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Being There –
Iceland Airwaves 2019

Words by
Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Photography by
Berglind Jóhannsdóttir

Let’s talk about Iceland Airwaves 2019. The music festival has been an unmissable landmark in the country’s social season, the epitome of coolness and a cultural touchstone for the past 20 years. It’s brought bands such as Florence and the Machine, Coldplay, Kraftwerk, the Flaming Lips, and Fleet Foxes to the country, making international musicians accessible to this tiny island nation.

It’s been criticised for not getting big enough stars to play, as well as not focusing enough on emerging artists, how long the queues are, as well as that the spirit of the festival was killed when they eliminated the queues (those blissful queue-free years when the Harpa Music hall was part of the venues). It’s criticised for how and if they pay the artists and how its so-called “off venue” concerts are organised. A lot of the criticism is valid and there’s plenty of stuff to complain about (can anyone explain to me the difference between off venue, on venue, and the official program?) but basically, it sometimes feels like the only thing people can agree on is that Airwaves used to be way better.

My first Iceland Airwaves was many moons ago. I’ve attended sporadically over the years and I’ve had some bad ones, some good ones and even a few great ones. At a four-day festival, featuring more than 100 artists, there’s always going to be some good music and some bad, some great shows, and some lacklustre ones. But a festival like Iceland Airwaves is only ever as good as its latest iteration so here’s how my festival went.

Walk before you run

I’ve learnt from previous festivals that a slow build is preferable to starting with a big bang. There was a whole lot of scepticism surrounding this year’s festival. With new leaders at the helm and some controversial changes to the festival’s execution, you heard several voices proclaiming this would possibly be the last year it would take place. It didn’t help that one of these voices came directly from the horse’s mouth, Sena Live’s director. For a writer, I saw this as an opportunity. If the festival was great, I’d have a nice time and see some good music. If it was a disaster, I would still have plenty of material for a great article on the last Iceland Airwaves festival. Also, as a long-time closeted country music fan, I wanted to see Orville Peck. He was playing the first night so anything good after that would simply be the cherry on top of a country-flavoured sundae. As I was doing my homework for the festival, checking out the artists I hadn’t heard of before, I was becoming increasingly optimistic with every new circled act on the schedule. By the time I worked all the way down the list, I had a schedule packed tight with artists I planned on seeing as well as backups, just in case.

Not to spoil the rest of the article for you but we all know what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and festival-goers.

So I did what I promised myself, I started the festival slow. So slow, in fact, that I spent the start of the night warming up my culture muscles at a release event for some poetry books. I managed to tear myself away just in time to see the last few songs by local techno band and last year’s Airwaves’ darlings Ayia. Next up, Orville Peck. Turns out I’m not the only closeted country fan in Iceland as the masked cowboy had the packed Reykjavík Art Museum shouting yee-haw in no time.

One thing about the Icelandic music scene: it tends to happen in waves. We’ve been going through a long electronic and rap-based wave recently, and at this point, it just feels good to see someone pick up a guitar. Also, Orville’s glittering cowboy outfit and energetic stage presence made for a super-fun time. Long story short, I’d seen what I’d come to see and I was far from disappointed. It felt good to get the high stakes show out of the way, allowing a stress-free enjoyment of the rest of the festival.

After Orville Peck’s show, I checked out Konfekt’s sweet set at Hressó and the first few bars of Úlfur Úlfur’s admittedly promising set at Hard Rock, but it was a Wednesday night, all my friends had gone home and I had things to do at the office the next day. I decided to sacrifice the much-hyped newcomers Hipsumhaps for the good of my future happiness and go home for a good night’s sleep. About four hours into the festival, I had already betrayed my thoroughly-researched schedule several times. The joke was solely on me: apparently Hipsumhaps were great and I was kicking myself during the watercooler chat about the festival the next day. This was only the start of the intense FOMO I would experience in the days to come.

Losing control and letting go

On the second day of the festival, I was determined not to make the same mistakes. But reader – I totally did.

I’d argue that what makes Iceland Airwaves the festival that it is, is not only the musical talent gathered in the city over the course of these four days, but the city itself – the atmosphere, the environment, the people and the energy in the air. That’s mostly a good thing, but it does bring with it its own set of problems. Over the four-day festival, it feels like Reykjavík and its people are putting on their best face. The city centre is alive with people and there’s music everywhere. The food is better, the goods for sale in shops looks more interesting, and the people around you are not only better-looking but so much cooler as well. As an added bonus, you feel cool, you cultured music-loving hipster you. Stop by that new restaurant, why don’t you, check out that off-venue gig, say hi to all the cool artists you run into on the street lugging their instruments behind them. Feels good right? Only problem is, while you’re super cool and everything, it feels like the town is filled up with people that are still just a little bit cooler than you. They’re probably going to bars you haven’t even heard of yet, wearing harder-to-find vintage treasures, appreciating harder-to-understand artists and going to cooler afterparties with more celebrities.

It took me about two whole days to shake off the inferiority complex this bohemian crowd was giving me. A little later on Thursday night, after seeing a couple of highly-anticipated shows that thoroughly bored the eyes out of my skull, I took one last look at my lovingly-prepared schedule of artists that I simply had to see over the course of the festival and left it behind. I would spend the rest of the festival following friends’ recommendations, my own whim, and sometimes just going to see things that were close by and didn’t require a long wait in line. This would prove a far more enjoyable and way less stressful way to spend the festival. That’s the way I ended up seeing fun new artist Krassasig at Gaukurinn and Pétur Ben’s hypnotic collaboration with Emilíana Torrini and Helgi Hrafn at the Fríkirkjan church. The final nail in the coffin of my efforts to be cool came when I was standing in the cramped halls of Reykjavík Art Museum listening to Mac DeMarco. While admittedly enjoying the music, I just needed to get out of that huge crowd. I ended up at Iðnó, where Joesef were finishing up their set. The singer would chat a bit in between songs but owing to his thick Glaswegian accent I understood very little. That didn’t stop me from enjoying their music though! I had about five other really cool things that I wanted to see that night but ended up staying for JóiPé x Króli, 19 and 20 years old, respectively. They had the song of the summer of 2017 and have since released a few albums and won the hearts of the nation for being super cute and sincere in their friendship. JóiPé, Króli, and the band that accompanied them came on stage dressed in way too large suits giving off a strong confirmation party vibe. I half expected someone’s aunt to bring a marzipan-covered cream cake out for the crowd. Króli is the more energetic of the two, supported by JóiPé’s quiet reassurance and he addressed their look in his introduction, calling it going-to-work-in-your-dad’s-clothes. In addition to all that cuteness, their music is just genuinely fun and I had no regrets about other, cooler shows that I was missing.

In a glass case of emotions

When Friday rolled around, I was properly warmed up for the musical experience that is Iceland Airwaves and all my artistic senses were opened up completely. It’s amazing what immersing yourself in an artistic and creative environment can do to open you up emotionally, for better or for worse. At least that’s my reasoning for being completely in my emotions come Friday night. My heart was alternating between growing three sizes and breaking every fifteen minutes – but in a good way. I went from morosely pondering the impossibility of ever really knowing the inner thoughts of friends, family members, and lovers, to choking back tears of joy over the spark of creative expression in the blink of an eye.

For the first few shows of the festival, I was always looking at my watch or the Iceland Airwaves app to see if there was another, perhaps better show starting somewhere else, but at this point, I was ready to give each concert I attended its due time, taking in the atmosphere. I started the night at the off venue program at Dillon, where a ball of nervous energy called Brett Newski was working his magic on a benevolently patient crowd. At some point, Newski left the stage to play a song sitting on the exposed ceiling beams, which required a substantial amount of climbing and audience participation to get him up there. They all loved it and cheered him on and it just felt super friendly and nice. Next, I was off to see Teitur Magnússon and his band play their sincere chill-fest of a set at Gamla Bíó. Teitur pulls off the homeless-chic look effortlessly and there’s so much beard on stage that nothing feels more natural than an impromptu bongo session in the middle of a song.

I would have been quite content to take in the chill vibes of Teitur’s set for the whole night but I was off to catch a show at the Art Museum where Anna of the North didn’t quite manage to get to me in the same way. But then… I went to Hard Rock.

Hard Rock is a weird venue, with all the characteristics of a dirty concert hall in a basement, yet way too clean and choreographed, as if every aspect of it was ordered from a catalog – the graffiti wallpaper being the worst offender. Also, you not only exit through the giftshop but enter through it as well. The place is mostly giftshop, is what I’m saying. But the music downstairs felt real, and I came in just as Detalji was finishing up a pretty powerful set. It almost felt overwhelming in my fragile state, but meeting up with a friend who was quite literally showering everyone around her in glitter got me feeling all soft inside again. It was the best possible state of mind for the concert that was about to start. Alyona Alyona, a Ukrainian rapper came on stage wearing a boxer’s satin robe over a black tracksuit, some chains and golden sneakers. She seemed genuinely happy to be there, but it was the crowd that was feeling thankful for her presence as soon as she started her show. There’s a certain magic to getting a crowd eating out of the palm of your hand, which she did from the first song onwards. The majority of the crowd had no idea what she was saying in any of her songs but that didn’t matter one bit. After the show, I even heard several people walk away humming some mangled version of the Ukrainian chorus to her last song, in that certain kind of comfortable daze you can only get from losing yourself for a moment in someone else’s expression.

At every Airwaves festival I’ve been to, there’s always at least one of these moments, the concerts you remember when it’s time to decide if you’re attending next year’s festival. Same as with Orville Peck’s Wednesday night show, it would have been kind of hard to top that one, and the rest of the night was a haze of catching the last few songs of someone’s set or the beginning of another one. I saw snippets of Pip Blom, Blanco White, and Cell7, all of which were pretty good, but I was becoming numb at that point. Even Hatari, with their usual punch-in-the-face of a show, complete with fire blasts fit for returning Eurovision champions, didn’t quite manage to get me going. Perhaps it was the size of the Art Museum: I find they’re usually at their best in a smaller, more intense environment, where they can really make you despair over capitalism’s chokehold on our future. I did dance along to Hatrið mun sigra though, how can you not?

Let the healing begin

Saturday morning, I just felt drained. I spent the whole day barely moving from the couch, avoiding all conversations, craving rest. But I wasn’t going to miss the night’s show. After a refreshing afternoon nap and a quick hot dog to get me going, I was back downtown, feeling all raw and vulnerable. I was expecting the first few shows to be grating and tiresome, with me dreaming of the cosy comfort of my blanket covered sofa at home. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite, after my overexposure the night before.

My first show was Penelope Isles. When I saw a group of young people on stage kind of dressed like oversized kids, I was bracing myself for an overly earnest, cloying pop act that would have been way too much at that point. Instead, the group was heavier than I expected, with fuzzy guitars and heavy drums reminding me of an accomplished version of the bands the people in my elementary school were starting back in the early 2000s. A lot better than what I was expecting, it just felt like they were having fun with it.

Next up was Auður, and again, I was wary of what was about to happen. He’s been billed as the next big thing for several years now and I’d seen him a few years before, coming away thoroughly unimpressed. He has since released one of the biggest albums of last year and seemingly charmed the pants off Iceland’s music lovers, but you only get one chance at a first impression and I had made up my mind that this wasn’t my cup of tea. I was, however, happy to change my mind when Auður came on stage. Boy, that guy’s a star! Looking like some sort of a mermaid superhero in a skin-tight shirt and shimmering, silver disco pants, he had the audience watching his every move for the entire show. It doesn’t hurt that the guy is almost offensively good looking, and after the first couple of songs, his shirt was off and a cowboy hat was on. I’m perhaps the last person in Iceland to notice but I think that kid is going places!

After Auður had finished, I was facing an impossible choice, with three exciting artists that I really wanted to see playing at three different venues. I chose what felt like the only logical option at that time and went to see JóiPé x Króli again. They’re just so darn cute with their cute friendship and cute opposite personalities that still compliment each other perfectly!

Following that cuteness overload was one of the most interesting acts of the festival, Palestinian Bashar Murad who was first exposed to Icelandic audiences when he collaborated with Hatari following their controversial appearance in the Eurovision Song Contest held in Tel Aviv. The LGBT+ artist came on stage to a morose interpretation of the wedding march wearing a white suit with a veil over his face. That’s how you make an entrance! His music was fun and a fresh note in the Airwaves symphony but his rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine was for me the high point. It’s easy to make that song sound like a cliché but coming from someone whose nation is currently experiencing the ugliness of war, it felt not only appropriate, but moving. After his show, Whitney’s smooth performance at the much larger but much less intimate art museum didn’t quite cut the mustard – but there’s always something cool about a drummer singing, and in that voice too!

We went over to Iðnó where Sólstafir were finishing up their set, getting there early in anticipation of the next act, Grísalappalísa. From their creation in 2012 the offbeat and energetic band was something you couldn’t ignore. Their live shows are some of the most powerful and exciting events you can expect from an Icelandic band, almost guaranteed to feature sweaty mosh pits, crowdsurfing and saxophone solos. This, however, was billed as one of their last shows ever, as Grísalappalísa are publishing their third album with the intention of breaking up soon after. They haven’t been active for a few years but still, it feels like an end of an era. With a venue filled to the brim with enthusiastic and dedicated fans bouncing light-up balloons over their heads, Grísalappalísa’s (possibly) last show got started. It had everything you were expecting: mosh pits, crowd surfing, an over-the-top stage presence from the band’s androgynous frontman, while his co-singer growled at the crowd, who could not get enough of it. The hero of the show was the extremely patient stagehand, always ready to assist the crowd surfers back on stage, even when the crowd surfer in question was one of the band’s guitars. Their music grabs you by the ears and spits in your face, but you can’t not love it. There was a lot of love in that room. There was no way something would top that show so I just went home.

I did not leave the house on Sunday.

In conclusion

In the end, I didn’t get to write a eulogy for Iceland Airwaves, since midway through the festival, it was announced that the books were looking better and that the festival would go on. Bad news for my article, but good news for Icelandic music fans, I suppose. The idea is to run the festival as close to breaking even as possible, but if I was to make any sort of prediction for next year, I’m guessing there’s still going to be a lot of arguing about money and the price of art. That’s a good thing, I think. As soon as people stop bothering to argue about the festival, that’s when they’ve stopped caring, and that’s when it becomes obsolete.

I’ve missed many iconic Airwaves moments. I wasn’t in that airplane hangar in 1999, and I didn’t see Coldplay play in 2001. I also missed the Flaming Lips and plenty of other concerts that have gone down in Iceland Airwaves history. But I don’t think it’s fair to make that comparison, especially when looking at the older festivals through the rose-coloured haze of time. In short, my review of the 2019 Iceland Airwaves right now is simply that I had four fun days of concerts and partying. I saw some great concerts and missed even more. Ask me again in 20 years, and I’ll probably tell you the festival was a lot better back in my day.

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This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.