. A roadie helped Berndsen out of his T-Shirt and he took a bath in the crowd for “Gimme Gimme”. I left with a happy smile on my face.
After some aimless running around and sampling a few bands at Harpa, I decided I’d had enough Electro Pop for now and instead of seeing FM Belfast, I opted to revisit Klassart and see their full lineup. It was the right decision for me. The multiple instruments added several layers to their sound and I loved hearing all of those. In the end, I could not decide if I’d liked the full line up or the duo better. Each performance was wonderful in its own right.
Electronic Pop band Kiriyama Family were the last ones I saw and even though I liked their music, I felt too worn out to really enjoy it. The long day was taken its toll and the partly drunk audience was pushing a bit too much for my liking. Thus, the band failed to make much of an impression on me, even though I am sure they were good. Maybe I’ll give them another try, but right then and there it was time to call it a night.
The day left me tired to the bone, but very happy with my choices. I had seen a few bands I never expected to enjoy as much as I did and revisited two that I had really liked. It was the perfect mix of music
DAY FOUR (NOVEMBER 8th)
After a good night’s sleep and one look outside the world seemed much brighter than the previous night. With the sun coming out, it had turned to temperatures below freezing, but everything looked shiny and new. It would have been the perfect day for some touristic activities, but having been to Iceland before I had no reservations about skipping those and seeing more bands instead. The night ended earlier than planned, and by this time I had learned that not everyone’s music recommendations are right for me, but a full house is a good indication of a band that puts on memorable shows.
On the fourth day, I was blown away by the passion and fun that Mammút and Future Islands brought to the stage, wondered why so few had come to hear the lovely music of Íkorni, enjoyed Electro Pop band Moving Houses, clearly left Slippbarin too early after Vio and revisited The Anatomy of Frank yet again. Long lines at off-venues kept me from seeing more.
VENUE: HITT HÚSIÐ
The venue was located in the same building as the post office and on my way there I already heard the bands playing inside from the speakers out front. By the time I got in, it had ended though, and I could get comfortable waiting for the only German band I saw at the festival: Moving Houses. The duo played fine Pop music with Electro influence on keyboards, guitar and cello. Not only did I like their music and voices in general, but the cello really did it for me. Instruments beyond the standard guitar, bass, drums and keys always make me happy. Their music was very listenable and provided a good start to the day. Despite being highly recommended, Toneron, up next, did not speak to me at all and I left before their set ended.
VENUE: IÐA LÆkJARGATA
Another day, another store, and it was time to get lost in the music of The Anatomy of Frank once more. They excused their “drummer” (read: guitarist/ multi-instrumentalist), who was absent after having “a bit of a rough night“, and were just as entertaining without him. The audience was smaller this time, standing around the guys playing right by the door, behind the store’s main window. Quite a few customers walked in during their gig, some stayed and a few even watched from the sidewalk outside. Either way, the music immediately made me forget the surroundings and I started dreaming to their beautiful melodies. The band’s interaction with the audience felt natural and their brief “commercial break” to advertise their album and shirt for sale was hilarious. These guys are just so likeable they are hard to resist and they know how to make good music to boot.
Thus, it didn’t surprise me at all that several people, myself included, walked with them to the Hitt Húsið for their next gig. The second concert included one song I had not heard before and just as much fun as the first. The atmosphere was a bit different, a little more serious perhaps, as the venue was better suited for a concert. Yet, no matter where The Anatomy Of Frank play, they always draw people in. Here too, the audience was smiling and singing along in the end. I sure hope I’ll get to see them again one day.
After a brisk walk to the marina I arrived at the bar in time for the afternoon concerts. Alternative Rock band Vio had been a late addition to my list after checking out a few of their songs in the morning. It was a relaxed concert with many people sitting down in front oft he stage and others just standing by the bar, listening, but not watching the band. Singer Magnús’ smooth voice is just a little bit rough on the edges and carries the songs well, and the other musicians in the band are just as good. It’s no surprised they won the Icelandic battle of bands only weeks after their formation. Their concert was quite enjoyable, I would have liked to hear more.
Leaving the bar after their set was a mistake – the lines at The Laundromat Café were too long to get in for Sin Fang, and returning to the bar for Agent Fresco didn’t work out either, because here, too, a huge line had formed in the meantime.
The old theater right by the pond (on Vonarstræti no less) was very empty when I arrived and had around 30 guests when Íkorni started playing. Their music deserved a much bigger audience though, and in a much later conversation I agreed with others that one day we may proudly claim to have been there when they played in front of so few. Their music was an interesting mixture of many different styles and instruments, building layers of rich texture. Classical with strings and a flute, Pop with guitar, bass and drums all paired with beautiful voices shared by two singers. The songs ranged from soft ballads, some almost kitsch, via country-ish melodies to slightly jazzy tunes, mostly in Icelandic. All in all I loved the variety of it all and alternated between watching the band having „a heap of fun here“ and happy fans dancing in front oft the stage. This was good stuff to start the night with.
VENUE: REYKJAVIK ART MUSEUM
It continued at the largest venue I so far, which was already packed when I arrived to hear the last few notes of Introbeats. Mammút were one of the few bands on my list long before the festival started, and while I cannot remember how they ended up on my radar, all the positive things I heard about them during the first three days only confirmed that they were a band that should not be missed. Of course with so much praise in advance there is always the danger of the band not living up to their reputation, but not in this case. They delivered above and beyond my expectations, putting on a rocking show that absolutely made my night. I loved the singing, the playing, their sound, the lights and the overall performance.
The band put so much energy and passion into their show that it was impossible not to be moved by it. Their sound drew from everything good in contemporary rock music, mixing it into a new and very recognizable blend. Together they crafted intricate yet catchy melodies that made you want to listen again and again. Mammút’s incredible energy and pure enjoyment of playing was contagious. The audience was moving, dancing and head-banging to the beat, elated smiles on their faces. The band was my highlight of the night!
The fun continued with Future Islands, who made people dance even in the photo pit. With a rough idea of the US band’s Pop sound, but no clue what I was in for, staying at the venue was a choice of convenience rather than a conscious decision to see this band. The reward was an energetic performance with frontman Samuel T. Herring wildly moving and dancing across stage so much it encouraged everyone in the room to move with him. By contrast, bassist William Cashion stood almost motionless on the right side of the stage, quietly playing his instrument. Admittedly, I was so focused on watching that the lyrics completely escaped my attention. The music was interesting though and most of all danceable and that was enough right then and there. Their show was quite hypnotic, lots of fun and left me feeling content.
After the natural high these two artists provided me with, I was indecisive on what to do next. Harpa was calling with bands I wanted to check out, but somehow what I’d seen and heard felt like enough so I called it a night and caught up on some much needed sleep.
Happiness was the overwhelming feeling that day, and gratitude for having the chance to be there. It does not happen so often that I get to see so many engaging, fun and simply good musicians in such a short amount of time and even though by day four it had become clear that for every great band seen I have missed five great performances elsewhere, regrets had no place in my heart. Airwaves is not about the people you miss, but about those that move you, amaze you and make you happy in the here and now. The beauty of it all lies in the fact that with such a high quality of artists to begin with, there is no wrong choice to make. Whoever you see, even if it is a genre you usually don’t listen to, will have the power to entertain you if you’re willing to keep an open mind. And if you come across something that doesn’t work for you, there are more than enough alternatives within walking distance.
DAY FIVE (NOVEMBER 9th)
Before I knew it, the last day of Iceland Airwaves was upon me, one last chance to catch some of the bands I might have missed earlier and hear someone new. It was also the day of the big final show with The Flaming Lips and The War On Drugs that I was rather excited about. After five days of awesomeness I’d have to return to real life and my day job, but first I decided to enjoy the hell out of this last day. When I finally reached my temporary home for a few short hours of sleep before heading to the airport, I had learned that some bands really deserve all the praise they get and sometimes the best things and the best people happen to you on the last day.
On day five The Flaming Lips left me struggling for words to describe their awesomeness, while The Walking Who left me struggling with my emotions, The War On Drugs played a solid show, Bellstop took me by surprise, Marius Ziska sang me some moving stories and Lucianblomkamp provided lovely background music for a late lunch.
VENUE: KEX HOSTEL
Once again I found myself at Kex Hostel where things had quieted down a bit since Sunday’s concert were not broadcasted. When I arrived, it was still crowded and I got to hear the remaining Lucianblomkamp’s set. I never laid eyes on the Australian, but I liked what I heard. From the samples I had heard on Soundcloud I had expected a more Electronic sound and found it surprisingly Pop. It was very listenable music.
I had heard good things about The Walking Who, but was still taken by surprise when I realized how good they really were. The Australians were so full of energy and so much fun to watch that I wanted to listen to them for hours. Their sound made me think of The Doors, but mixed with something else, something that was their very own. I wasn’t prepared for being drawn to them so much, I was much less prepared for the emotional rollercoaster they put me on. For reasons I cannot explain they spoke to me on an emotional level so much it made me cry. Apart from their own cool tunes, they deliver a stunning rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. It was awesome!
Everything looked quiet at Dillon when I walked in, until I climbed the stairs to the second floor bar and had to remain there at first, because the small room was too packed to walk in. The music I heard was lovely though – guitars and two singing voices. A look at the schedule above the bar told me I was listening to Bellstop. Soon I understood why so many had gathered to hear them. They describe their music as Folk & Roll and it fits them perfectly. They told stories, funny and serious about events in their lives, some with words and many in their songs. After the concert I instantly put them on my list of bands to see again.
Next up was Faroese singer/songwriter Marius Ziska once again. Finally I could move forward and see the stage, but it was still too dark to take any pictures. It was lovely to hear his full set of stories in English and Faroese that made me smile as well as cry. The music underlined these stories nicely, his voice conveying many emotions. In-between, he was joking with his band and the audience, providing some comic relief. It was the perfect music for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
VENUE: VODAFONE HALL
The big final show of the festival took place at Vodafone Hall just outside the city center, with two Alternative Rock bands from the US closing the festival. While I´d heard The War On Drugs before, The Flaming Lips are one of those bands that have never been on my radar, even though I knew them by name and heard good things about their live shows. I took Airwaves as the perfect opportunity to check them out. Tickets for the show could be bought independently of the festival pass or – for the more adventurous types – be acquired by waiting in line on Friday morning, hoping to get one of the 2000 that were generally distributed for wristband holders. On the evening of the show the doors opened late, but everything else went smoothly and the venue was well filled, but not packed to an uncomfortable level. People had more than enough room to move and dance if they wanted to.
Back in June I had liked but not loved The War On Drugs and was surprised when they were much better and more powerful than I remembered. The sound at the venue was really good and this was one oft the few place where the lights were nothing to complain about either. The band rocked – no frills or big effects needed, just straightforward music, skillfully played. I loved the songs and their sound, even danced a little bit after my duties as a photographer were done. They were in a great mood, enjoying the festival and making the best of their time on stage. The audience cheered them on and made them feel comfortable. Singer Adam Granduciel didn’t talk all that much, but elicited many cheers when he spoke about The Flaming Lips and joked they would shoot him out of a cannon later. The band gave us all they had, playing a solid set that didn’t leave much to wish for. They were a great warm up for what was to come.
Finally, after much preparation, The Flaming Lips took the stage and for the next two hours I wished I had a pause button or the possibility to rewind just to make sure I had really seen, heard, taken in everything that was going on. From the first shower of confetti coming from two cannons by the side of the stage to the final one at the very end, it was a gigantic flurry of lights, colors, sound, costumes, balloons, blow up dolls and other effects, not to mention the amazing music. The audience was partying from the front row to the last and the men on stage, especially singer Wayne Coyne, were the ringleaders, urging them on. At the end, he thanked everyone for “being such happy freaks!“
I’m not entirely sure I can find enough superlatives in my vocabulary to truly describe the awesomeness of their performance. A fellow photographer and first-timer like me I talked to afterwards said, she had never seen any band putting so much effort into making a show, and I can only add they made it a feast for eyes and ears. Yet it wasn’t only about showing off props and effects it was about audience participation. They didn’t want to leave people stunned into silence, they wanted them to scream, dance, interact and party with them. From huge balloons thrown back and forth to the crowd to the often heard “come on motherfuckers“ they had everyone’s attention eventually.
The band was dressed up with costumes and colorful wigs, there was even some make-up to be seen, and Coyne wore long strands of tinsel on his sleeves that made playing the guitar a bit tricky. Gigantic blow up dolls in the shape of sun, stars, aliens, butterflies and even Santa Clause populated the stage providing something to lean on or dance with. Lights in all colors of the rainbow flickered on the screen behind the band, and when Coyne held up a huge set of balloon letters that read “Fuck yeah Iceland“, everyone in the room was cheering. The balloon letters were passed back and forth between the audience and the stage several times and many of the people who got to hold them on the way looked so happy and proud.
The songs? They were a good mix of songs from different albums with a few covers thrown in from their biggest radio hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” to the popular “Do You Realize???” and so much in-between. The music was moving, soft and strong, often happy and overall just as huge as the props used. The whole package of sights and sounds simply blew me away, and when I thought it could not get any more fun and interesting, Coyne stepped into a life size balloon and walked the crowd. WOW! The show ended with an amazing rendition the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” before the band finally left the stage. “Stunning” does not even begin to describe what it felt like, “mind-blowing” comes closer, but still doesn’t cut it. Let’s just say it was quite a trip I was happy to have been a part of.
On the way out I heard some people chatting excitedly, while others were simply left speechless. They gathered their jackets, their wits and some souvenirs like a handful of confetti or one of the balloon letters from earlier. Fuck yeah Flaming Lips! Fuck yeah Iceland! Fuck yeah Airwaves! I could not have imagined a better ending to this festival and floated on happy clouds all the way home that night.
“WOW!“ pretty much sums it up for this last festival day that treated me to some of the best acts of the week. The Flaming Lips alone deserve 10 reindeers and then some, yet overall the score comes to 9.5. I doubt it gets much better than this. Not only was this festival extremely well organized and had amazing bands to offer, all the staff was exceptionally nice too. No matter where I went, I always felt welcome. Kudos to the organizers and staff for this!
At the start of this report I mused about what it felt like to live and breathe the festival’s air and still, roughly a week later, I feel the need to elaborate on that a little bit. I’m sure each visitor enjoyed Iceland Airwaves in their very own way and that’s what it’s all about – making the most of it.
For me personally, it came down to this:
– stumbling home at two in the morning with a huge smile on my face and too wound up to sleep
– being just a tad sad about missing the gig of my friend’s Metal band even though Metal was never my thing
– sweating my butt off at the most crowded venues only to freeze as soon as I left
– dancing with pure joy to Electro Pop, even though I really dislike Electro
– sharing cake in the street with random strangers
– falling in love with a new band so hard I wish I could have attended all of their (13!) gigs
– waking up too tired to think straight and still looking forward to the day ahead
– getting so emotional I cried at songs in languages I don’t even understand
And last but not least: having collected so many memories it feels impossible to get them in order.
Many make the trek to Iceland every year or, if they are lucky enough to live there, attend every year and now I finally understand why. Next year I won’t be able to make it, but I certainly have plans to return as soon as possible. Until then it’s goodbye Iceland Airwaves and thank you so much!