So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
No finer place for sure, downtown
Everything’s waiting for you
Petula Clark (1965)
Of course you can go downtown in Reykjavík, a big small village on an island in the North Atlantic. But since the financial collapse in 2008, Iceland’s capital is turning into a tourist hot spot, with icebear and puffin shops, ‘every day is like Christmas’ shops, plenty of tourist information centers. And a dozen of B&B, hostels & hotels: big and small, short and tall. At least one thing is disappearing: bars, clubs, stages and venues for live bands and DJs. Harpa changed the skyline near the harbour, but the smaller and medium places got a new destiny. Running a bar in Reykjavík has never been a stable business. Like in every city the bars and venues, get new owners, investors, creditors, and names. But the last 3 decades, the Icelandic music live scene lost a lot of its small(er) venues to go on stage, play a set or start a rave. Vanished bars, clubs, stages and venues in the ‘Ibiza of the North’ were:
22 (Laugavegur 22)
Amsterdam (Hafnarstræti 5)
Bakkus (Tryggvagata 22)
Barbara (Laugavegur 22)
Batterí (Hafnarstræti 1-3)
Bíóbarinn (corner Klapparstígur & Hverfisgata, 1991-1999; Quarashi! Stjörnukisi! Botnleðja!)
Dolly (Hafnarstræti 4)
Duus Hús (Fischersund)
Faktorý (Smiðjustígur 6)
Gaukurinn/Gaukur á Stöng (Tryggvagata 22)
Grand Rokk (Smiðjustígur 6)
Harlem (Tryggavagata 22)
Havarí (Austurstræti 6)
Nýlenduvöruverslun Hemma og Valda (Laugavegur 21)
Kaffi Hljómalind (Laugavegur 23)
Kaffi Thomsen (Hafnarstræti 17, 1996-2002)
Kaffi Zimsen (Hafnarstræti 18)
Karamba (Laugavegur 22, 2009-2010; FM Belfast! Retro Stefson!)
NASA (Thorvaldsenstræti 4)
Organ (Hafnarstræti 1-3)
Rósenbergkjallarinn (Lækjargata 2a/basement, 1991-1998; raves)
Sirkús (Klapparstígur 30, 1999-2008)
Skuggabarinn (Pósthússtræti 11)
Trúnó ((Laugavegur 22)
Tunglið (Lækjargata 2a, 1987-1998; Prodigy! HAM!)
Venue (Tryggvagata 22)
But still going strong these days: Austur (Austurstræti 7), Bar 11 (Hverfisgata 18), B5 (Bankastræti 5), Boston (Laugavegur 28b), Café Rosenberg (Klapparstigur 25-27), Rockbar Dillon (Laugavegur 30), Frederiksen Ale House (Hafnarstræti 5), Glaumbar (Tryggvagata 20), Harpa (Austurbakki 2), Hressó/Hressingarskálinn (Austurstræti 20), Iðnó (Vonarstræti 3), ‘classic, n° 1 and all time favourite’ Kaffibarinn (Bergstaðastræti 1), Prikið (Bankastræti 12), Stúdentakjallarinn (Sæmundargata 4) and Vegamót (Vegamótastíg 4).
New kids on the block more recently are: Bar Ananas (Klappastígur 28), Bravó (Laugavegur 22), Gamla Bíó (Ingólfsstræti 2 a), Húrra (Naustin) and Mengi (Óðinsgata 2).
And what’s a town without an American Bar (Austurstræti 8), an English Pub (Austurstræti 12), an Irish Pub Dubliner (Naustin), and of course a gay bar Kiki Queer Bar (Laugavegur 22)?
Even a social hostel with a live line-up now and then: KEX Hostel (Skúlagata 28).
The latest news this month is about three popular concert venues, Paloma, Húrra and Gamli Gaukurinn. They will be renovated and will be housing businesses aimed more at tourists: think shops and tourist information center.
Real estate owner Steindór Sigurgeirsson states in Stundin: “I’ve just renovated Gamla Bíó and opened a large concert venue there,” he points out and brushes off any criticism. “The main idea is to renovate the buildings, make them beautiful and have some kind of mixed operations within them.” “When one million tourists visit a city of one hundred thousand people the ratio is ten to one. If you don’t think about tourists, then your business is not going the right way.” Sigurgeirsson added in Morgunblaðið paper that the buildings, although renovated, will retain their original appearance.
So what is left for some good live gig in the summer of 2015: Bar 11, Café Rosenberg, Rockbar Dillon, Hressó, Mengi, Kex Host, Gamla Bíó and Harpa.
Anyhow, it is a good opportunity to go strolling along my memory lane:
Dear Plastic: Korter í þrjú
Back to 1991: my first night downtown 101 RVK after doing my first tour around the island; although not a full circle but the Kjöllur track included. Went to the bar “Berlin” after our last dinner at Hotel Esja. Standing outside the club at 2:45 in the morning with a beer in plastic. Talking with a bunch of Icelandic blondies until it was time to take the first Flybus to the Keflavik Airport.
2010: my second Aldrei Fór Ég Suður festival. Acid techno hljómsveitin ‘Korter í þrjú’ named after the moment your beer glass turned into plastic, and the stroboscope becomes a moonlight/sunset at 2:45 in the morning.
“Tunglið” venue will always be associated with the long song by Underworld “Born Slippy”.
And the meeting in 2006 with the singer of Stjörnukisi, Úlfur Chaka Karlsson (R.I.P.) at the entrance, and we started talking about “Buffalo Virgin” by HAM (released in 1989).
Dancing with tears in my eyes
Dancing at the Shadow Bar “Skuggabarinn”, near Hotel Borg, on the tune “Red Alert” by Basement Jaxx anno 1999.
In 1999 the DJ at “Nelly’s” was playing very often songs about women: Blondie’s “Maria” and the Grýlurnar classic “Sisi” from the 80s.
Björk & entourage taking the elephant shortcut to “Kaffi Thomsen” in 1999, my last night downtown 101 after working 1 year in Iceland. The Thomsen basement reminds me of the tunes of Represant’s Roni Size and a ‘friend of Iceland and Björk’ Goldie.
On-venue and Off-venue at Airwaves
Seeing youngsters of Mammút, Sudden Weather Change, Who Knew and Jan Mayen at “Gaukur á Stöng” on stage a few days before the official start of Iceland Airwaves (2007).
Skátar at “Organ” during Airwaves (2007)
The Purrkur Pillnikk tribute band at “Grand Rokk”, off-venue during Airwaves (2008). Some years earlier got buzzing ears a whole Sunday long after a gig of Rass on the same legendary spot.
Ghostigital at “Batterí” (2009)
Markús & Diversion Sessions off-venue at “Bakkus” (Airwaves, 2009)
Mammút at Rock Bar “Dillon” (April 2009)
Pop-metal band Vicky at “Hemmi & Valdi” (2009)
Full gig of techno kids in Captain Fufanu at “NASA” (2009)
Drag-punks Æla ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’, off-venue at Airwaves at bar “Karamba” (2009)
Amiina at “Havarí” (2010)
Some non-Airwaves moments
Singapore Sling at “Organ” (2008)
Rökkuró at “Venue” venue (2010)
So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
Don’t wait a minute more, downtown
Everything is waiting for you, downtown
– Wim Van Hooste
Photograph by Soffía Gísladóttir