It was great to be back in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves after a one year absence, with the added benefit of this being a milestone for us – our 10th Airwaves. It’s bizarre to think that as someone closer to 50 than 40 I’ve attended an Airwaves during over 20% of my years…
Because we missed 2018 this was our first time experiencing the festival under the new leadership and with the shorter four-day format. There were considerably few bands in 2019 than in 2017, and perhaps even more noticeable way fewer off-venues. My understanding is that the fee for being an official off-venue increased significantly, and based on the numbers I heard from folks in town the cost was prohibitive for many of the small businesses that hosted shows in past years. This was also the first time I remember hearing people referring to Airwaves as a “showcase festival”. With all that in mind, there wasn’t as much music happening as in years past, and bands played significantly fewer shows. Despite that, there was plenty going on and we got into the groove of the slower pace, taking advantage of the extra time to connect with friends.
And friends were the theme of Iceland Airwaves 2019 for us. While I missed the music last year as I sat in the basement of my workplace and desperately worked with the team to try to get a software release done in time, at the end of the day what I missed most was seeing all of our friends. So this year we made a point of connecting with everyone possible, while also making some new friends along the way. Some folks weren’t sure if they’d be coming back in 2020, but by the end of the week most of them were already talking about early bird passes being available. The smaller, more intimate feel of Airwaves, and Reykjavik in general, creates these opportunities to build relationships, and that’s a big part of what makes it special. If you’d have told me in 2009 how many people we’d know and stay and touch with due to Airwaves I wouldn’t have believed you.
Best Venue: It was a strange year without Harpa, and while KEX Hostel was elevated to on-venue status we somehow never made it there. In fact we spent most of our on-venue time at the Reykjavik Art Museum, which while adequate is never going to be anyone’s favorite spot. Ultimately I come away with feeling that once again Gamla Bíó is the best place in Reykjavik to see a show, despite the fact that we only saw one band perform there (Glass Museum). The strangest place we saw a show was definitely Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir, a local school where we were surrounded by kids. You’d never see that in the US, my friends. Here if a bunch of foreigners show up at a grade school, someone is calling a SWAT team.
Best Show: For the second Airwaves in a row I’m going with Hatari (below). To say that their set is a performance would be an understatement, and since I also love their music it was more or less a no-brainer. A super close second was a bit of a surprise – the off-venue Lucky Records show by Hermigerville. Not only did he have half the crowd actually dancing, but he also dropped in a couple of The Magnetics covers since he’d performed as part of their retro set the night before. We ended up missing that show because it conflicted with Hatari, so it was awesome to catch a few of those old 80s-style synth bangers. Honorable mentions to Mammút, who I hadn’t seen in forever and who sounded fantastic, and the up-and-comers Blóðmör with their straight-ahead style of classic metal.
Best New-To-Me Band: The winner here is definitely Lydmor. We’d never heard of her before seeing her at Hressó and her performance was one of those experiences where even if you’re not 100% into whatever is happening at the moment, you’re still captivated by it and don’t want to leave because you know something completely different and unexpected is right around the corner. I’m not sure how this will translate to listening to Lydmor’s music without the live component, but I’ll definitely be checking out some of her stuff.
Coolest Music Purchase: I bought a TON of stuff this trip. So much, in fact, that I couldn’t fit all the vinyl in my DJ carry-on bag which left me with a hard choice – try to pack some in my suitcase or spend a bunch of money to have it shipped. I opted for the former and the guys a Lucky provided me with a solid box and some extra 12″ cardboard pieces, and after strategically deciding what I’d put in my suitcase (i.e. less expensive stuff) and what I’d carry on (more expensive stuff) we got the box into the suitcase surrounded by clothes and… it worked <phew>! The finally tally was something absurd like 45 records of various sizes, probably 25 CDs, and a fistful of cassettes. Restraint is not my strong suit. Plus I had a lot of catching up to do after having missed a year.
As for the coolest purchase, well, it’s actually something we picked up in London at Sister Ray prior to heading to Reykjavik – Sensational‘s debut album Loaded With Power. I pretty much never find Sensational vinyl in the US and this was released by a German label, so I was stoked to find it. Honorable mention for the super limited (edition of 20) Blóðmör demo tape Á Hljómleikum that a friend snagged and held onto for me. Those guys are definitely going places and this stuff will be even more impossible to get in the future.
Biggest Regret: There were a few bands we missed who I’d like to have seen, especially Agent Fresco and the Biggi DJ set. However, the biggest miss was not seeing Berndsen perform at a clothing story, because everyone who went said it was off the charts. And having seen some photos, it clearly was. So I’ll make a point of catching up with the big redhead next year.
We didn’t see nearly as many bands in 2019 as we have in the past, even when you account for the Airwaves being one day shorter. Typically we’d see somewhere from 35-40 performances in five days, but this time around that number was probably in the low 20s. And I’m fine with that. In fact I liked not feeling like I just had to be on the run all day every day, tracking down show after show like I was just filling out a checklist.
I’d say there’s probably a 90% chance we’ll be back in Reykjavik in 360 or so days for the next installment of Airwaves. Hopefully we’ll see you there.