Where do I start? I’ve promised myself this won’t be too long, but I saw 56 shows across 4 days. I must admit that 13 of those were in the same hour and a bit in one of those wonderful Airwaves daytime rushes around town seeing just how many bands it is possible to see in a short space of time.
In short, it was once again a wonderful festival. Reykjavik had that special buzz, it was busy, it was hectic. There were shows, there were drinks, there were friends and familiar faces and big Icelandic hugs, there were long lunches, there were hot dogs (many) and there was one (just one) memorable oreo milkshake. It was superbly organised again, the security was improved in terms of friendliness and efficiency having reached a low point two years ago. There were fewer idiots around, although the Art Museum venue was yet again badly affected by constant chatter in all but the front third. This was particularly terrible for Mammút’s show on Saturday – most people there blatantly ignoring the stage and chatting in groups, presumably waiting for later shows from Future Islands and Caribou. Supremely irritating.
I'm starting with my top three acts, so much harder than doing a top ten! For me, there was one band that stood out. If you have seen me since or glanced at twitter, you will know that that band is Grísalappalísa. I love these guys. Last year they had just released a brilliant debut album and their show was one of the highlights of Airwaves. This year, they’ve released a fabulous follow-up record as well as some choice cover versions and I saw them play three shows; the first was with local legend Megas, and was made up of his songs – I barely new any of the songs but they sounded great and the energy on the room was second to nothing I’ve ever seen at Airwaves. All three shows were compelling, exciting, spirited and simply great fun. They have two incredible front men – Gunnar being more obviously in your face but they work together so well as a duo both visually and vocally. But it is a seven man effort that makes it all work, they even have a saxophone high in the mix that isn’t annoying, that’s some trick. Long live Grísalappalísa.
The other two home grown acts that especially stood out for me this time around were Ghostigital and Þórir Georg. I am never not entertained and moved (physically) by Ghostigital; their music is incredibly well put together and again, there is a front man that I, at least, cannot take my eyes off. I had learned beforehand that they intended to play only new stuff from a forthcoming new record (woohoo!). In fact, they did play some familiar things and the newer stuff all sounded good and familiar enough to be as comforting as searing beats making ears throb and bodies contort and the stabbing saxophone (again!) blasts backing up Einar’s familiar delivery.
Þórir Georg is not a front man like Einar Orn or Gunnar Ragnarsson. His movements are mainly to switch guitar pedals, but this year more than other he stood there with his three piece band and delivered a supremely confident, assured and thrilling set of songs from his ever-expanding back catalogue (largely from the excellent Ræfill album). I’ve seen him many times, but never on form this red hot and I was only gutted that it was delivered to a half full Iðnó in the opening slot of Friday night.
Behind those three are a mass of other Icelanders. Fufanu deserve a special mention, they struggled horribly with technical issues at their Gamla Bio show. It’s terrible to see any band in that position but for a young band on the rise in front of a big crowd it was pretty heart-breaking. They absolutely put it right one night later in Gaukurinn with a blistering set which prompted one local (who may or may not be part of their record label) proclaiming them the best band in Iceland. Now, where’s the album? On the other hand, Oyama have just unleashed a new album and backed it up with a show at Airwaves that was a class above anything I had seen from them before. I hadn’t, and still haven’t, got around to listening to the record but judging by that show in Gaukurinn, I’m in for a treat.
There were great shows too from regular favourites Sin Fang, Mugison, Retro Stefson, FM Belfast, Prins Póló and Mammút. I love them all and they all delivered brilliantly. Sin Fang picked up on this year’s very clear trend for two drummers and it suited a lot of his songs very well. Mugison (pictured at the top of this article) played to a packed crowd in Harpa and broke a few hearts with a duet with Runa, his wife, and a passionate speech on the current strike by music teachers in Iceland (seriously, give them more, they very clearly do an amazing job!). Retro Stefson easily filled the void (and then some) left by the late withdrawal of UK band Jungle, the highlight being the final song, Senseni, complete with the returning Haraldur running around in the crowd just like the old days. FM Belfast did what FM Belfast do; they made a packed room of people very sweaty and very happy indeed. They didn’t include their recent cover version of Ghostbusters but Fight For Your Right, I’ve Got The Key and Wonderwall all got the treatment. Prins Póló was great fun, it was the first time I had seen them play many of the songs on their excellent recent album – every bit as good as the first. I think Mammút played an incredible show, but I spent most of it wishing spontaneous combustion on about two thirds of the Art Museum audience, thankfully I had found a way to filter the chat out by the time the show climaxed with a poundingly spectacular version of Salt.
As for acts I hadn’t seen before, I thought Pink Street Boys were every bit as exciting as I had been led to believe and as I expected from listening to their debut record. Muck are working in a genre that I’m not naturally drawn to, I doubt I’d ever listen to them at home, but their show (directly before Pink Street Boys and then Ghostigital on the first night) was hugely enjoyable and helped restore my flagging energy at that point, there sure was some seriously fast drumming happening.
Everyone was talking about Reykjavíkurdætur It’s pretty easy to assume that a 21 piece hip-hop collective who have appeared from nowhere (it seems) over the last few months would be a bit of a novelty act, but there is some serious talent there both in the rhyming and the presentation. I was very impressed not least by their ad-libbing whilst waiting for a member to arrive at their bookstore show. Final mention here is for Icelandic/UK three-piece band Dream Wife who definitely displayed enough confidence and potential to keep an eye on from now on.
Finally for the local acts, I am so glad I made my way across town to see and off-venue show by Hafdis Huld who I had not seen for 4 or 5 years. She has such a lovely manner on stage; she’s as funny between songs as she is engaging during them. It was so good to hear some older favourites (Action Man for example) amongst some newer and unfamiliar ones. Later in her show she was joined on stage by her insistent young daughter who totally stole the show, toddling around and holding mummy’s hand while she sang. I loved it. I was missing my kids OK!
Then there is that other Iceland Airwaves phenomenon of the surprising overseas band that you can happen across and fall in love with. The big win here was Ezra Furman who I thought was utterly superb. His show was the last thing we saw at the festival, in the early hours of Sunday morning just before we spilled out of Iðnó to be greeted by some of the best northern lights I have seen during an Airwaves. We had heard Ezra at Bar 11 (which still smells awful) the previous day and been impressed – we hadn’t seen him as we couldn’t actually get into the venue, so to end the festival at his main show was perfect and his energy and craftsmanship sent us home on a huge high. Oh, plus the northern lights were on good form as we exited from Iðnó.
Other overseas visitors that I adored were Seattle band La Luz with their chilled and surf-rocky set in the reliably excellent (and always packed) KEX hostel, and French band La Femme whose excellent Harpa show we ran to having decided that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were less fun than their name might suggest. This was a good decision.
There were regrets too, which is pretty unavoidable when seeing one band generally involves missing ten.
Leaving on Sunday morning meant I didn’t see the Zebra Katz show that I would otherwise have prioritised and I missed the chance of a third Ghostigital show of the week which would have been a pleasure! Amongst others I was particularly disappointed to miss out on seeing were EMBASSYLIGHTS including members of Prins Póló and some seriously talented Canadian musicians, Kiasmos – the new project featuring Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen of Bloodgroup and The Town Heroes and their insanely catchy Canadian-ness. So yes, out of the five non-Icelandic acts I recommended I managed to only see two.
I guess that’s the terrible thing about Iceland Airwaves, there is always so much wonderfulness happening, you miss out on some wonderful. See you in 2015 yes?