Waves crashed over the seawall littering the roads with seaweed and stones, rooftops blew off homes forcing the main street to close, and hundreds of bands arrived into Reykjavik ready to rock it. Despite gale force winds blowing straight from the North Pole, Iceland Airwaves, the international music festival, was on.
Thursday, I rushed out the door for Lay Low, a folksy-bluesy guitarist that I first heard last year when she opened for Of Monsters and Men. Fur hat pulled down low, I raced through the streets and up to the third floor of a popular bookstore to find a packed house, the melodious voice of Lay Low beginning her set and, eventually, Mr. G. As soon she started singing, and the crowd of messy-haired tourists started to sway, I knew Airwaves would not disappoint.
We didn’t buy festival passes because these days I can’t find time to drop everything for four days and see hundreds of shows. But not having wristbands was hardly a deterrent to seeing terrific music. Airwaves also offers a massive “Off Venue” program, where most of the artists that come for headline shows, plus additional artists from around the world, play in smaller settings. And the best part: all of the Off Venue shows are free.
When Lay Low said “Takk og Bless” (thanks & bye), Mr. G and I squinted at our five-page schedule full of fine print and tried to decide how we could maximize our night. Bundling up, we leaned into the wind and headed toward Laugavegur, the main street. Freezing, we decided we couldn’t make it to the Dillion Bar and stopped in at Glætun instead. In this cozy café, we listened to Sonia from Finland strum out a few mellow songs on her guitar before crossing the street to the Reykjavik Backpackers Bar. Here, the crowd swelled and we caught the tail end of the raucous Bee Bee and the Blue Birds before we found a seat. Pressed up against the others at our table, it was hard not to strike up a conversation. Turns out, during Airwaves, musicians are ever-present. We were seated next to Yunioshi, a rock band from the UK, on their annual pilgrimage to play the Off Venue program for Airwaves. More people streamed in from off the street anxious to see Ylja, the next band. But we were out of time.
Hats, gloves and scarves pulled on tight, again we walked with our heads down and our backs bent through the crushing wind to a reception for the festival. On our way to our official duties, I couldn’t help but notice the Northern Lights glowed green across the sky, but it was too cold to stop and watch. Instead we ducked into an embassy to drink local brew and talk to the talented folks from Bedroom Community, the rockers from HAM, and even a striking puppeteer from Bulgaria.
By Saturday, the winds were still high but we were ready to get out there again. This time, kids in tow, we started at Bio Paradis, the art house cinema doubling as an Airwaves stage. Trumpets blared, drums beat, someone sang, guitars and bass strummed—with the ensemble group of Útidúr the whole space came alive. B and M, our tots, were mesmerized. Me and Mr. G too. Eyes still aglow, B, our six-year-old, watched as Útidúr packed up and Skelkur í Bringu took the stage. B loved this lead singer’s tutu and furry vest and M claims to enjoy their sound, but I was less impressed with the screeching punk rock. After a few songs, Mr. G and I got everyone bundled up again and made a bee-line for Sirkus Port to hear a favorite band.
From the street, the bright beats of Lockerbie beckoned, but we could barely get in the door. And with the wee ones, we decided not to press our luck. Instead, we pressed on and headed back to the mellow Glætun Café. There we listened to the sweet but not yet masterful vocals of young local Camilla Rut accompanied by Rafn Hliðkvist on guitar. Following them, Jóhann from Denmark sat alone on a chair with his guitar. Sadly, his slow quiet music cleared the room. And too, it made me sleepy.
By Sunday, the winds calmed, the sun reappeared, and we returned for one last show. Watching the long-haired sisters sing, their gorgeous voices swooning over the grooving guitar and bongo drum beats, we knew: Ylja was worth the wait.
Check Out My Favorite Bands: Ylja, Lockerbie, Útidúr, & Lay Low