There were many reasons not to go back to Iceland for our 13th Airwaves festival. The heady climbing cost of everything in the country — riding on the back of a massive tourist economy — hits the pockets from almost every conceivable angle. The level of acts have been curtailed so no-one really exists at the place where you once had Jon Hopkins, Mac DeMarco, Beach House. Add that with the right-hand-turn in closing the festival with middle-of-the-road Mumford & Sons where PJ Harvey stood last year and you have a lot of questions to ask before portioning off €1000 or more to make the excursion.
We discover soon that the venues of those bigger concerts, in adjoining rooms in multi-purpose concert hall Harpa, are not being used this year. This means more gigs have been pushed back into the town and this sparks hope that the smaller, bubbling-up acts will have more of a chance than when visitors were ensconced in the concert hall for most of the weekend.
Some additions to the year are the talks, gatherings and movie screenings taking place all weekend in Paradis cinema, plus the inclusion of a town in the north of Iceland, Akureyri, on the festival schedule. Many local acts making the trip up to play alternative days on the north and south of the country. For us the trek to the airport, a flight up north and back for a quick 24 hour spin – while also missing a day of Reykjavik Airwaves – didn’t tempt us. It was great to see the scope extending out of the capital though, especially for the locals in the north.
Wednesday evening. Hostels, hotels and Air B&B’s are filling up. The seasoned, who know they can’t escape the call of the festival book a year in advance. They’ve seen the prices climb steeply in there last number of years but make it work. The day you land is an opportunity to get to the one off licence downtown, and get hold of the cheapest beers you’ll get over the weekend. Affordable dinner can be a kebab (no.7 in Ali Baba is the one you need) or a ramen. Treat yourself a bit and get a reindeer burger with a Christmas beer. You’ll find some rotten shark too if you want to try it (ALWAYS with the Brennivin shot. We made that mistake once). And what you are doing here is both getting the feel of the city, and delaying the gratification. In a matter of an hour or two we launch ourselves into Kex hostel for Gus Gus – intimate delight. Pale Honey are in Bar Ananas (can you go wrong with dark Swedish girl-driven rock? No. You can’t. They were great). Get those WhatsApp groups sorted now because you’re gonna be dipping in and out of gigs uptown and downtown and you’ll always want a few reliable places to meet the people you meet every year. Truth be told, the real reason you come back. The core of Airwaves are the returnees. And the swimming pools.
Those odd spaces uptown are catching the early wanderers with no specific must-sees. Dillon, and the comforting Boston are bars that always fill up with the opportunistic and are always worth a punt. Kex is practically unmissable if a band you like are on. The evening moves downtown but magic hour is for uptown mostly.
Gamle Bio – the old cinema – is a super theatre space with the seats removed and a big stage. We try to get to Glowie in the Art Museum but they finish in after a 25 minute set. Not to worry – the local electro poppers are playing five shows this weekend. Halldór Eldjárn is in Hurra says the app. He sounded good on the playlist so we starred him. Pass the bar and get in front of the stage. Hallrór is on drums going head-to-head with his brother’s warm wall of electro. Rivetting and uplifting, these pockets of gold are what discovering music is about at Airwaves and there are more pockets to look in with the big Harpa halls gone. The Mengi record label and intimate studio space has some off-off-venue acts playing over the weekend including Somerville, as well as some beautifully packaged local vinyl for sale too.
Get the essential hot dog from the 80-year-old stand downtown. Get a last but not late meet-up with more fresh arrivals, your friends from Scotland, Denmark, from England, From the States too of course. And their new friends. From Canada. From Switzerland. Looping in with a local is the hardest part. It seems they leave the town to us. We use it wisely and well though. And so Airwaves is off again, warmed up and caught up – this is how the basic template of the days go. Headline acts now only briefly, if at all, taking you away from the ins and outs detailed above. The schedule becomes your skeleton plan, the whole weekend filling out based on tips, rumours, recommendations. We’ll see things that we’ll be sure will be huge – but we’ll never see them again, like Doomhound last year. We’ll see ones that WILL be huge, like Haim in tiny Hurra in 2012. We’ll just keep rolling the dice.
And this is how it goes for the following days. In the mornings we walk straight to the pool. Nothing is to be done before 12 except the pool. The record shops, permanent Christmas decoration shops and some great cafes await the daytime wanderer. Take the bus to the local lighthouse. Seek out the gallery of photography or the sculpture garden we once found but never found again. If packing in a few days, get the hell on a golden circle tour. But if you can sink into the festival without trying to ‘do Iceland’ in the process you’ll be rewarded by the town itself.
The off-venues are everywhere and music can be found after lunchtime in many places. A most enjoyable Mr Silla gig in the Loft hostel also allowed us to enjoy some happy hour 2-for-1 beers. Local electronics from Án, Gordi in Kex, Stafraenn Hokar and then Fai Baba in Lucky Records as a storm came in. Almost all pre-sundown discoveries.
Standing out above the simple joy of this sort of wandering were a number of acts over the weekend. Aldus Harding was a perfect booking for the Frikirkjan church. Engrossing in this pin-drop environment. A piano-less Benjamin Clementine gave us one chance to see the National Theatre, and theatre indeed. Three odd mannequins were part of the show, yet the music really did rise above. Hyper informed and engaging, Billy Bragg took the church gigs along another step the next night. We were practically mobilised afterwards, and spellbound for the rendering of ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’. Within hours Arab Strap came to the old cinema. Thumping stuff and so lost in ‘The Shy Retirer’ were we that it prompted a German to cross the breakfast room the next morning to remark how much we seemed to be enjoying Arab Strap the night before. And that night ended in confetti’d abandon as we finally committed to a full headline show by local party heroes FM Belfast.
Shows run til 3am and beyond in the smaller downtown venues so no need for us to wedge into Kaffinbarin for the last of the evening, as in years previously. And it was Ireland’s own Bonzai who, after delayed flights, finally stormed the Hurra stage at 3:10am. We caught the Finnish DJ/producer Tontario in the tiny Bar Ananas and tracked him to late night in Hurra too. Also ГШ (Glintshake) were one of the buzz names of the weekend, hyper energetic Russian rock to let yourself slide into.
Our only trip to Harpa was to the concert hall for Fleet Foxes – the main festival’s only real big-name headliner. Visuals that painted themselves slowly during the performance elevated this most perfect show. Sprawling songs were reined in tight, Pecknold’s cloudpiercing voice and the wall of sound from his acoustic guitar drove some of the most captivating moments. Saturday ran on with a tireless Torres and Gus Gus closed off the Art Museum with a more serious approach than FM Belfast the night before, but never fully clicked into place for us.
Sunday was lead by that strange bookings of Mumford and Sons. An aim at the midground seems misguided for this festival quite literally on the edge. Not one of the people we knew went, opting for some final beers and bands in Gaukurinn downtown, and it was a treat. As a storm raged outside, grounding the national fleet, we were warm – soaking up the three or four bands on back-to-back. At midnight, the bar closes and the curtain is down on another Airwaves.
In many ways a return to the roots of the early 2000s. Too recently we all got caught up isolated in the functional grandeur of isolated Harpa’s rooms with bigger acts, but now we’re back to the bustle of town and the ping-ponging between venues. Never too vast to not meet up with new and old buds, and constantly delivering on fascinating, quality live music. What Airwaves can’t control is the feeling that you are part of a tourism conveyor belt. The cost of eating in a restaurant is uniformly laughable. Cheaper beers begin at €9 unless you hit one of the happy hours (and locals have an app for that). The city streets are an endless procession of all-weather fly-ins, restaurants soulless as even locals are prohibitively driven out of dining in the centre. The statistics office are doing research in the airport on people’s reaction to the cost of things. These escalating costs could eventually threaten Iceland’s tourist bubble, though the country remains one of the most spectacular nations on earth. But through boom and bust and boom there’s always been Airwaves and we’ll be back, with our kebabs for dinner and our hip flasks full. There’s always a way.
Tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2018 (From Nov 7 – 10) are on sale now.
Wow Air and Icelandair will both fly direct from Dublin next November.
Gus Gus photographed for State by Jakob Bekker-Hansen.