Oh my God, I’ve looked forward to this for so long it doesn’t seem real. October 31, 2012 – at last Iceland Airwaves is here.
I planned to follow official advice and take the first day easy, so I only put four shows on my schedule, with nothing until 6 pm. In the morning, I walked down to Prikið, which claims to be the oldest café in Reykjavík, hoping to find some waffles. I opened the door and almost knocked over the man standing just inside. The place was absolutely packed, and I found I could move no further. I was stuck blocking the door. Because none of my shows were there, I had not realized Prikið is an off venue. Icelandic singer-songwriter Myrra Rós was performing an acoustic set to a rapt audience.
Musically, I find the whole girl-with-a-guitar thing incredibly boring. But I always have to respect the courage of women who can stand in front of a crowd with nothing between them but a stringed box and nothing behind them for support, and pour out songs that are invariably deeply personal. Myrra Rós had great stage presence and confidence, personally welcoming each new person who packed into the café, and joking with the bartender between songs. Her voice occasionally slipped into Tracy Chapman territory, which gave the set a little more heft. After the show, I found a table and got breakfast (alas, no waffles, but the French toast was good) and then bravely (foolishly) set out to attempt the Saga Museum again.
I walked up to Perlan, arriving before they opened. Just as I was beginning to consider shouting “mellon” at the wall, a panel popped out and a girl unfolded a desk. My Welcome Card had expired, so I had to pay 1800kr to get in. Money that I will never get back.
I was hoping for literary exposition, historical context, a greater understanding of the world’s first great literary tradition. What I got was a creepy wax museum that smelled like R. Kelly’s sheets, with brief summaries of a couple sagas and a rehashing of the basic settlement history that you could read on brochures all over town. The only redeeming points were learning how to pronounce the name Egill (sort of) and getting a visual for what a booth at the AllϷing might look like.
On the walk back to the hostel, I took a different route from before, and walked past the Phallological Museum. Then I turned around and went in. You just can’t walk past a Phallological Museum. But maybe I should have, because specimen jars, with their slowly disintegrating, usually unrecognizable, discolored contents have always sort of creeped me out. And the museum consisted largely of samples of preserved penises (peni?) from a wide assortment of mammals. It was a little interesting to stand next to jar as tall as myself and snicker, “sperm whale, of course,” and to look through a magnifying glass to see the little white filament from a hamster. The occasional elements of wry humor posted on the walls were a welcome break from, “Harbor seal, 1987, caught near Vik.” But the lampshades made from bull scrota crossed a line for me. Although later, I thought maybe one would have made a good Christmas present for my dad, who is a large animal vet. It might fit well in his office.
Back at the hostel I caught the second half of Blouse’s set for KEXP while I ate my lunch.
Then I decided to hang out for Tilbury’s set at KEX. They weren’t originally on my list, but it seemed a shame to write in my room when a KEXP concert was going on downstairs, and it would be good practice for other shows. So I staked out a spot right behind the official photographers, and…
Tilbury blew me away. I liked their single on KEXP, but didn’t think I could take a whole album of that much mellow. But live, they had so much more energy and were so much more dynamic than that one track would lead you to expect. It was a wonderful way to kick off the festival.
After Tilbury, I packed up my stuff and headed out to find Sirkus Port to see Nova Heart, a Chinese-Canadian who has lived and worked in the music industry all over the world, and now has her own project. From the sample track, I expected glossy electro-pop of a here today gone tomorrow variety. My interest was primarily because of her interesting backstory.
I couldn’t find the venue. Neither could anyone else. Eventually there were almost a dozen of us milling around the corner where the venue should be. Finally someone went into a shop and got the story. The venue was supposed to be an open stage in the skate park. The stage was still under construction, and café next door was responsible. We went into the already packed café, and discovered that they had merged their two lineups. Nova Heart was setting up in a space the size of my couch, and I wedged myself in between them and the sound guy, who, having expected to work outdoors, was stripping off layers of sweaters in steamy room. Half an hour later, when their show was supposed to be done, Nova Heart began to play. They were almost exactly the opposite of what I expected, and I liked them so much better for it. Edgy like Blondie, raw like Joan Jett, Nova Heart totally won me over.
Next up was my first official venue show, Úlfur in the concert hall at Harpa. This ambient project by Jónsi’s touring bass player is as trippy as anything Sigur Rós could cook up, but as grating and abrasive as Trent Reznor in his finest moments. It wasn’t an easy concert to listen to, but I think I will be thinking about it for a long time.
(As I write this on the big leather couch in the KEX lobby, three girls in old fashioned clothes are performing some very melodic Americana for the radio. They are not on the off-venue schedule, so I don’t know their name, but I bet the KEXP web page will have an in-studio recording available by the time I post this.)
After Úlfur, I walked along the waterfront to find the venue for Lockerbie’s official show. When I got there, the house was packed for RetRoBot. The heavy bass line had the crowd jumping up and down, and even crouching on the floor when instructed by the surprisingly authoritative baritone of the fresh-faced singer. Meanwhile, except for the occasional outburst of rapping, the music over top that thumping dance beat was pure 80’s new wave. All in all a very interesting and entertaining mix.
Lockerbie! Oh my god, they are so cute I just want to feed them milk and cookies! They are so young that I was scandalized to see the drummer crack open a beer mid-set. If the horn players have finished middle school I will eat something off the venue floor. Their music is such a delight! Even though the sound was a little muddy, their songs feel like a baby bird about to launch out of its nest for first flight; so vulnerable and hopeful and joyous.
I had a break until the next show, so I headed back to the hostel to (literally) recharge my batteries. Braving the wind, I returned to Tryggvaten for Ásgeir Trausti’s official set. I saw his acoustic duo performance with his friend Julius at Neumos last month, and was looking forward to the full band experience. Ahead of Ásgeir Trausti was an act I knew was not to my taste, but I could hear something more abrasive pouring out the doors across the street. I went in there and watched a noise rock duo impersonate Skinny Puppy for a few songs before returning to Deutsche Bar, where I got to use my press pass for the first time to skip the queue. Unfortunately, I had not considered how much greater Ásgeir Trausti’s fame was here at home, and the place was packed. I couldn’t see anything. But Ásgeir Trausti’s beautiful, sexy songs were still delightful, and now I know to show up earlier for his other sets, of which there are many. So I should still get a chance for a good view.
By then it was after one, and by now it is time for me to head out to another day of shows. So ends the story of my first day of Iceland Airwaves.