The hotel was booked 360 days ago, the flights booked 6 months ago and the slush fund slowly grown until it all matures upon touchdown, once again, for one of the best festivals anywhere – Iceland Airwaves. State’s fourth return to this lava rock sees Ireland’s involvement grow. The Young Hearts Run Free team have put on an off-venue Irish Showcase featuring Adrian Crowley, Villagers, Katie Kim and Donal Lunny. Villagers are also part of the main festival, plus the Drop Everything team (who brought us this over the summer) are bringing Daithi to be a part of their Sunday closing party. It’s testament to the draw of the location and festival as much as it is to the tenacity of all the Irish involved that we have such a decent showing this year, despite the expense of getting up here and the self-organised nature of our off-venue events.
Wednesday night, however, is an almost purely local affair. We get in a little too late for some of the bookshop and record store gigs with some favourites from the last years, Rokkurro and For A Minor Reflection, but we begin with the pastoral tones of My Bubba, a three-piece of Icelandic and Swedish ladies with a warm mid-american folky sound that stays firmly the right side of cute. Samaris, last seen with Donal Dineen at Electric Picnic, have a chance to shine on a big, big stage to a home crowd. The white-robed girls stand each side of the Silfurberg stage in the Harpa concert hall like will-o-the-wisp. Add in first-night-of-the-festival fever, the big stage and packed hall and their warm late-night electronica and clarinet sounds are pitch perfect in mood and setting.
The warm glow of being here is now spreading through us and we catch Bloodgroup who we were sad to have missed last year. Another local triumph. Dark electronic pop, it is at its best seen live – and this Harpa venue has the finest of sound and lighting rigs. Sunna Margrét is a magnetic, blonde centre of the stage with her Yamaha SHS-10 keyboard slung over her shoulder.
So fitting that the first night is some belters of local acts that have been working this festival for years but are now rising above the more commonly-heard sounds from this island. It would be too easy to get excited at this stage and peak too early so Wednesday is not for crazy rushing about all the open venues. Re-acquainting with a small amount of Thule beer and some delicious lamb meals is a good option. The biggest act at Airwaves every year is Reykjavik – the personality and quirks of this most interesting mini-city the biggest draw if you ask any repeat visitors. Always worth making some you-time for the city where you can.
Morning breaks about 9.30am here in late October so the only need to get up early at all is breakfast, but it’s a good excuse to emerge from the hotels, hostels, guesthouses and rental apartments that hold the visitors all over the city. Wandering the city streets (both of them) in the afternoon is a pleasure in itself. Bars that could be insane in evenings are pastoral coffee shops, plus there are probably more record shops per head of population than any other place on earth. Another fascinating part of the city, nay culture, is the outdoor swimming pools. The city itself has three or four. Super cheap to enter, and deserted on weekdays we teamed up a trip to one with a stopover in the nearby University to see the first act of a Canadian showcase, Diana. The painfully gorgeous basement bar had a solid measure of industry and students who, after a lengthy soundcheck, were rightly swooned. Carmen Elle’s pillowy voice and bookish charm did enough on its own but the live sax on top of the downtempo electro pop was a heart-stealer. (Chatting after the gig we find that they’ll be in Dublin to support Austra on Nov 22 and are well worth getting in early for.) And there is no better way to follow a beautiful musical discovery in the afternoon than swimming with friends in an outdoor pool under a sunny, crisp sky.
Even on Thursday the schedules are requiring bi-location to see what you want to. The off-venue line-up is an embarrassment of riches, local bands bar-hopping to three or four gigs in four hours. Text come in from friends insisting you come to the bar/hostel/broom cupboard where they are witnessing some post-classical healing. Staying true to your musical goals it tricky and you don’t know anything about FOMO till you come to this festival. But tickets have been dug up for tonight’s truly special headline performance which is local-boy-gone-international, Olafur Arnalds, performing his latest album For Now I Am Winter with the backing of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in the main hall of Harpa. Already on paper you can taste how delicious it’s going to be and elevated with timed-to-perfection visuals and subtle pulsing lights it is indeed bathing in the sublime. The vocal duties tonight are, as on the album, by Arnor Dan Arnarson are mercifully few, and those few are toned down by the orchestra as the cloying sincerity of them has rendered the record unlistenable at home. But Arnalds’ heart-strings piano surrounded by the swell of the orchestra genuinely moved and transported us.
With some time on our hands we went from the largest to the smallest venue in Harpa to see Go-Betweens Robert Forster. Singing ‘Streets of your Town’ to ourselves on the way in didn’t translate to actually hearing it (or it was played in the early numbers) but it we were soon reminded of the decision we had made at Springsteen’s Devils and Dust solo tour years ago, that no matter how big the legend – one man and a guitar does not a good gig make. We sat the gig out failing to spot any of the epic Go-Betweens songs and left unengaged.
Engagement was soon to follow though. Jagwar Ma’s ’90s-in-a-blender is easy to pidgenhole but they can raise a pulse with a nod of a bucket hat. Grinning and baggy dancing flow through the crowd in the Art Museum, through perfect sound in an ideal venue. Outside the northern lights are flickering to life. Over this weekend, even under the lights of the city we saw the spectacular phenomena streak across the sky, climbing to a small sheltered spot on our way to Anna Von Hausswolff to enjoy the moment. Ms Houswolff was in the re-opened Gamla Bio (old cinema), which still retains an aura of 1950s movie-going. With the spectacular pipe organ in Reykjavik’s largest church nearby it is still a pity we didn’t get to hear the Swedish organist use it, but this setting was special enough. ‘Mountains Crave’ is one song that stands so much above her other work and it was quite a moment in itself, but the kept the bar high with the help of an excellent band supplying a homegrown epicness to this gothic-folk. An odd moment came when, in the Icelandic spirit of self-policing, there was nobody to stop a very drunk woman hop up on stage and lie beside Von Hausswolff for most of one song. She played on and it was only when the sound engineer flagged it to someone backstage that she was gently persuaded to climb down. Then left again to her own devices in the pit, someone had to persuade security to escort her outside lest it happen again.
So all boxed off by 1am. The Calm before the storm of 5am standard-issue partying on Fridays and Saturdays around the town. We took a last beer in the hotel foyer discussing the day gone, the days ahead, the northern lights and if the Scottish accents sitting nearby were a band we sadly missed, Young Fathers (and they were, and were allegedly wonderful).
Bloodgroup photographed for State by Jakob Bekker-Hansen.