Reykjavik is an intense city, the best simulation of life in an offworld colony that I can think of; at once aggressively vibrant and also the most incredibly bleak place I’ve ever seen — it makes the Maine coast look like Ibiza. Architecture tends toward the sheet metal/quonset hut/basalt block school, though the Nordic House gallery, where I caught several acts on Saturday afternoon, was by Alvar Aalto and adds a sleek edge to rusted corrugation. The surrounding frozen-lava landscape resembles shattered tarmac, with gray crashing waves in the distance, and the bus trip between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik is like a coach tour of Mordor. Factor in an exchange rate where a dollar gets you a derisive look, and what’s not to like?
Unlike NYC’s CMJ festival or SXSW, Airwaves doesn’t seem to be primarily an industry affair (yet); more a homegrown celebration.
The demographic definitely skewed a few decades behind me: if I saw anyone who looked remotely my age, it was almost guaranteed that s/he was a journalist. There weren’t many of them, either. I met up with an old NY buddy, Russ, while there, and hope he’ll maybe add his suss to this post. He saw more acts than I did — I lost a night to jetlag and a massive hangover — plus he’s a performer and has a musician’s insight. We mostly pooled our resources as far as time and energy went, trying to handicap seeing 250 bands in four days. I took a a pass on most of the big names, i.e. Bloc Party, Of Montreal, Grizzly Bear, in favor of the Nordic homegrown scene, and got a local guy who was doing crew (and a gig) at the festival to highlight my program with some of the local acts he recommended. Grapevine, Reykjavik’s English-language newspaper, published a special daily edition with reviews/highlights/recaps of the previous day’s performances; this proved invaluable in staking out the next day’s territory. (The issues are available online.)
So here are my high points. I saw a bunch of other acts, too, some of which are lost in a pleasant blur so I don’t remember their names; others just didn’t do it for me.
The solo artist Thorir, who performed here under the name My Summer as a Salvation Soldier; depressive, Paxil-tinged ballads that beautifully evoke that 3 AM desolation when the razor’s beckoning in a warm tub. His video pretty much sums up what Reykjavik looked and felt like to me while I was there:
Leaves had a swelling, guitar-propelled Television vibe, though as with many of the bands here, the longest shadow was cast by Radiohead.
Some arena-rock echoes of U2 and Coldplay, and of course Sigur Ros; they were good live but seemed like they’d be better pumped through your home system with the lights off and a joss stick burning.
Australian Ben Frost was the funniest act, and seemed to leave the audience bemused: was it a joke? serious? conceptual art? Frost eschewed his usual electronica for a stage manned by seven young (male) guitarists who proceeded to writhe, groan, thrust and play the same power chord for twenty minutes at jaw-cracking volume. The result, an unholy union of La Monte Young and Menudo, made me laugh so hard I almost passed out — rock & roll wirestripped to testosterone and hearing damage.
FM Belfast were the antidote to this, a sugary Blondie/B-52s raveup that begged for open car windows and the smell of Coppertone — I caught them at this afternoon gig, in the bookstore a few doors down from my hotel —
Caught the NC-based Annuals at the same bookstore; a little wispy for the venue, but I suspect they also would go down nicely on record.
This little Saturday night video gives you a wee idea of how much was going on at any one time —
The second act here is Mugison, who was great — Iceland’s answer to ZZ Top, with classic Joe Cocker belting and a nice Doors vibe that bespoke big cojones. You have to be pretty confident to sound like Jim Morrison in 2007 and not have the audience pelt you with Jagermeister shots. This video shows him at an arena gig in Iceland, covering a song he did in Reykjavik —
Seeing the size of that crowd made me appreciate again how great the whole Airwaves deal is — for a lot of acts, I was close enough to literally touch the performers. (I didn’t.)
I caught this act, Trentemoller, too, though I couldn’t tell you where or when.
Not everything was in English, of course, so a lot of the time I had no clue what anyone was singing about. One of my top two acts was Benni Hemm Hemm, who sings and plays acoustic guitar, backed by a full horn section. This video isn’t from Airwaves, where I think he had even more brass on stage with him. This band probably generated the most pure musical bliss for me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1zXuVbK75E
Germany’s Lali Puna had a great funk beat and a grumpy-looking, cute lead singer with a bad cold. Russ thought she was incredibly sexy, I thought she had a lot of moxie; she was obviously under the weather but pumped out a great set. One weird thing about the festival scene was that, no matter how primal the groove, no one danced. Someone explained that in Iceland everyone knows everyone else, and everyone’s so self-conscious that everyone’s afraid to dance and make a fool of him/herself. I didn’t know anyone within 3,000 miles, so I danced my ass off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yrrzf_DYP1Q
The big “surprise” gig was a Coke-sponsored Sunday night show at NASA by the Magic Numbers. I love these guys on record, and their live act had a spit-polish sheen, from the cute Partridge Family drum kit to the (female) bassist’s head-stomping moves and klieg-light grin.
I didn’t catch their whole set, as Russ had already scoped out what turned out to be the best act of the whole festival for me — Buck 65, a young guy from rural Nova Scotia who is the most mind-blowing live performer I’ve seen in years. I’m not a huge fan of hip hop, but this guy had me at Go. I gather he’s been getting attention for the last few years, and I can see why — one youtube pundit dubs him a cross between Snoop Dogg and Leonard Cohen, and that’s a fair take. He’s just amazing. Russ had been raving about this guy since he saw him Friday night, when I was in hangoverland. So I was chuffed I had a chance to see him, in a small packed-to-the-gills club where I was practically onstage. It was amusing to watch several roadies set up an iBook alongside the turntable, but once Buck 65 took the stage my jaw dropped. This guy has an athlete’s beauty and confidence (he was a ballplayer) along with the dynamic, stagey moves of Bowie or Tom Waits. Like Waits or Bowie or Eminem, he has an incredible gift for narrative; his rhyming is self-consciously literary, noirish, pop-culture-saturated. He also turns on a dime, from rap to Iggy Pop to B movie outtakes. Check out “Kennedy Killed the Hat” —
This is “Solid Gold,” from his new album, “Situation,” out next week.
He described “Situation” as a concept album structure around the year 1957 (my cohort). I heard him do several songs from it and I’m hooked.
— Posted by Liz Hand