With no idea what to expect or how I should plan out my schedule, I survived my first day of Iceland Airwaves. And holy shit – my first day set some amazingly high expectations of what to expect over the next four days.
-Benny Crespo’s Gang
I began my Airwaves adventure at my old hostel, Kex, where KEXP radio was broadcasting the 30 minute performances live to Seattle. I’ve watched countless Youtube versions of these performances set against a backdrop of bookcases, so it was amazing to finally be there in person. I had a chair at a table close to the stage, but people ended up standing in front of me so I had to stand as well to be able to see anything.
Kiasmos was an unbelievable performance; for one, I made eye contact with Ólafur Arnalds as I walked into Kex, and I have loved his solo work for a very long time. Kiasmos is comprised of Arnalds as well as Janus Rasmussen, who is the mastermind behind Icelandic electronic group Bloodgroup. For 2 PM in the afternoon, their dark beats blended with melodic strings and piano were a great kick-off to the festival. After that, I was very excited to see and dance to their full set at Harpa on Day 3 of the festival. Arnalds said to the crowd, “It’s 6 AM in Seattle, and we are going to wake people up…feel free to turn it up, you know. The music, in life.”
Next up at Kex was Sóley, whose only full set is on Day 4 and she was playing at the same time as both The Knife and Future Islands, so that wasn’t going to happen. She is adorable and has a great voice, so I was glad to be able to see her perform a couple of songs anyway.
Following the two Kex shows, I said goodbye to my new Finnish and Scottish companions at my table, expecting to run into them again at some point, and made my way to my favourite record store in the world, 12 Tónar, to see Low Roar and Rökkurró. On my way, as I trudged through the cold and rain, I passed Cafe Babalú and, having eaten nothing that day but a protein bar, a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, and three beers, I was pretty hungry. I decided to stop in for a sandwich before going to 12 Tónar, and their special was a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup – perfect! The choice wasn’t great in retrospect because by the time I got to 12 Tónar, the queue outside was too long and I had to cut my losses. But all things considered, it was a cheap delicious dinner compared to the notoriously expensive Icelandic food I intentionally passed on at Kex.
Having a bit of a headache, I decided to bus back to my relatives’ house near Kringlan prior to attending the official venue events of the evening (and also so I could charge my phone). They offered to drive me back to Gamla Bío for 7 PM so I could queue to see one of my favourite Icelandic bands, Vök. I was so early that there wasn’t even a queue started, so I went in through an open side door that turned out to be for staff only. I hung around inside for a bit while security guards and venue managers flitted around to get ready for the show, all the while giving me strange looks as I read over the festival schedule and acted like I was supposed to be there. Eventually I realized that a queue was forming outside and I wasn’t supposed to be inside. Not wanting to get in trouble and get kicked out to the back of the line (how Canadian am I?), I admitted my mistake to a security guard and I got in the short line outside in the cold.
Outside, I met an Icelandic couple who planned on staying at Gamla Bío the entire evening, which had a pretty solid line-up following Vök. I had received a lot of advice from experienced festival goers that it was best to pick a venue and stay there throughout an evening – that way, you didn’t have to worry about line-ups and being unable to get in to the popular acts later. I wasn’t sure of my plan because I wanted to see Benny Crespo’s Gang at Harpa – partially because it was their only scheduled official performance, and partially because my friend Fannar, who I hadn’t seen since my last trip to Iceland, was going to be at Harpa for that show.
When they finally let us in, I ended up right in front against the rail. If I had stayed in that spot at Gamla Bío, I’d be the envy of many – it seemed a lot of people I met were dying to see Agent Fresco at Airwaves, who was playing at Gamla Bío two acts after Vök. I decided to leave to go to Harpa and see Benny Crespo’s Gang, followed by Ásgeir and Sin Fang, and soon found out I would have been the envy of the swarms of people who queued all the way down the street to get into Agent Fresco.
I watched Benny Crespo’s Gang at Harpa, and was happy to see that Lay Low is just as good at rocking out on the bass within this band as she is at her acoustic solo sets. I had never listened to them as a group before, but was quite familiar with Lay Low, having seen her perform and met her at the Iceland Writers Retreat back in April of this year.
After that show, I had a break before Ásgeir and decided to meet up with Fannar for a drink at the super classy bar in Harpa. But as a result, we were delayed in getting a good spot for Ásgeir, and thus had to stand pretty far back. Me being short, the only sight I got of Ásgeir was through my camera lens when I raised it high up while simultaneously standing on my tip toes. Consequently, Ásgeir was my least favourite show of the night, though it was nice to hear him perform his songs in Icelandic. I had only ever listened to the English versions before, so that was a nice treat for me. It’s great that such a young artist is already gaining international recognition, selling out recent shows in Europe and Australia.
After Ásgeir was Sin Fang. Some fellow writers retreat delegates and I had seen Sin Fang in a tiny art gallery called Mengi back in April. Seeing him in Harpa was a grander, more dynamic experience, backed by mesmerizing visuals. The sound quality in Harpa (and pretty much all of the Airwaves venues) is amazing as well, which even further points to the flaws in Edmonton music venues, where the sound is only consistently good at maybe one venue in the whole city.
I had no plans to see anyone after Sin Fang, being tired and still kind of jet-lagged, but we met up with some of Fannar’s other friends and briefly went to the small Harpa Kaldalón hall for some music advertised as “extreme chill,” a band called Stereo Hypnosis. We lasted less than five minutes – it was like a concert version of the ocean sounds people use to fall asleep.
So we went back up the stairs to Harpa Silfurberg for Moses Hightower. I had bought the Moses Hightower vinyl in April on a recommendation from someone, but ended up finding it to be like an Icelandic Michael Buble and not really my taste. Seeing them live was a much nicer experience – Fannar told me that the Icelandic lyrics are really nice and poetic; though I can’t understand them, I’ll take his word for it.
Once Moses Hightower finished, the first night of Airwaves was a wrap, and we went outside to be exposed to the craziest wind that actually required serious physical effort to keep walking in a straight line. The music of the first day of Airwaves had blown me away mentally, and here Iceland was, trying to blow me away physically.
Click below to find out about the other days I spent at Iceland Airwaves 2014: