OK, hear me out: Reykjavik is a great place to host a festival. Sure, it’s far away and prohibitively expensive, but it’s also small and hospitable and super, super beautiful. Iceland Airwaves operates in a similar way to SXSW: The city center is replete with venues, cafes, and dive bars, and when the festival’s underway, those spaces are overrun with artists and fans from all over. Replace Austin’s gargantuan convention center with the seaside arts complex Harpa, and that’s your central node. The thing that differs immensely is that there is barely any branding. Airwaves started back in 1999 as an attempt to showcase national music to a global audience. Now it’s way bigger, and in the States, bigger generally means you need to slap a Doritos™ logo on everything in sight in order to make things cost-effective. But Airwaves isn’t like that. Maybe there’s a banner for Viking (the local beer) or Coca-Cola, but that shit’s kept to a minimum. People are really here to see bands and #network and enjoy a city that’s less traveled than most. The festival is nice in a building-global-community kind of way — it might even be my favorite festival I’ve been to. AND, unless you have an international data plan or live in Iceland, you can’t text people or Snapchat or Instagram or any of that shit during shows. At first, that feels crippling, but then it just gives you an overwhelming sense of being super-present. That’s a great feeling to have.
It’s especially great when a lot of the music you’re seeing is stuff you’ve never heard of. Airwaves’ lineup is obviously stacked with Icelandic bands, but there’s a smattering of acts from all over. The first night I went to a few small dive-bar gigs before jet lag took over and I had to turn in early. But one of the coolest things I saw on the second night was Baloji, a Congolese producer and rapper who grew up in Belgium and performs with a four-piece band. He’s collaborated with Petite Noir, among others. The medium-sized venue in which he played, Nasa, was totally packed, line out the door and snaking down the street to see him, and I ended up there on a whim. About midway through the show, Baloji stalled his song, megaphone in hand, to relay a message. “They call this world music. But unfortunately for those people, this is not a ‘world music’ act,” he said. “This is our music.” People cheered really, really loudly when he said that. Baloji has seen a lot of successes on a global scale, but he championed his heritage hard, shouting out Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Rwanda. He sang in French and mashed up hip-hop, soul, and funk with West African rhythms.
Before Baloji’s set, I caught the end of the Icelandic artist JFDR (who is very good) before Julia Holter took the stage. It was Holter’s first time playing in the country, and the museum’s main hall was packed. It was the perfect setting in which to see the pop-auteur perform. Holter’s music messes with convention. It’s hard to explain what she does, but it’s easy to watch her do it. Holter smiles a lot while she sings, which seems like a silly thing to point out, but her joy is contagious. She sings each word as if it reminds her of something or someone that made her happy at a certain point in time. Holter played a brand new song and brought a bagpipe player onstage, and also brought out an old song from 2012. “Just gonna have some wine,” she told the audience after singing “In The Same Room.” “I haven’t played that song in, like, four years.” Before that, Holter performed “So Lillies,” which was also on 2012’s Ekstasis. And, of course, Holter did songs off of her most recent album, Have You In My Wilderness, including one of my personal favorites: “Betsy On The Roof.”
Margaret Glaspy followed Holter in what might’ve been the most appropriate pairing of the festival. Like Holter, Glaspy’s based in the States and makes music that defies genre convention. When I interviewed her earlier in the day, Glaspy’s voice was ragged from all of the touring she’s been doing, but she’s a professional, and sounded as good as ever on the museum stage. Glaspy opened with the title track of her 2016 release, Emotions And Math, and went on to perform a bunch of songs from the album. Glaspy has a huge, roaring voice, and it took up as much space as it possibly could’ve in the echoing hall.
The third night in Reykjavik was Friday, which is to say: insane. Bars stay open till 5AM and tourists and Icelanders alike are out and, like, falling down and shit. It’s wild. I started the night out seeing the Icelandic experimental act múm perform with the Kronos Quartet in Harpa’s main hall, which is essentially an opera house. múm have been on a bit of a hiatus, so it was a real treat to watch them perform to a packed, seated theater in their homeland. They brought out a full chorus for a song, and then the Kronos Quartet took the stage to do a cover of “Baba O’Reilly,” and they also performed a song Tanya Tagaq wrote for them recently. Then, the two bands played together and it was straight-up magical. After that, I trekked to Warpaint and ended up catching the end of Reykjavíkurdætur (Daughters Of Reykjavik), a feminist rap collective who’ve gotten super popular both locally and throughout Europe. Watching them was like watching something go viral in real-time, and they packed out Harpa’s biggest room twice over the course of the week.
We named Show Me The Body one of the Best New Bands of the year and their set was an ideal example of why. The Queens-based trio have been playing basements and DIY spaces around New York for ages now, but their set at Airwaves proved they’re capable of taking up more space in the future. They opened with “Aspirin” off of this year’s excellent Body War, and everyone in the room collectively lost their shit, in the sense that when Julian Cashwan Pratt hocked a loogie at some kids moshing, they just started dancing harder. From there, I went to see fellow New Yorkers Frankie Cosmos play a new song and close with “Fool” at Gamla bíó.
The most important thing that happened all week went down Saturday night, when I somehow ended up seeing Björk perform with an orchestra. I already wrote an essay on that, so I won’t get into it here. Spellbound, I left Harpa to catch Iceland’s own Fufanu at BarAnana, a tiki bar that seems very out of place in Reykjavik with its perpetual rain, but hey! I trekked a full 30 minutes (that’s a longass walk by Reykjavik standards) to see the Internet at Valsheimilid, missed them, but ended up with Digable Planets, which I was extremely pleased to witness. The trio played the hits for their foreign audience, and everyone had a moment when they did “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” I rounded out the night at the Liima show at Nasa, which was a lively way to say goodnight.
Sunday at Airwaves is always a quiet one. Everybody is exhausted, and all they want to do is go hang out in some hot tubs and eat a lot of exceedingly expensive food. I did both of those things, but I also returned to Valsheimilid to see Kevin Morby, the Icelandic band Mammút, and PJ Harvey. And holy hell was that a show. Harvey is a performer. She didn’t say a word to the crowd until nearly the end of her set when she introduced her (excellent) band. Harvey wore this beautiful black dress that made her look like a very poised bat, and she performed a ton of songs off of The Hope Six Demolition Project. The lyrics on that LP are definitely not my favorite of Harvey’s, but there was a moment when she belted out: “They’re gonna build a wall!” For a second I thought about the US election, far from where I was standing, and my heart sank. That’s probably what she was aiming for.
Harvey rounded out the set with some older hits. She did “Down By The Water” and “To Bring You My Love” which were obvious highlights. Seeing Harvey the night after Björk was kind of too much to handle. There weren’t a lot of obvious headliners at Airwaves this year, but ending the night with Harvey felt like an appropriate way to send things off. She encored with a cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” closed with “Is This Desire?” and played 20 songs total. The crowd wasn’t too thick, and everyone around me looked like they were about to collapse. One guy in my periphery actually did (he was OK). Airwaves is an unconventional festival in an unconventional place, but if you can get everyone as haggard at the end of five days as SXSW and they’re still happy to be in your city…that says very, very good things about your festival and your city.