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Reykjavik Erupts With Iceland's Airwaves Festival


Bucking the initial considerations of Iceland in November of tundra and seal pelt, Airwaves festival turned Reykjavik into Europe’s hottest city last weekend.

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The festival, which sprawls across the Icelandic capital city via thirteen official venues and about forty unofficial others, is reminiscent of the same successful model of Austin’s South-by-South West. Just in an environment about twenty degrees colder.

Each year, Airwaves is able to combine a roster of internationally acclaimed artists with a plethora of local performers; a perfect showcase for the obscenely high ratio of talent that Iceland generates given its modest population.

This year, the bill was topped by veteran rockers the Flaming Lips, with other big-name additions such as the War on Drugs, Future Islands, the Knife, Caribou and Jungle helping the festival sell out weeks in advance.

Speaking with Reykjavik residents, you quickly learn that there are three types of shows taking place over the five day event; on venue, off venue and off off venue. The on venue shows are those taking place in the official venues every evening, with the off venue variants being hosted in affiliated, but not listed, Airwaves establishments. The third type, off off venue, seem to run twenty-four hours, with gigs being hosted anywhere from back-street record stores to pop-up venues as authentic as they come (notably the Nordic Playlist bar, which was still under construction during the festival).

It’s through the off venue and the off off venue shows that you’re able to catch the up-and-coming local acts. Jör, a men’s clothing store in the centre of town, showcased some of the more memorable performances, with the impressive Prins Póló, Sin Fang (check out ‘Clangour and Flutes’ – it’s outstanding) and avant-garde hip-hop duo Young Karín taking to the stage tucked between leather jackets and overpriced socks.

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Laugavegur, the main commercial artery running through the city, played host to some of the best daytime entertainment in its many bars. Disa, Magnetosphere and Irís drew huge crowds for the compact Bunk Bar, with rockabilly Ezra Furman’s show at Bar 11 seeing queues form outside the venue and down the street. As if missing the act wasn’t bad enough, it was minus ten degrees outside.

Elsewhere in the 101 – Reykjavik’s downtown area – Damon Albarn’s Kaffibarinn bar was the perfect setting for British troubadour Puzzle Muteson. The bare brick walls, veiled windows and flickering candles were as simple as the stage set-up, which also played host to industry-tipped Finnish electronic artist Jaakko Eino Kalevi.

During daylight also provided the best opportunity to catch some of the festival’s secret shows, with some of the official acts performing intimate shows across some of Reykjavik’s more obscure locations. This year’s standout was Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s hour long gig in an art-house cinema, where ‘Ffunny Ffriends’ and ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ sounded as good reverberating from popcorn machines as they do in any upscale venue.

As the light faded each evening, and the temperature dropped even further, the on venue locations really came into their own, hosting the bill-topping artists across a variety of stunning establishments.

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Reykjavik’s standout building, the glass-cased Harpa Centre, broke into three separate venues in the evening – Nordurljós, Silfurberg and Funkbàtturin. It was the largest of the trio, Silfurberg, where the day’s headline acts performed. La Femme, Biarritz’s premium six-piece psyche-rock band, were bizarre-but-magnificent with energetic renditions of ‘Sur La Planche 2013’ and ‘It’s Time To Wake Up (2023)’, before Mercy-nominated Anna Calvi brought her bright red lipstick and sultry blues to Reykjavik for the first time. Even through a cloud of Brennivín, her confident performance of ‘Desire’ was memorable.

The narrow Arts Museum provided the intimate environment that suited some of the week’s more popular acts, with queues constantly sprawling around the block. The harmonious Phox, and clad-all-in-white Caribou – whose ‘Can’t Do Without You’ was Airwaves’ best closing track – were excellent, ahead of Future Islands and the tireless cavorting of Samuel T. Herring, who delivered the festival’s highlight-set courtesy of a live show heavily weighted with material from 2014’s Singles.

Across Reykjavik on the city’s pond, New Zealand foursome Orchestra of Spheres enchanted the Idnó Hall with their psychedelic musicianship, before local DJ Hermigervill closed Noisey’s curated night at Gamla Bio, the old Icelandic opera house. After dropping his superb remix of Retro Stefson’s ‘Qween’, Hermigervill told the audience “the thing with live music is you endorse mistakes”. At a festival where half the focus is on promoting new artists, it’s a difficult sentiment to find yourself disagreeing with.

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Mistakes were far from the agenda at Airwaves’ curtain-closer however, where US rockers the War on Drugs and Flaming Lips headlined Sunday’s finale at the Vodafonehallön.

With their highly polished sets, cultivated from both extensive touring and years of experience, it was a fitting way to bring the fifteenth edition of the festival to an end.

Philadelphia’s the War on Drugs, playing the final date on their Lost in the Dream tour, drifted between Springsteen-sounding stadium rock and Bob Dylan-inspired ballads; their tracks anchored by Adam Granduciel’s compelling vocals.

As the Northern Lights lit the streets up outside, Wayne Coyne and co. brought some of the colour inside with their two hour long set, which was as bit as wonderfully weird as their reputation suggests. Lauding the audience for being “happy freaks” Coyne – flanked by twenty-foot high inflatable butterflies and aliens – kicked the band’s first Icelandic show off in fifteen years with ‘The Abandoned Hospital Ship’.

The inclusion of two covers, the Stone Roses’ ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’, didn’t feel contrived, and with every stop pulled out – be it balloons, lazers, crowd-covering tin foil sheets or backing dancers dressed as the sun – the Flaming Lips were the embodiment of entertainment.

As the last of the glitter rained from the ceiling and the biggest Iceland Airwaves to date came to a close, it’s intriguing to consider how next year can continue the evolution. I’ll definitely make sure I’m there to check. Words and pictures by Luke Forshaw