I am a person of order and continuity.
I like Jeopardy!. Crossword puzzles. Browsing shelving at IKEA. I hate cooking because if the instructions aren’t clear, I can’t just season my way out of it. Being late to anything — or worse, being early — literally makes me queasy.
This has a lot to do with why I, in general, steer clear of music festivals. Big crowds? No thanks. Elevated decibel count? Ew, no. Port-A-Potties? Not if I can help it.
But Iceland Airwaves has been calling to me for a few years now. It’s not your typical festival — instead of being confined to a festival grounds, it takes place across several venues in downtown Reykjavik, which clears up the big crowds and the lack of indoor plumbing. It’s also good about balancing out beat-heavy acts with more intimate and more eclectic artists. This year it finally got me with Vagabon, Michael Kiwanuka, Pinegrove, Gordi, and Songhoy Blues. I booked my ticket an uncharacteristic eight weeks before departure.
But before I go a place I don’t know well, I plan. Exhaustively. I plan when I’m gonna sleep, eat, and tour. But Airwaves comes pre-scheduled, rendering all my work moot. And in addition to the official shows, there are “off-venue” shows — bands in town for the festival may play informal 30-minute sets at coffee shops, clothing stores, and record stores during the day. This panicked me. What if I miss a great show? What if I get tired, throw a hissy fit, and don’t see anything at all? What if I don’t cross every single item off my meticulously-planned list?
Eventually, in keeping with the vow I made to myself a few years ago, I decided to sacrifice my sense of order at the altar of exploration. I went to Iceland Airwaves and I didn’t once check my itinerary.
On my flight into Reykjavik, the first pangs of self-consciousness started to creep in.
A significant portion of my flight-mates were 20-somethings with cool haircuts and vintage clothes. I was in row 34 in an Old Navy sweater and with a sensible neck pillow behind my head. I felt uncool and I felt old. I spent the whole flight wracked with anxiety over the fact that I may have been on my way to a huge, expensive mistake.
I arrived to the Airbnb early — I waited as long as I could, but there are only so many airport coffees you can drink. I got the key from the lock box and snuck into my room. I tried to nap, but found myself paralyzed by fear. Fear that I was too early and my host would be mad at me, fear that I was too old for this, and fear that I would once again find myself playing Rock Mom, spending too much time bothered by obnoxious behavior at shows (talking loudly during sets, desperately trying to start a pit though no one else nearby is interested) and not on the actual show in front of me.
But I couldn’t stay in that room forever. Eventually I worked up the nerve to go outside again.
First thing’s first: I needed my pass. It was cold — 40 Fahrenheit — and as I reached the Media Center at the main concert hall, Harpa, my feet started to sting in pain. I hobbled into Harpa, followed the signs, and picked up my wristband.
I was tired. I slept a little on the plane, but was kept mostly awake by a woman in the back striking up conversations with every passing flight attendant, and the man nearest to me being engrossed in Ready Player One, requiring his reading light for much of the journey. The answer was pretty clear: Go home and get some sleep, you idiot. But my dumb sleep-deprived self saw a line and got in it.
The line was for entry to Asgeir on Friday. Of all the ticketed shows — for the three biggest-name concerts, you needed a ticket on top of your general festival admission — it was the one I was most interested in. World’s okayest band Mumford and Sons wasn’t a show I was clamoring to see, and I’m fine with, but not fanatical about, Fleet Foxes. I knew little enough about Asgeir for him to be intriguing.
I got my ticket, then went back to the Airbnb to change my shoes. That taken care of, I realized I couldn’t avoid, you know, the festival I came to see any longer. Unsure of how to do this, I began wandering around the neighborhood, slowly acclimating to the weather, when I heard something loud.
It was Pink Street Boys, playing what would be my first off-venue set at a record shop called 12 Tonar. The crowd was spilling out onto the steps outside, and my only view was through a gap in the posters hanging in the window. I could see only the drummer’s lower body, and others had it worse. But as I stood, more and more people kept crowding around the store, attracted to the noise the way I had been.
That’s when I got it. The freedom of the festival can be scary if you’re socially awkward like me, but there really aren’t any unspoken expectations of how to consume its offerings to navigate. All you have to do is walk around until you hear something you like.
Photos from Day 1:
Iceland is an expensive country. Everyone will tell you this before you leave. But here’s a handy money-saving hack: if you are so jet-lagged you can only sleep from 3am-10am, it means you’re not getting out the door until practically lunchtime. Voila! Fifteen dollars saved on breakfast.
That’s what I did that morning. I rolled out of bed, showered (for the uninitiated, Reykjavik’s tap water smells like sulphur because they use geothermal heating. Washing your face is a miserable experience), and moseyed over to a nearby cafe. Then I continued on toward the National Museum to fill the morning hours before the off-venues began in the late afternoon.
Early that evening, I finally ran into my Bay Bridged colleague Jon. It turned out much of our show-going schedules overlapped that night, so we teamed up. We stopped at Kaffibarrinn to see Icelandic rap legend Cell7, then walked to the church, where we planned to camp out for a few hours.
Except that’s not what happened. It was really hard to see in the Frikirkjan — Aldous Harding, the performer, was set up on the floor, rather than in the raised area where services are carried out. Even though bad views didn’t impede my enjoyment of Cell7 (I was stuck behind a brick pillar for that one), it did this time. Everyone in the pews were craning their necks and their phones toward the aisle. About three-quarters of the way through her set, Jon and I decided to get to the National Theater early for Benjamin Clementine.
It’s a good thing we got there when I did, because the theater was already full. Security was letting in the public and the press simultaneously as others left, much to the irritation of a guy behind me who seemed certain his press wristband gave him godlike authority. He voiced his grievances loudly, to no one, nonstop while we waited in the cold. By the time I was waved in, I was just happy to get away from that guy (nothing makes a vaguely disappointing situation worse than someone who won’t stop complaining about it). But when I walked into the theater, I literally said, “Wow.”
I’m a theater nerd from back in the day, and I’m not afforded the opportunity to be in these kinds of spaces — designated theaters, with dramatic ceilings and wings to emerge from and red upholstery on the seats — much any more. Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini was finishing up her set with the Colorist, a contemporary orchestra from Belgium. The sound of classical instruments ringing off the rafters formed sharp angles that floored me upon entry. I found a spot on the stairs (that’s how crowded it was) and settled in.
Part concert, part performance piece, a lot of people didn’t seem to get Benjamin Clementine’s National Theater performance, or just didn’t like it. Confused giggles from the audience became a constant murmur throughout, and I can’t say I blame them — it did get pretty weird at points, like when he extended the end of a song for a good minute-and-a-half while he practiced some vocal acrobatics and clutched a child-sized mannequin. But I, perhaps for lack of sleep, found myself swept up in his stagecraft.
But Benjamin Clementine wasn’t the end of the night. I still had the final performers at the Art Museum, the group I was probably most intrigued by.
There was so much buzz around Reykjavikurdaetur (abrreviated RVKDTR), Reykjavik’s collective of women rappers, and I was genuinely excited to experience them in person. Nineteen women rappers rolled into one massive force to be reckoned with? I don’t even think I can count 19 women rappers in the Bay Area. I’m there!
RVKDTR’s Iceland Airwaves performance brought into focus a thought that had been lingering since I first saw the lineup and got a sense of how big hip-hop is in Iceland. A lot of Icelandic rap borrows heavily from American hip-hop culture, sometimes harnessing the more problematic aspects of it — RVKDTR’s pre-show playlist spoke of expensive cars, exotic women, and dropped the N-word a couple of times. During the performance, images of pink guns were projected on a screen behind them.
The group (I counted 13) stormed the stage, all but one in “Single Ladies”-style unitards and gold jewelry, and took turns on verses while the others danced and swayed. I couldn’t understand much of what they were rapping about, but the English-speaking internet tells me it’s a lot of bold statements about women’s equality and female sexuality. Though their feminist ideals are well-intentioned, parts of their performance felt a little bit awkward and even a little appropriative.
Photos from Day 2:
Day three was the day, the day I stood in line for as soon as I got into town: Asgeir. I kicked around town for a bit during daylight hours (Iceland doesn’t get a lot of those in November), killing time with Tusks and Gurr until it was time to head over to Harpa.
It’s kind of cruel to put a bunch of jet-lagged people in a dark, warm room with calming music. I was in grave danger of falling asleep throughout Asgeir’s set, but not just because I was cozy AF in there. In all honesty, I lost interest in him real fast. It’s pretty music, sure, but it after a few songs, they all started to run together to form one standard-issue “Icelandic chill” playlist. About the only thing that was able to capture my attention and keep it was the fancy stage lighting, which pulsated and flashed from large fixtures that stood amongst his backing band. But after a while, it started to give me a headache. I left halfway through his set.
I bounced around from show to show for a few hours, paying less attention to who was playing than I was how likely they were to be energetic and interesting. I dropped in on Mura Masa at the Art Museum, where the crowd was so packed into the space that I got trapped. Desperate to leave, I checked the schedule to see if there was anywhere else at all I could go. Who is at Gaukurinn? I thought. Is it someone I can just wait out ’til Vagabon, my last must-do for the night?
It was Pink Street Boys, the band I could only see the ankles of on my first day. I fled the cramped, noisy Art Museum for Gaukurinn, hoping I’d be able to see them this time.
Gaukurinn is the kind of venue most like one I might patronize at at home — a dark upstairs bar that smells like beer spills gone by. Vagabon played a 45-minute set, shooting through a list of earnest, aching tunes perfect for singing along to.
I made the long walk back to my Airbnb at about midnight. I saw a guy with bloody face collapse onto the street outside a bar, tended to by two friends. I saw people scurrying around in costumes, days after Halloween. Some guy came into the courtyard of my Airbnb’s apartment in the middle of the night and was screaming and kicking things for about 40 minutes. The longer you stay at Iceland Airwaves, the more rock and roll it gets.
Photos from Day 3:
By the fourth day, I was starting to get a little burnt out. I was starting to get resentful of how expensive the food was and was starting to hoard my money. I was definitely tired of the tap water smelling like a toilet. I was excited to see more shows, but also looking forward to leaving.
My big must-do that evening was Michael Kiwanuka. I was first introduced to him through the soundtrack to The Get Down (remember how I said I was a theater kid?). Kiwanuka makes classic soul that sounds like it came right out of your parents’ record collection.
But first I saw Songhoy Blues, Malian makers of undiluted, by-the-book rock and roll with a West African inflection. Songhoy Blues started a fiercely physical set, adding extra rhythm, and even a dance break or two, that isn’t apparent on their recorded work. As they were about to take the stage, I got a push notification from the Airwaves app that Gamla Bio, the venue Kiwanuka was playing, was at capacity. I’m fine, I thought. I can’t imagine it won’t clear up before he goes on. There’s no way there are that many Kiwanuka fans here.
Boy, was I wrong. Kiwanuka is English, and living in the US hasn’t given me a clear sense of how popular he is. I ducked out of Songhoy Blues early to get to Kiwanuka on time, and when I got to Gamla Bio, the line was around the corner and not budging. After standing in it for a few minutes, I remembered my wristband came with at least a few perks, and entry to this show might be one of them. I walked up to the bouncer, flashed it, and he waved me in.
I got in so late that I was stuck in the back, where people seemed to be more interested in chatting with their friends and occasionally breaking out into drunken dances. There’s no right way to enjoy a concert, but there was something surreal about watching a room full of people joyfully clap along with a song like “I’m A Black Man in a White World.”
It was the same feeling I got at Leon Bridges last year, and at Hurray for the Riff Raff this summer. I don’t doubt that these people are fans. But when I see patrons blissed out on booze and shouting over a headliner, it makes me worry that the artist’s hard work, no matter the message, is all for naught.
It’s entirely possible that Kiwanuka is just happy for his music to affect people. It’s also possible these people were affording themselves just a few goddamn minutes to not think about the very real possibility of World War III around our collective corner, with Cheeto-In-Chief occupying the highest office of my homeland. Like RVKDTR a few nights before, the audience’s acceptance of his more serious works felt a little surface-level.
Photos from Day 4:
I’ve been really lucky traveling in fall and winter — I went to London in late October and all I got was a little rain, and flew all over Norway in early March without a single delay.
On the last day, a monster storm rolled into Reykjavik. I’ve never thought myself a stranger to storms, but you guys. You don’t know storms like Iceland knows storms. After my now-ritual morning brunch, I was pulling my coat on to leave and saw snow blowing outside the door.
That snow begat a hefty downpour. The downpour came with wind — my god, the wind — that made it physically challenging to even walk down the street.
The wind was at about 25mph at that point. It would reach 46 that night.
Needless to stay, I spent a lot of time indoors on day 5. Which didn’t make me too sad, because there wasn’t much left that I was interested in. The big closer was Mumford and Sons at the local sports complex, which I probably wouldn’t have gone to even if the weather had held out. The only thing that looked remotely interesting was RuGl, two teenage friends who make sweet guitar-based indie rock. They weren’t high on my priority list, but the storm had turned that all the hell upside down. Once I saw a break in the rain outside the Airbnb window, I ventured out to Loft.
When I got there, I saw a banner proclaiming the space the Sofar Sounds stage, and two adult men occupying it. One of them was fiddling around on a flute-type instrument, the other was leaned over, making strange vocalizations.
There had clearly been a schedule change, but in the interest of letting the festival guide me, I decided to stick it out. The host stepped up to the mic soon after to announce that RuGl had cancelled, but they had a great replacement — Arrows of Light, a side project of the Living Arrows from Bellingham, Washington.
Musically, they were pretty good. Stylistically was another story. Arrows of Light introduced songs with statements like, “This is another Sanskrit inspired mantra that evokes the lord of the dance.” They did this all with straight faces, on a guitar, aforementioned wind instrument, and a Native American drum (one was of Icelandic descent, but there was no mention of Native American ancestry, except to say that they “always like to give tribute to our ancestors and the tradition that came before us”). I suppose their interest in global instrumentation isn’t much different from what a lot of other musicians do and have done for years — my mind went straight to “El Condor Pasa” when I heard the first few chords — and at least they’re acknoweldging that the cultures they’re drawing from aren’t theirs. Still, it’s hard to find evidence of respect when they’re pairing Sanskrit mantras with self-important lyrics like “We heal the world by singing our song.”
The only other show I got to that day was Snorri Helgason in the sardine-can attic at Dillon. Helgason makes dead-ringer ’70s folk that might be called cosmic country were he a continent to the west. Thanks to the storm, a bunch of people were hanging out up there. I was somehow able to find an open seat, so I sat in it. I wasn’t able to move until his set was over.
His set ended with a countrified cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Helgason didn’t try to replicate the song so much as reinterpret it — it retained just enough of the song’s DNA, and had just enough of himself in it. He seemed to have the good sense to realize that no one on earth can do what Aretha Franklin does, and didn’t try. It made for a satisfying end to my first Airwaves experience.
After massive flight delays dealt by the storm and my checked baggage not making it to SFO with me, I’m back home. My brain, however, is still at Iceland Airwaves. I keep feeling like there are more shows to see. There are — I have local ones scheduled all the way into March of next year. But I’ve adjusted to Airwaves time, and I have this weird, completely irrational sense that I’m going to be back in Reykjavik next week. This must be what Burners feel like in the off-season.
So much for being a creature of order. I spent 30 minutes in a line for a show I ended up hating to avoid it, but that lack of structure Iceland Airwaves affords yielded some life-changing results. Though this review probably makes me sound like I hated it all, but giving appropriate praise to acts like Cell7, Gordi, GDJYB, Graveyard Club, Cyber, K.óla, Special K, One Week Wonder, and tons more, would only add to this piece’s already bloated word count. I came home with my musical horizons forced that much broader, and that’s something I want to do forever.
Maybe I like music festivals after all.
Photos from Day 5:
Tags: Iceland Airwaves