Knowing full well that Friday will be a late one, the festival lays on the best possible thing to do with a hangover on Saturday morning – the now habitual trip to the Blue Lagoon thermal pools. For the damaged Airwave heads there’s a mellow DJ, a local band and a bar (serving a maximum of 3 beers per sore head). NOTHING you have tried is as curing as this pool combined with hair-of-the-dog. As the crowd loosen up they make their way closer to the DJ and the day becomes a water party for grown-ups; meeting and talking to randomers, borrowing ID bracelets from non-drinkers to get that fourth beer and losing expensive sunglasses in the milky warm water.
So long is the day that there’s just enough time to get back into Reykjavik and into town for dinner before catching up on the evening’s music. A big part of having a good weekend here is accepting that there is always much more on than you’re likely to see, but with many bands playing an on- and a few off-venue gigs you’re very likely to catch who you want to see at some point. Glasser are only playing one gig this weekend however, and Cameron Mesirow is swaying around on stage in Nasa as we get in, like a siren of pop’s awkward cousin who gets good grades but builds unusual things in their bedroom. Both the band, and her costumes, have been trimmed down for the trip up here and never quite commands the stage. Glasser’s appeal is something to be enjoyed long-term, and the gigs perhaps something to get lost in so it’s not ideal to be dropped in the middle of one with one eye on the clock.
The reason the clock is being watched is that we’re almost feverish with the thought of our first live experience of Austra in the art gallery Listasafn, overlapping slightly with Glasser. We are in good time for this though, front and centre, and when they do grace the stage Katie Stelmanis (who we last saw at the breakfast buffet) is looking radiant, and there’s a certain theatrical element to the band – sparkly drums, a lothario to one side, Captain Sensible to the other. Stage lights beam out through the mist and out burst their dark electro-pop. And we wait. Wait to be hit by something more than the sum of its parts. ‘Darken Her Horse’ ushers a wall of stars to appear as a backdrop and the pulse of the song becomes the closest we get to losing a sense of where we are (right when the chords change for the chorus to be exact) but aside from that it just never hits. Perhaps the wait has been too long, the expectation a bit much considering how much the album has taken hold and how we so nearly saw them twice this year already. Whatever it was we’re not alone, and whatever that extra step we were hoping to take with them tonight will have to wait for another day.
Now things are getting really tricky. While some of our group peel off to James Murphy’s DJ set in we go to grab another taste of John Grant, this time in a large room at Harpa, the opera house. Without stage lighting tricks, smoke or mirrors Grand still warms the big room with his voice, humour and humility – not to mention hilariously accurate lyrics. We’d walk 100 miles to hear him once again describe a time in one’s life as “And I feel just like Winona Ryder, in that film about vampires. And she just couldn’t get that accent right. And neither could that other guy”.
Crossing town to the Faktory club turns the night on its head bringing us face to face with the unwritten part of what Airwaves is all about – the regular life of Reykjavik – which, when Saturday comes, is actually fucking bananas. We’re at this club for a dj set by LCD Soundsystems’s James Murphy and it’s an arduous squash to get in. The room is tiny, low-ceilinged and smoky, and RAMMED with dancing bodies. As you’d expect Murphy is killing the dancefloor song after song, a notable moment of madness being the Bee Gees’ ‘You Should Be Dancing’. Music nerds are holding up their Shazam apps to the speakers during the many obscure numbers while we’re happy to dance by the bar, cold beer within reach.
From here we delve into the city itself. Following some of our amassed weekend crew we head to Dillon, a rock bar. What sets Dillon aside is the dj, ‘Grandma Rock’, is a silver-haired rocker lady, easily touching her sixties who sits high up on some crates, legs dangling, playing the best rock songs ever. A fellow journalist from Boston has produced a Ronald Regan mask and is cheerleading the crowd during ‘Thurderstruck’, ‘Teen Spirit’, and a particularly mental ‘Killing In The Name Of’ amongst others. A Seattle bartender in the crew seems to be the only person who knows how to elbow in to the bar and finds us Fisherman’s Friend shots to fuel the dancing.
Now, running on normal energy levels we might be tempted to draw a line under things there but with the rock still in full swing we move back to one of our favourite haunts, Kaffibarinn. There’s a big queue and when we do finally make it we note that anyone beside you in here could strike up a conversation so there’s no hiding in a corner. The festival atmosphere in the town bleeds all through these bars though this one is a little too ‘trendy’ and we are convinced by our team bartender that we need to go to the town’s gay bar. Well we put up a modicum of a fight but on arrival we realise the error of our ways not coming here earlier. Robyn is blasting out, Ronald Regan makes a renewed appearance and Sigur Ros’ Jonsi walks by us with a drink in each hand. ‘Toxic’ comes on, dignity goes out and we reach a drug-free peak of ecstasy. Too alive to go to bed, when the bar shuts at 5am we make our way back to the hotel where the reception staff grudgingly turn a blind eye to the smuggling downstairs of the last cans of Viking from the mini-bar and we only know the night is over when they politely ask us to take to our rooms and avoid the early-risers coming down for breakfast.
Airwaves is a festival of some amazing new music and it’s what unquestionably has it selling out year-after-year BUT experience it once and you’ll note that it’s actually Reyjavik city that’s the real reason to come here. The town lets us into their life as opposed to reacting against the onslaught, and the energy that creates between not just the locals and the weekend visitors, but between all the foreigners too, is something quite unlike any festival anywhere. You can tick bands off a checklist at any well-programmed festival but for a life-affirming weekend fueled by some of the greatest music of next year, take to Iceland in late October, slice a part of your heart off and bury it there in the lava fields.
Some Other Acts in Brief
SKYUR: Sporting a long glittering gown that Lady Gaga would be proud of, the lead singer of this Icelandic electro act certainly knows how to work a crowd. The club sound system is pushed to the limits as the crowd are worked into a heaving mass in NASA and left shouting for more – which they get. One of the only acts at the festival to do an encore.
TEAM ME: Norwegian pop electro outfit who owe something of their onstage outfits to the Village People. Their blend of upbeat electronic pop finds a receptive audience.
GUS GUS: An Icelandic institution and part of their holy trinity, along with Bjork & Sigur Ros. Playing to a packed out house in the Reykjavik Art Museum, President Bongo & Biggi serve up the sounds of opening salvo ‘Selfoss’ from their latest album, and ‘Arabian Horse’ which whips the crowd into a frenzy as Daniel Agust and Earth take to the stage. Within minutes they are joined onstage by the lead singer of the band Hjaltalin, Hogni Egilsson for ‘Deep Inside’. Gus Gus don’t do three minute pop songs. Every track they play lasts about ten minutes and the packed out house are loving it. Fittingly, they finish with the first single off their new album, ‘Over’. If ever a band has cemented a reputation for great live shows its Gus Gus. An Icelandic institution indeed.
OLAFUR ARNALDS: Taking to the stage in the brand new concert hall, Harpa, Olafur announces “It is a great pleasure to play in this beautiful concert hall, that we all love so controversially”. Referring to the fact that the Icelandic crash happened right in the middle of its construction and that there were questions of whether it would even be finished due to lack of finance. Olafur, backed by a string quartet and an array of electronic gadgetry, sits behind his grand piano and lets his fingers do the talking thereafter. As a large video screen with animated scenes of the mountains and the sea plays, a master of minimal composition is sublime tonight. The audience are totally silent in respect to the hometown genius. A remarkable show.
PASCAL PINON: Lovely harmonies and catchy hooks put a smile of the faces of everyone in the crowd. These ladies are just wonderful.
Sunday – Bjork in Harpa
The perfect setting. Bjork in her native Iceland, in the brand new Harpa concert hall situated on the waterfront looking across at Mt. Esja. This is her first homeland group of shows to present her new album Biophilia.
The concert itself consists of a large raised platform in the middle of the hall framed by eight large video screens and surrounded on all four sides by the 700-strong audience. It makes for a very personal experience. With the drums in one corner, a rack of synths and other technological gadgets in the other , Bjork makes her entrance along with the 20 member all female Icelandic choir sporting a glittering black dress and a large orange afro wing attached to her head by a strap under her chin.
The tesla coil which hangs from the ceiling cracks into life as she starts into opening number ‘Thunderbolt’. This contraption looks like something out of Dr Frankenstein’s lab with coils of electricity producing a mini-electrical storm above the heads of the already captive audience. Indeed , this is not the only non-traditional instrument she makes use of. Also on stage is a Reactable (a kind of neon table which reacts to cubes being moved around on its surface), a gameleste, a sharpsichord, an iPad and a hang (this is a kind of steel drum/bongo that looks like two woks placed together). In case you hadn’t already guessed, this is no ordinary concert .
‘Moon’, introduced by the voice of David Attenborough. The video screen, accordingly, displays lunar images as Bjork makes use of all four sides of the stage, while mingling freely with the choir. ‘Crystalline’, ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘Mouths Cradle’ follow all with their own video accompaniment and particular dance routines. A interpretation of ‘One Day’ with just Bjork’s voice and the aforementioned hang serves to sooth the audience into a near lullaby state while the closing song ‘Declare Independence’ couldn’t be more different, with its almost heavy metal beat and all 20 choir members and Bjork going absolutely crazy on stage. After an hour and 45 mins, she departs to a chorus of cheers and whistles which reverberate loudly around the concert hall.
Additional reporting by Emmett Mullaney
Photos by Jacob Bekker-Hansen