Throw on a layer or two. We’re heading out, Iceland Airwaves is here again. This time around, while setting up my schedule, I tried to throw a curveball or two my way – actively looking for something which I normally wouldn’t go to see. This Thursday night, it proved to be a fantastic decision as I went from Milwaukee to Ireland with some stops in between.
First up was Milwaukeean (doesn’t really pass the eye test) Brett Newski at Kornhlaðan. Having the first gig of the night in the funky V-shaped building can be a tough mission, but Brett completed it with aplomb. Turns out, you don’t need a whole lot to charm people, other than good sounds and a fantastic stage presence. Dressed in a white V-shaped tee, he got the crowd going with a little bit of a comedy routine in between his stripped bare acoustic songs.
“The first time I heard about Icelandic was in Super Mario Bros 3 where you put in the cheat code and end up in Ice Land. Up up, down down, left left, right right. And I’m here now. Weird”
Kornhlaðan works surprisingly well as a venue. It made me feel like I was in a summer cabin. Less snug than in the real thing, but still very cozy. Icelandic drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson, a legend in the game, backed Brett up in a couple of songs. The duo hadn’t practised together but the camaraderie was there and they had a nice connection, getting the crowd ever more into it. By the end, Brett was walking through the crowd giving out high-fives. His song ‘Only You Can Grow Your Garden’ especially caught me. Bottom line – go see this guy if you can.
“I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The home of Wayne’s World, Miller Lite, Schlitz Brewing, pretty much all of the worst beers you can find”
Next up was Between Mountains at beautiful Fríkirkjan (The Free Church in Reykjavík). The queue was immense, as a whopping 1024 festival goers had scheduled the twosome from the Westfjords of Iceland.
“I was following the app and there were a lot of people scheduled and I was like ‘nooo’, but now you’re all here so I’m happy” – Katla
Katla’s singing took over the fitting setting, altar looming over her in the background. Every eye and ear in the hall was completely fixated on her, as the intimate performance soothed minds and bodies. Ásrós backed up Katla with vocals while also playing the xylophone. Although Mary J. Blige wasn’t there, it was a bit of a family affair as Katla’s brother played the drums and her father the bass.
“And, of course, the one guy who didn’t get the memo about wearing all-black – my father, Venni on the bass!” – Katla.
Katla feels like the kind of girl who would be just as home working in kebab shop as she is jumping on stones crossing a natural stream. A great performance, which duly received a standing ovation. On to the next one.
I jumped in for the last 15 minutes of Axel Flóvent’s show at Hard Rock Café. His music is not quite hard rock, but rather smooth indie folk. The venue was packed. Folk lovers certainly love his folk. I got lost in his singing and Axel did as well! When starting ‘Lighthouse’, his final song of the set, Axel completely forgot the lyrics.
“It always happens on this one. I think my brain is blank. What a way to end the show.”
The crowd didn’t give him any stick for it though, rather embracing it and laughing. It was all very cute, and in the end, Axel switched to a different tune. Axel is quite big abroad, racking up streams online and playing concerts all across the globe. This particular show was not exactly my cup of tea, but you can’t hit every shot at Iceland Airwaves.
I’m off. Walking between venues through downtown Reykjavik evokes memories. Ingólfstorg was where the ‘cardigan square’ event of 2011 took place, where us Icelanders squared up against a group of Americans, in a cardigan competition organized the night before. Alas, the American squad won – a consortium of bypassing voters deciding that the American cardigans were way, way nicer. They were.
But enough of that, on to Georgia at the Reykjavík Art Museum. Walking into the art museum, which always reminds me of a prison hall, is the first time I see hands up in the air. The beats-per-minute of the night is rising, as Georgia is doing her best to get the night started. Apparently, she was on the books of football teams Queens Park Rangers and Arsenal in her younger years. She’s handy with more than her feet, as she won the crowd over, banging on the drums, repeatedly telling the crowd they were ‘wicked’. To be honest, I loved it – and especially her cover of ‘Running Up That Hill’.
The hall was beginning to fill, with a long line outside, as Icelandic darlings Hjaltalín were up next. Högni walks in wearing a white suit, a Hjaltalín forever symbol beaming on the stage. It may be a sobering realisation but looking on the stage I’m witnessing THE band of my generation. In 30 years’ time a lot of the locals here will attend a Hjaltalín concert in the Harpa music hall. Icelanders love Hjaltalín, and you can feel it from the crowd. Hips sway, shoulders dip, and folks get lost in the music. It’s Hjaltalín’s first time at the festival for five years, a much welcomed comeback. They’re a fantastic band for foreigners to get introduced to. Hjaltalín are tight, as they always are. ‘Love From 99’ received a lot of love from the crowd, rightly so.
Keeping in line with curveball-mantra of the night, I bail on Mac DeMarco and head to Gaukurinn with a friend. In the queue we meet a Wallonian couple from Belgium who’re attending their sixth straight Iceland Airwaves. Impressive. It’s a huge part of the allure of Iceland Airwaves, meeting new people in the queues in between the various venues. Other than a little bit of cold, the weather gods have blessed us. After a 30 minute wait, we’re in.
Gaukurinn. Now that’s a venue. Why do I always forget how fantastic it is? All blacked out, packed to the rims with folks. The roof threatens to touch people’s heads. Even the stage is packed. The intimacy the venue provides is unmatched. The scene is set for The Holy from Finland. I can honestly say I was blown away. Armed with two drummers, synths, and riffs, the Holy have an incredible sound. The drummers provided the punch to drive the set on, each song crescendoing to a climax. Frontman Eetu had a nostalgic feel and I found myself getting lost in his singing. The Holy weaved together melodic synths with hard-hitting instrumental parts. At one point, a strobe effect lit up the stage with each member completely devouring the song, giving it their all. It was surreal. The Holy left it all on the stage. Bartender Tommi, who’s seen one or two shows in his lifetime, said it was the best show he’s seen in Gaukurinn since Haim performed there at Iceland Airwaves 2012.
I caught bass-keyboardist Laura and frontman Eetu after the show. Both seemed to take really well to Gaukurinn. “The venue was really nice. We heard some people didn’t get in, which is unfortunate. But the venue was fantastic, and we had a really nice atmosphere from the crowd,” said Laura while gathering her equipment afterwards. “The venue was fantastic. I couldn’t see anything other than heads bopping. We’ve really enjoyed being here, both at Kex Hostel yesterday and Gaukurinn today. It’s such a beautiful city. We’ve had walks all over and tried to get out of the city a bit as well. The views here are amazing,” is what the frontman had to say.
For the last gig of the night, I caught a short glimpse of Irish three-piece Æ MAK at Hard Rock Café. The crowd were heavily into it, even though most had a long day behind them. Their stuff has a somewhat primitive undertone, involving ambient notes, tribal rhythms, and singer’s Aoife silky otherworldly voice. At one point I had almost tricked my mind into believing they were singing in Gaelic. It’s music which can make folks lose sense of time and place. Æ MAK is high level pop music, well worth a listen and a watch. And they’ve got nothing to do with the iMac.
Take off the layers, it’s a wrap. Up next, Friday night.
Photography : Berglind Jóhanns
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