Jeff’s Point of View on Airwaves 2016
Well, another Iceland Airwaves is in the books. This was the eighth consecutive Airwaves for me, my wife, and our friend Norberto, and we’ve seen our little festival grow up quite a bit over the years, from a 6,000 attendee festival with no headliners in 2009 to 9,000+ music fans with shows by both PJ Harvey and Björk; from NASA’s 600+ capacity being the largest venue to multiple shows being held simultaneously at Harpa, and thousands of fans able to fill up Vodafone Hall. Yes, Airwaves is a bit of a different experience these days than it used to be.
But don’t think that this is me playing the old man card, whining about how things were so much better back in the day and how we used to have to walk uphill, in the snow, both ways just to go see Beatmakin Troopa play in a basement somewhere or about how Agent Fresco was “our band” before becoming insanely popular. Because while Airwaves has changed, we’ve all changed a bit with it, and frankly the city and the event have done a pretty damn good job in holding onto the Airwaves spirit with an emphasis on local Icelandic bands, many of which are relative newcomers. Of Monsters and Men play in the same venue as Hildur, while bands like The Living Arrows traveled from Bellingham, Washington to Reykjavik to play a huge number of off-venue shows despite not being part of the official program. There’s room in Reykjavik for everyone.
If there’s one theme of Iceland Airwaves ’16 that stuck out to me, it’s “Girl Power”. Airwaves has always showcased plenty of female musical talent, though traditionally that has been more in the singer-songwriter and pop realms. The all-female hip hop collective Reykjavíkurdætur has been at the vanguard for a number of years, preaching empowerment to a new generation of Riot Grrrl, and we can’t forget the punk outfit Börn at the other end of the musical spectrum. This year we saw a host of others join the movement with stellar performances from Dream Wife, Thunderpussy (US), Warpaint (US), Kælan Mikla, and newcomers Hórmónar, all of who blew the doors off venues throughout Reykjavik. I love the confidence of this new wave of women rockers who are supremely talented musicians and able to perform in ways that best suit them and their experiences.
2016 also solidified the important role that KEX Hostel plays in the entire Airwaves experience. Seattle’s KEXP radio has been hosting shows and streaming live back to the US from KEX for a number of years now, and every year they up their game just a bit more. The addition of a riser for the bands to play on, while seemingly trivial, ensures that the performers can be seen from anywhere in what is often a packed venue. If you’re lucky enough to stake out a spot in the front, you’ll be close enough to the performers to get their sweat on your camera lens, and the sound quality is excellent. Given the incredibly talented line-ups KEXP gets for these shows, one could easily travel to Reykjavik without a festival pass and just hang out at KEX (where the food and beer are both excellent as well) every day.
While Holly and I only caught about 30 shows this year, almost every single one of them was impressive. The previously mentioned Dream Wife and Hórmónar helped us scratch that rock itch, while Samaris and Vök (more women representing!) brought us back down a notch to a more chill and swaying place. At KEX Hostel we saw Singapore Sling and The Sonics produce back-to-back sonic assaults that left us exhausted, and we partied the nights away with late night Harpa sets by Kiasmos and FM Belfast. We saw bands like The Ills who we expected to dislike because we’re not fans of instrumental rock, but remained open enough to recognize their awesomeness and watched in awe as they completely took over the room. And as for Dr. Spock, well… let’s just say I’m not sure that I’ll ever be the same after seeing them obliterate the small venue Húrra.
There were non-musical but music related events as well. Dr. Gunni had an art/record show at a local coffee shop, displaying the 18 original pieces of album cover art that go with his new limited release vinyl album. We were at the grand opening of the Icelandic Punk Museum and listened to John Lydon talk to the gathered crowd about the importance of punk music and attitude in society. Iceland is a country that appreciates art in all of its formats, and that was evident throughout the city during Airwaves.
Once you’ve been to your first Airwaves, you’ll want to go back again. If you make it there a second time, you’re screwed – because you’ll be hooked and want to go back every single year. I remember in 2011 meeting anther American couple who were also attending their third Airwaves and thinking, “wow, there are a few other people out here as crazy as us.” But by 2016 meeting people that have been to three or four or more Airwaves isn’t all that unusual any more, and in fact there a lot of people we see at shows every single year, so much so that if there are specific folks we don’t see in a given year we actually comment to each other on that (“hey, I haven’t seen Chewbacca backpack guy this year, have you?”). It becomes sort of like family in a very strange but very real way.
If you’re reading this, it means you’re probably already interested in Icelandic music. It probably also means you want to go to Airwaves. So let me give you this one piece of advice: Do it. Take the plunge. You won’t regret it, I promise. And you just may find yourself making friends along the way and coming back year after year to do it all again.
– Text and Photos of Dream Wife, Hórmónar, Samaris, Dr Spock & Johnny Rotten by Jeff Obermeyer –