Is Iceland Airwaves the Best Festival on Earth?
Sometimes, I think I’m outgrowing music festivals. More often than not, I find myself surrounded by a sea of 15 to 18 years olds wearing minimal clothing in fifteen degree temperatures, while I shiver, sober, in a coat with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders.
Then, I attend an event like Airwaves, a five day long celebration of music in Iceland. And I realise just how special these shared cultural experiences, when done right, can be.
Iceland Airwaves is a music festival like no other and one I have wanted to attend for just about as long as I’ve been obsessed with the country itself. An opportunity finally presented itself earlier this year when I was in Reykjavík, ironically enough. I received an email declaring that celebrated Icelandic singer and possibly elvish goddess Björk would be headlining the festival. Seeing Björk in Iceland is a fantasy that I’ve had since I first got into her music at the age of around 15. Finally, here I was with, with the opportunity in my reach.
Is going to Iceland three times within a fifteen month span excessive? I mused to myself. As I largely consider Iceland to be a special, sacred place and look for any excuse to visit, I ultimately decided that it wasn’t and bought two tickets.
As the date crept closer, I started wondering exactly how a festival of such epic proportions would be executed in a place the size of Reykjavík. Would there be tents erected around the city? This was a thought that was met with a shudder, keeping in mind the weather patterns in Iceland at that time of the year (most of the year really, if we’re going to be completely honest). However, Iceland Airwaves has been running for 16 years now and they obviously found a simple solution to contend with this issue quite some time ago. Yes, Reykjavík is a small city. The answer thus is to cram it full until it is pretty much at bursting point.
For five official days of the festival and a week overall, music flooded the streets of Reykjavík, with every establishment that was able lending their space for the event. Along with larger shows in Harpa, the city’s concert hall and various other larger “on-site” venues, music could be heard from just about any and every sheltered corner of the city. From hostel common rooms, to pubs, restaurants and cafés. Even clothing stores set up shop – it was a strange thing to walk past an Icewear store and see a band playing in the window, amongst the mannequins decked out in long johns and big jackets.
There was a moment when I was reclining across my hostel bed and I could hear music being played from the common room upstairs, the Cintamani clothing store next door and another restaurant across the road. It made for a confusing blend of noise, that was for sure.
Every inch of the city was crawling with musicians. We shared a hot tub with the lead singer of Low Roar and were walking up the street, seeking refuge from the cold in a nearby café, when Björk herself darted out in front of us. She was wearing a bright white and green kimono and platform shoes, clutching the hand of a small child (presumably hers) and nattering to her in Icelandic. We stopped and looked at her. She in return, glared at us, as if daring us to say something. We bowed our heads and went on our way, waiting until we were safely within the café to burst into exclamations of surprise and joy. Björk had, to my extreme disappointment, cancelled her shows back in August. At least now I can safely say I’ve achieved my dream in some regard – I have now seen her in the flesh in Iceland. She just wasn’t singing.
Perhaps the best part of the festival was overall vibe. People don’t attend Iceland Airwaves to show off their wardrobes, pose or get catastrophically drunk. It’s a festival for lovers of music – as pure and simple as that. There’s a sense of companionship and pure enjoyment in the air. Iceland is a country that is a lax as it comes. You don’t get strip searched on your way into a gig, as you would in London or Sydney. You can leave your possessions in the corner of a room and expect to find them there when you return. Wandering the main street of the city at night, I saw something that completely summed up the attitude of Icelanders, at least in my opinion. Someone had ridden their bike to the local 1011 convenience store, kicked out the kickstand and left their bike there. No locks. Complete trust.
That bike wouldn’t have lasted more than two seconds in London, but I knew it would be left untouched until its owner’s return, in this wonderful city.
Despite the general ambience of the place, one of the things I have always loved the most about Reykjavík is the amalgamation of nationalities that you find yourself mixing with there. Perfectly situated between Europe and North America, it seems to serve as a meeting point for the best of both continents.
It only took a couple of days for my Canadian friend and I to form a ragtag group from our hostel room, pairing up with an American and Briton. There was a sense of sadness when we saw our English companion onto her plane… the friendships formed while travelling are fleeting, but I have found, often the most fulfilling.
Airwaves is a festival for people of all types and inclinations. You can go hard – see show after show and experience enough music to satisfy your heart’s content for the next few weeks at least. Or you can pace yourself. Spend the morning at one of the local outdoor heated pools, take in a few off-venue shows over the course of the day, chill with a cup of tea and brownie in the early afternoon before hitting Harpa or the Vodafone Hall for the bigger shows in the evening. You can wake up at eight am, or sleep in until the early afternoon. You can go to bed at midnight, or stay up until first light (although at that time of the year, the sun rises at 930 in the morning… so good luck with that!). Take it at whatever pace you wish. It’s your Airwaves experience, after all.
I would even go so far as saying you can fully immerse yourself in Iceland Airwaves without the purchase of a ticket. Most of the main acts will play one to several off-venue shows to accompany their main acts… some bands only play off-site venues. We managed to procure tickets to see John Grant and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and I was overjoyed to finally get to see Hot Chip play live. Beyond that, the majority of shows I attended were off-venue – the more intimate the better.
It was a whirlwind week – a week I know I definitely needed. A chance to chill out, see some old familiar faces, get acquainted with some new ones. Relive the music I love and expand upon my knowledge of Icelandic and Nordic bands. Eat my weight in fish, hot dogs and brownies. Stroll the streets of this marvellous city, one of the places in the world where I feel most at home.
Iceland Airwaves. I implore you to go. And if all goes to plan… see you there in 2016!