Iceland Airwaves, the largest music festival in Iceland, ended its 19th run yesterday.
The festival made a few deliberate changes this year, selling fewer tickets and removing Harpa as a venue (though three large shows—those of Fleet Foxes, Ásgeir, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra—were still held there). Small venues were added and the festival expanded to Akureyri, North Iceland for the first time.
This year’s line-up also focused more on local acts than other years, with the first night featuring exclusively Icelandic artists. Though as always the festival showcased artists of all genres, the focus in 2017 seemed to be high energy and fun, whether hip-hop, punk, or electronic.
The Line-Up: Something Old, Something New
As usual, the festival had a noticeable focus on up-and-coming artists, both local and foreign, and many shows held the palpable excitement of hearing an act that is on the verge of breaking through. Classic Icelandic groups were not forgotten, however, including a few that were nostalgic for many Icelanders, such as punk groups HAM and Tappi Tíkarass, the latter best known for being Björk’s first band. Legendary singer-songwriter Megas, now 72, also performed at the cozy National Theatre.
Icelandic artists were in the spotlight on Wednesday night and the Reykjavík Art Museum was the place to be. Festival-goers didn’t quite show up en masse but there was a sizeable crowd to witness the show. Young duo Jói Pé and Króli were the highlight of the night but the experimental hip-hop group Cyber turned some heads as well, as they entered the stage in a coffin carried by drag-queens.
The evergreen Emilíana Torrini was the highlight of the Thursday night. She performed alongside The Colorist in a packed National Theatre with fresh arrangements of her songs. Grísalappalísa had a lively set at Gamla Bíó as the frontman crowd-surfed and managed to create his own mosh pit—no small feat in a venue usually reserved for operas. Post-apocalyptic punk-synth band Hatari put on a great show as well. Hatari is one of the most interesting new bands in Iceland, with doomsday lyrics, full costumes, and immersive performances.
On Friday Night, young duo RuGl lit up Fríkirkjan church with their haunting songs and gorgeous harmonies. Gaukurinn and Húrra hosted under-the-radar powerhouses Vagabon and Lido Pimienta, who enthralled attendees with her humorous presence and powerful voice. Meanwhile, Danish duo Gents managed to transform Hard Rock Café into a scene straight out of the 80s with a magnificent set. The Reyjavík Art Museum had experience two solid performances, from Mura Masa and Sturla Atlas, before FM Belfast entered the scene and did what they do best – put on a party.
Saturday night’s breath of fresh air was Malian four-piece desert blues outfit Songhoy Blues, whose West African groove and tightly interlaced rhythms were unlike any other act at the festival. Their lead singer’s joyful energy and exuberant dance moves made it impossible to stand still. The raspy, soulful voice of Michael Kiwanuka captured the crowd at Gamla Bíó. Finally, GusGus set the audience off into the night at the Reykjavík Art Museum as they went through their catalogue of electronic hits.
The Sunday night was marred by a heavy storm, as a rare thunder and lightning show reared its head. Few festival attendees dared to venture downtown. Those that did found that Dillalude was the perfect antidote to the madness going on outside, with their soothing editions of J Dilla beats. The main draw of the night was the Mumford & Sons show at Valshöllin where the band led the crowd through the Viking clap.
Location, Location, Location
Hressingarskálinn, Hard Rock Café, and Hverfisbarinn were three new venues at the festival this year. Though Hressingarskálinn’s—or Hressó’s—casual, gritty vibe may work for certain types of bands, such as hip-hop collective Shades of Reykjavík, quieter acts like Special K were harder to hear and see.
Many avid Airwaves goers were skeptical about whether the Hard Rock brand would fit in well at Airwaves, but it proved a solid venue. The venue’s basement, where the shows were held, provides great sound and service, and no hint of the commercial feeling found in the restaurant above.
Hverfisbarinn, once an infamously seedy venue, has undergone a total renovation to clean up its image and better equip itself for live shows. Though the sound was good, the vibe felt a little too clean-cut for Airwaves, and the all-too-high stage created an odd feeling of distance between the audience and the performers in an otherwise small space.
Opting out of Harpa as a venue seemed to create long lines this year, especially at venues Gamla Bíó, the National Theatre, and the Reykjavík Art Museum. Though fewer tickets were sold this year than last, the difference did not seem to be enough to avoid winding queues. Though queuing here and there is an inevitable part of the festival experience, when lines start to curve around the block it's clear that many festival-goers are missing out on music to stand out in the cold.
This was the festival’s first year in Akureyri, North Iceland. Held over two days, November 2nd and 3rd, the Akureyri line-up featured 27 artists at three venues. Nearly one-third of festival attendees opted to attend the shows in Akureyri, according to Forbes. It seems that the festival succeeded in spreading the fun and helping foreign visitors get to know another side of Iceland.