Iceland Airwaves - Recap
Having had a few days to recover from the 2009 Iceland Airwaves music festival a few thoughts about the experience as a whole, and some of the acts in particular, are in order:
First, the festival's organization was excellent. Almost all of the acts were on time, and despite the occasional full venue, I could usually have a choice of interesting acts to see. Those shows whose demand for tickets exceeded the venue capacity, particularly the Kings of Convenience at Fríkirkjan, were usually balanced with another high-demand show at another venue. The special wristband queue for Kings was probably as bad as it got, but the queue was a place to socialize, so that was at least partially redeemed.
The venues were generally good, and although the Reykjavík Art Museum's set-up and lighting wasn't as nice as it was in 2006. It did have a high enough stage to make sight-lines good for all but the shortest patrons- and risers along the sides and back would have helped with that, too. NASA, a large club, was a little better, except when it was crowded. Sódóma and Grand Rokk were both second-floor clubs, which meant low ceilings and low stages, but both were fine when not too full. Grand Rokk, kind of cruddy to begin with, was downright scary when over-stuffed. Still, none was as claustrophobic as the old Gaukurínn used to get. Iðno seemed a little less inviting this time- the stage set-up was a bit darker and the PA risers which flanked the stage took away from the room's considerable charm (along with the performances of several sub-par acts which I did not review.) Hressó's courtyard tent was a most informal and comfortable venue possessing very organic vibe. I missed Batteríð- the few acts I wanted to see there always had a long line.
The off-venues have greatly expanded since 2006; there was music everywhere. Most of these mini-concerts were in record stores and funky coffee-houses. The big stage in Skífan probably had the most effective presentation, with the most incongruous being at Eymundsson's bookstore (nice view of the jail, though!)
But the best venue by far, large or small, was the Nordic House, with its cozy 50 seat auditorium. Although it had no stage per se, the intimate nature of the mostly acoustic performances there didn't need one. Some acts, like Pascal Pinon, Oh Land! and Casio Kids suited the room perfectly, while special mention must be made of Agent Fresco whose atypical performance was completely acoustic, with an emotional presence seldom seen anywhere. Kudos to Sari Peltonen and all the people at Nordic House for an unforgettable series of ten concerts (and Q & A sessions) over three days. It is well worth the trek across a windy heath.
Finally, the main reason I love the Airwaves is that the chance of seeing something new and exciting is always high. Even groups whose musical styles I don't care for had good things going on- Captain Fufanu, two teen-aged technos, have the potential to become monsters. Cosmic Call showed themselves capable of creating solid rock tunes, while Útidúr and Rökkurró both expanded the usual musical boundaries of pop-rock. All of the orchestral/fusion groups (Hjaltalín, DJ Margeir, Daníel Bjarnason) were exceptional. Musical considerations aside, some acts were just plain fun to see (Vicky, Dr. Spock, 22, Casio Kids, Ultratechnomegabandið Stefán) and there were many singer-songwriters (maybe a few too many) who showed promise (Toggí, Oh Land!, Uni, Hraun, Björt) and just some good old hard-rock bands (Æla, Bárujárn, Darling Don't Dance.)
I saw over 40 acts, less than a quarter of the total, and all were within walking distance of each other- some of the venues were only meters apart. Reykjavík is a fun city, day or night, with many shops, galleries and places to eat. Almost all of them are original concepts, not franchises:
In general, the Icelandic bands were, by far, the most exciting and innovative. I might have to wait a few years before I return, if only to give a new crop of Icelandic acts time to develop and mature.