Iceland Airwaves 2013: Reflections

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Editor’s note: The below content is an abridged version of what was originally posted on Life in the Vinyl Lane. You can read the complete post over here and you can find more of Guerrilla Candy’s Iceland Airwaves coverage over here.

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Omar Souleyman performing at Harpa in Reykjavik. (photo by Travis Hay)

Well, another Iceland Airwaves is in the books.

This was our fifth year in a row attending the festival and not only does it get bigger every year, but somehow the overall quality of the bands seems to improve as well.  The Norse god Freyr brought us perfect weather, with sunny skies almost every day, a shocking near absence of wind, and even a glimpse or two of the northern lights.  We met some cool people and got re-aquainted with our friends Ingvar and Gestur.  Even the flights seemed to go by relatively fast (it’s about a seven hour direct flight from Seattle to Reykjavik), though I did start to feel a cold coming on during the trip home.  But if that is the absolute worst thing that happens on a trip, you’re doing pretty damn good.

We set new personal “bests” this year by seeing 41 different bands play 42 shows (we saw Legend twice), and 32 of these bands were new to us.  And that’s not even counting some of the random stuff we stopped to watch for a couple of minutes as we were passing through, like the clothing store on the main shopping street that had bands playing in their front window and facing the street.  About the only thing you didn’t see was people busking on street corners.

Here are a few quick thoughts on my take-aways from this year:

  • Best Venue:  The off-venue Nordic House is probably my new favorite place in Reykjavik to see music since the loss of NASA a few years ago.  Yes, it’s a bit of a walk.  But it’s an intimate room with amazing acoustics that requires bands to strip down their sounds.  It probably holds all of a hundred people if all the standing room fills up.  Last year we saw the flawless Agent Fresco show there, and this year it was Halleluwah and one of my favorite surprises of the festival, Shiny Darkly.  Honorable mention to another off-venue, KEX Hostel, which is also the base of operations for KEXP radio’s live broadcasts from the festival.  We had spots right in the front for Bloodgroup and Berndsen, both of who put on outstanding shows.
  • Best “New-To-Me” Band:  I have to take the easy road here and declare this a tie so I can name two bands.  Syrian pop star Omar Souleyman was absolutely brilliant and brought the house down in the big room at Harpa on Friday night, while Danish sort-of-dark-wavers Shiny Darkly played a super stripped down set at Nordic House that was really deep.  I picked up vinyl of both, so look for reviews in the upcoming weeks.
  • Best Show:  I know it’s a cop-out, but I’m declaring another tie here.  Omar Souleyman’s performance was as fun as any show I’ve ever attended and he had the audience under his complete control right from the start.  As for the second, theLegend show at Gamli Gaukurinn was super intense though fraught with problems, from the  band not being able to play their full set because they started late to some DB throwing a cup of liquid on the keyboardist, earning him an invitation to come up on the stage to get his ass kicked.  Despite these challenges they crushed it.
  • Best Record Shopping Experience:  Lucky Records.  Duh!  And they have free espresso!
  • Biggest Regret:  While I would have liked to see Kraftwerk, the lady sitting next to us on the plane waited in the ticket line for three hours (much of it outside… in Iceland… in November…) and came away empty handed, so I’m glad we didn’t bother (though I heard it was amazing).  I guess the one performer I really wanted to see but didn’t was Emilíana Torrini, who only played two shows both of which were on Wednesday.  You have to make choices at Airwaves, and so we missed her.

The vast majority of people I talked to who were attending Airwaves for the first time absolutely fell in love with it and insisted that they would be coming back again, something we’ve heard from newbies year in and year out (and the same thing we said after the 2009 festival)… with the exception of one guy from Toronto I met at the flea market while flipping through used vinyl and who wasn’t terribly impressed.  But you can’t please everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Icelandic music, the esteemed Dr. Gunni just came out with a 200 page beauty of a book called Blue Eyed Pop.  This is the shorter, English language version of his seminal Stuð vors lands that was released in 2012. It’s next up on my reading list for sure.

Iceland, we’ll see you again.  In just 51 weeks.

Vinyl Lane Jeff

About Vinyl Lane Jeff

Jeff is an Icelandic music aficionado and the author of the music blog Life in the Vinyl Lane.