Today was THE day. The day so crazy that a few months back, when I saw the announcement that the Iceland Airwaves schedule had been announced and looked at the Saturday, I screamed at my computer in frustration. When it comes to music, sacrifice has always been a difficult concept, and having never been to a music festival of this scale before, I had naive beliefs that I wouldn’t have to make any tough choices.
My schedule could have gone a million different ways. And almost a week later, I still look back and think of how I might have done things differently, even though the way I did do things was, nonetheless, an amazingly perfect evening.
- Valgeir Sigurðsson
- Jaako Eino Kalevi
- Son Lux (x 2)
- The Knife
- Retro Stefson
My day began quite mellow, having had a late night; my cousin Lisa picked me up just after noon so we could drive downtown for another afternoon at The Laundromat Cafe. I had high hopes I would make it to Slippbarinn for noon to see Lay Low, but alas, my body wasn’t moving quickly enough that morning to get me anywhere by that time.
The Icelandic folk band Ylja that I had discovered on Spotify shortly before the festival were coming on at 2, but because only an unheard-of all-male choir was coming on before them, it was easier for Lisa and I to find a seat with a better view of the stage than Kim and I had the day before. Bartónar, the name of the choir, was made up of twelve-some men with beards and man buns, singing acoustic songs about brennivin and regret. It was almost like being in an Irish pub with afternoon singing – Lisa, being in choir, was very excited about their performance, and could even sing along to some of their songs (I certainly couldn’t).
Next up was Ylja, two very fashionable girls singing acoustic-folk songs in Icelandic. They were just what I needed for that afternoon; Lisa watched intently and I listened while simultaneously scouring my Airwaves app, vehemently trying to figure out what I was going to do. East India Youth had cancelled their evening performances just that morning due to passport issues, and while I was disappointed I wouldn’t get to see them play, one more alleviated schedule conflict was a welcome relief.
While my late-evening plans were still not completely concrete, there was one thing I knew for certain, and that was that I needed to see Son Lux today. He’s one of my favourite musicians, and when I found out he was coming to Airwaves he was instantly at the top of my must-see list, even above The Flaming Lips. He was set to play an unofficial show at Kaffibarinn at 5:45, but knowing that the queue for small, free, off-venue shows can get crazy, I decided to leave Laundromat after Ylja’s performance to head to Kaffibarinn for the two artists that would come on before Son Lux. Lisa came with me and it was a good call to go early – we couldn’t see anything at all for Valgeir Sigurðsson, though we weren’t too far from the front. Why six foot something people still think they need to stand at the front of a show when they could see fine from literally anywhere else in the venue is beyond my comprehension. Fortunately, there’s not a whole lot to watch for Valgeir Sigurðsson other than a guy distorting the sounds of a cello supposedly playing Mozart songs.
Lisa left after his set and I, along with a fellow short woman from San Francisco, Mai, wedged my way right to the front, to the extent that I’d almost be in the lap of the next performer. We chatted about how Mai has a press pass so she can skip the lines and see more shows, and said that her press pass is the only thing that will make both seeing The Knife and Caribou a possibility. The two bands were playing in different venues, fifteen minutes apart from each other, and unless you were press, you’d have to leave The Knife early to queue for Caribou, and even then, likely not have a good spot. She was an experienced Airwaves-er, and despite my hopes of being able to see everything, she was absolutely right. If I wanted to see Caribou, I would have to go see Future Islands beforehand (another one of my favourite bands right now). But it was The Knife’s last show ever (until they reunite five years from now or whatever), and they are also a long-time love of mine. Reality, as they say, is a bitch.
Next up was Jaako Eino Kalevi, whose description said he was similar to Connan Mockasin, an artist I like. He was very disorganized and awkward, and didn’t seem to have a proper set figured out. This may have been in part though to the fact that East India Youth was supposed to play after Son Lux, and, due to his cancellation, they had the other artists extend their sets. He at one point asked if anyone had any requests, but refused to do the two that people did have, saying it wasn’t possible. There was one blonde Scandinavian girl who was so into his music though that her armpit was in a poor guy’s face the entire time as she waved her hands in the air like a blade of grass in the breeze. I hope for that poor guy’s sake that he was her boyfriend or something.
Once Jaako Eino Kalevi left the stage after what seemed like an over-long set, the fact that I would be standing right in front of Son Lux’s piano, watching over him as he played piano, was making my palms sweaty. This, was a good reality. A dream-like reality. How on earth did I get this lucky?? Mai left because she’d already seen Son Lux several times in San Francisco so I was left alone to my own hyperventilation.
Son Lux’s performance at Kaffibarinn was stripped down to the bare bones – no computer or production, just him, his keys, his guitarist and his drummer. He began with a mellow version of Alternate World and I was immediately blown away. You forget sometimes with these electronic/ambient artists that their singing voices can be a force to be reckoned with. I still couldn’t believe how close I was standing to him, so I tweeted, “Like if Son Lux spits at all when he starts singing it will land on my face.”
He closed with a bare-bones version of Lanterns Lit – his guitarist and drummer bowed out, so it was just him and his keys. I thank whatever gods may be that I decided to film this performance, holding my camera at my torso so I could still watch with my eyes – being able to relive it over and over is an amazing gift from past Arielle to present Arielle. It’s been a very long time since a musical performance has moved me to tears – I had to try and not shake the camera as the rest of me grew goose pimples. I hoped he was too involved in his music that he didn’t notice my eyes getting wet.
Afterwards, I knew that I had to go see his set at Gamla Bío that night at 1 AM, no matter what – this Kaffibarrinn show was too short, and I wanted more. I couldn’t get rid of the chills his performance had given me and immediately it was my new favourite festival moment. As the crowds funnelled out, I realized that I’d walk right past Ryan Mott as I left, and brave Arielle turned to him and said, “Thank you so much, I’m such a big fan and I basically followed you to Iceland, that was brilliant.” He replied, “Aw thank you, what was your name?” So I told him and we shook hands, and he told me that he hoped I would come to his full show later at Gamla Bío. If I wasn’t shaking before, I certainly was now. It didn’t help that the next morning when I had WiFi again, I found this:
On a complete high from the amazingness of that experience, I decided to grab a slice of pizza to eat before heading over to Harpa. If I was going to see The Knife’s last show ever, I was going to have to be there early. Fortunately, Samaris was playing in Harpa Silfurberg as a warm-up to The Knife, and they were on my festival “to-see” list so it wasn’t a bad thing. I got to Harpa Silfurberg before my friends, an hour before Samaris was even coming on, and, due to the lack of crowds, I grabbed us a spot right on the rail. I couldn’t believe it – we were going to be in the very front row for The Knife. My friends joined me a few minutes later and we all gave each other high fives for this amazing luck.
Samaris came on and they were a good warm-up for The Knife, similar theatrical stylization with the costumes, and similar eerie electronica music. I discovered their first album at 12 Tónar’s listenings tation last time I was in Iceland, and their live show did not disappoint. I also like it when bands use unconventional instruments, like the clarinet, in their live performances – my friends in band always used to say that the clarinet was the least cool instrument (probably because it was the largest section and more people played it), and here it was, being extremely cool.
Next was arguably the most-hyped show of the entire festival – The Knife. Harpa Silfurberg was packed as much as it was able, and we heard later that the queue to get in stretched all the way down the stairs in Harpa to outside. My plan to get here early was definitely a good plan, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug that I was in the very front.
It began with a masked man appearing on stage, asking us if we were ready. He then admitted he was not The Knife, and then a girl in 80s-style workout wear came on stage to get us “warmed up and ready” with what she called DEEP (Death Electro Emo Protest) Aerobics. It consisted of a lot of positive self-affirmation and chanting – in order to make us feel less awkward about dancing to The Knife, she made us chant “Self-consciousness is the illusion that this is only happening to me.” We were told to love our bodies and ourselves, and we were also prepared for the queerness of The Knife’s show by repeating “I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am both, I am neither, you don’t like it, take a breather.” And thus, the stage was set for the next hour for a show that defied performance conventions, and what may have felt frustrating to others was an absolute delight for me. Later, one of the female performers would also recite the poem “Collective Body Possum,” which again melded the ideas of self-love and queering of the body against societal standards.
Unless you were paying attention, or knew a lot about The Knife prior to this performance, it was pretty hard to tell where Olof and Karin Dreijer, the siblings behind the Swedish electronic band, were on stage. There was one woman who was definitely behind the familiar vocals for most of the performance, and by comparing her costumed figure to the few pictures Google offered of the reclusive singer, I was able to identify who Karin was. Rolling Stone magazine, which I loved to hate, misidentified her in their article.
At any given time, there were roughly 12 people on stage dancing, playing various percussion instruments, or thrusting their hips madly into the void. A few songs were actually not performed live – everyone on stage was dancing to a pre-recorded version of the song, which apparently happened more during earlier iterations of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual tour to much criticism.
I could write an entire think piece on The Knife’s last-ever show, but that’s not the purpose of this post. To sum-up, it was mesmerizing, challenging, unconventional, and it reaffirmed that, though I could have picked several different options of what to see this day, I did not make a poor decision.
Following The Knife, my friend and I decided to not try and brave the outdoor queue in the cold Reykjavik weather for Caribou, and decided that the best course of action would be to park ourselves in Gamla Bío for the rest of the evening. We missed the end of How To Dress Well, but got there in time to get a decent spot in the crowd for one of Iceland’s most prominent bands, Retro Stefson, who stepped in at the last minute into what was previously Jungle’s time slot. Retro Stefson got us dancing and jumping around, but I was still living off the buzz of seeing The Knife that I wasn’t really connecting with the performance, even during the songs I recognized. Due to the excited vibes of the crowd, I was made to jump and move with the crowd or risk getting trampled.
Next up was Son Lux, my primary reason for wanting to go to Gamla Bío. We got right up on the rail again and I was just as captivated by the full electric performance as I was by the stripped down one at Kaffibarinn. Fannar had not listened to them before and was also very impressed, which is an amazing feat on the part of Son Lux since we were both coming down from the high of The Knife.
The last show of the night was Hermigervill, an Icelandic DJ/electronic artist. After the amazing performances of The Knife and Son Lux, it was hard to be excited about it, but he was still entertaining to watch to say the least. He was using a theremin for much of his performance, which is an instrument controlled without any physical contact – how freaking cool and space agey is that?? I was also amazed that, even at 2:30 in the morning, Icelanders still didn’t want to dance.
We wandered around downtown for a while after that, not sure what to do with our mind-blown selves, so we got waffles from the street vendor (a waffle street vendor at 4 in the morning! Edmonton, get on that!!). The longest day was over, and only the closing show was left; even though the final note had not been played, I was already starting to miss Airwaves.
Click below to find out about the other days I spent at Iceland Airwaves 2014: