It is just a little past 8 in the morning and there’s a flurry of activity in Keflavik airport as red eye flights like mine have landed and bleary-eyed travelers are making their way through customs and the duty free shops before being welcomed to Iceland by unrelenting winds of 40-50 mph and a high temperature around 33 degrees Fahrenheit. If you weren’t awake before, you are now.
I’ve arrived a few days ahead of the 20th anniversary Iceland Airwaves music festival, a festival that calls into my mind the fondness and nostalgia for the early days of Midpoint Music Festival. Though it seems an unlikely place to be reminded of the former Cincinnati music mainstay festival, there are more commonalities than there are differences between the two music scenes. I’m eager to bring some of this vibrant music scene from the North Atlantic into conversation with the diverse musical background of the Queen City.
Iceland Airwaves began originally as a one off event in an airport hangar in 1999. It has since grown into one of the most important winter events for the city of Reykjavik. The festival also strikes a balance between placing a spotlight on emerging artists as well as incorporating more established acts. Past headliners have included Bjork, The Flaming Lips, and Kraftwerk. Artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Dirty Projectors, and James Blake also performed in the early stages of their careers.
The set up for the Iceland Airwaves festival is similar to of the early days of MPMF with a number of venues of various sizes around Reykjavík hosting artists. There’s Húrra, which has a vibe similar to the Comet or the backroom of Northside Tavern. Iðnó and Gamla Bió are beautiful old spaces much like the Woodward Theater. Then there’s one of my favorite venues, Gaukurinn, which is like the punk Icelandic cousin to Cincinnati’s Northside Yacht Club, complete with its own amazing vegan kitchen, Veganæs.
Beside the official venues, Iceland Airwaves also lists a number of official off venue sites where anyone in Reykjavík can catch artists, without a festival wristband or the approximately $200 cost associated with a ticket. These gigs tend to start and end a little earlier in the day and are popular with the locals as well as festival goers.
Historically, there have been no limits to how many gigs an artist can perform on and off venue during Airwaves. As a result, I was fortunate last year during my first Airwaves trip to catch the synth-punk trio, Kælan Mikla, twice. They’ve recently attracted a lot of attention as they were invited to participate in Robert Smith's--yes, that Robert Smith--Meltdown festival this year and opened for Placebo. The hip hop duo, Úlfur Úlfur, played six gigs last year, of which I followed along to see three of as they are a personal favorite. I went in cold to off venue gigs at Lucky Records and was so wowed by performances of bands there, I had to track them down later to see their on venue performances as well.
This year, however, the festival has instituted a “one off and one on” rule for artists limiting the number of gigs they can perform during the week of the festival. The response seems to be mixed to this decision. Some artists, such as Arnór Jónasson of the genre-defying rock band VAR, are grateful for the change. “It gives bands time to breathe… the most records of shows that I did, and it’s nothing compared to others, was 8 shows at Airwaves and that was running around for me. When I was done at Airwaves, I just slept the whole Sunday.”
In this twentieth anniversary of Airwaves, the festival certainly has the city buzzing. The official festival runs November 7-10, but there is already a palpable quality to the air in these days leading up that this fest will be one for the record.