Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images Move out of the way because Beyonce is playing…
- Posted on Oct 21st 2008 3:00PM by Douglas Wolk
You can't walk down Laugavegur, the fashionable district's main drag, without encountering posters and flyers for Airwaves everywhere, and you'll probably stumble onto half a dozen shows in the course of a five-block amble. There are seven official Airwaves venues (as opposed to nine last year), all within a few minutes' walk of each other, but half the fun of the festival is the "off-venue" shows -- many of them listed in the official program guide, some not, but almost all free to the public.
Wander into the Mál & Menning bookstore: there's composer Ólafur Arnalds and his ensemble playing a lush string-trio-and-electronic-beats suite upstairs, with a crowd on the floor below craning their necks up to watch. Head over to Nordic House, a sort of civic center/temple to local culture, and Sweden's El Perro Del Mar is playing a few luscious, tender songs. Take a trip out to the Blue Lagoon to soak in the gorgeous azure water, and DJ Markeir is spinning lounge music. Duck into the teeny indie record store Smekkleysa: here come the Faroe Islands' winningly raw, sparky, facial-hair-bedecked, atrociously named garage-rock quintet Boys in a Band, already playing as they troop in carrying instruments for an unplugged set. (The price tag is still dangling from their acoustic bass guitar.) Come back a few hours later, and the crowd to see FM Belfast is spilling out onto the sidewalk and the street, bouncing up and down. (They're local faves whose name might as well be Icelandic for "Chromeo"; 'Lotus,' everyone's favorite song by them, repurposes the lyrics from Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name.') Go anywhere and you'll run into For a Minor Reflection, who sound precisely like Explosions in the Sky and played approximately a million times over the course of the week.
All of that, though, is just a warmup for the evening gigs, at which this exquisitely civilized culture goes totally bonkers. As you may have heard, thanks to the international monetary crisis, Iceland itself is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the kroner is plummeting; that's not bad news if you're a tourist looking to score one of the traditionally-patterned wool sweaters that every other Icelander on the street is wearing, but businesses that rely on imports are in bad shape. Fortunately, there's a hopping Icelandic music scene, and Reykjavik's audiences are really enthusiastic. That enthusiasm also means there are enormous lines to get into almost all of Airwaves' evening shows -- particularly at the Reykjavik Art Museum, where a lot of the festival's bigger names play in a large hall between contemporary art exhibits. And a few venues simply pack people in until there's no room left to move without getting squished, and then pack them in some more. By the time the French club queen Yelle took the stage at Tungliđ on Saturday night, the crowd was a terrifying mass of crushed, sweaty flesh and cloth.
Since it's a given that the evening shows will fill up, the festival's non-Icelandic bookings tend to focus less on tried-and-true star attractions than on buzz bands -- especially buzz bands from the UK. That means that the I-saw-them-when factor sometimes gets balanced out by the they're-not-quite-there factor. F--- Buttons' waves of iridescent noise were luscious for about 15 minutes but eventually wore out their welcome; the one-woman electro-pop act Planningtorock was a terrific performance artist (excellent videos, even better helmet/face mask) and beatmaker but a disastrous lyricist; the Young Knives had a well-honed XTC-via-the-Fall attack but hadn't yet worked out how to get much variety out of it. New York's Boy Crisis, fourth-generation photocopies of the Strokes filtered through the Backstreet Boys template, were rivetingly awful -- their big number's chorus went "You're the s---, girl!"
The buzziest band of the week was Saturday night's headliner at the Art Museum, Vampire Weekend, who had the unfortunate task of going on after CSS. Their brief set went over fine, but they're the Sarah Palin of rock: if you stumbled onto them playing to 50 people in a little club, you'd think they were spunky and original and had a lot of potential to do something really cool in a couple of years once they got a little more stage presence, but put them in a cavernous hall like this, and it's clear that they're simply not ready yet.
Still, the foreign bands are basically just bait to promote the locals, and the key word for a lot of the better Icelandic artists of the week is "community." For one thing, they tend to be maximalists, lineup-wise: when Benni Hemm Hemm filed onto stage at Tungliđ Wednesday night, it was like watching a clown-car routine. (Eventually, there were about 20 musicians on stage, although their brief songs seemed undercooked.) For another, they've got each other's back. Wunderkind composer Nico Muhly couldn't make it to Iceland, so his place at the center of the local Bedroom Community label's two showcases was filled by other performers on the bill, notably Valgeir Sigurđsson, playing his work. It's good to see the kind of mutual support and celebration of local musical culture at the core of Iceland Airwaves; in the middle of its national chaos, this tradition-minded country also has something young and fresh to be proud of, too.
TOP 5 BANDS AT ICELAND AIRWAVES 2008
1. Gus Gus
Gus Gus are local heroes, and their Thursday performance at the Art Museum demonstrated why. Last year, their set was the ecstatic side of club music, with a flurry of singers on the stage howling soul and snarling non-sequiturs. This year, it was equally astonishing but very different -- one vocalist who gestured and stood silently at least as much as he sang, and two guys behind computers, playing the most austere house music imaginable. They've got a superb sense of pacing: it was ten minutes into their set before a serious beat dropped, and it was like the sky cracking open. The next night, they played an all-instrumental set at Tungliđ.
One of the greatest party bands around right now, this Brazilian legion was an unstoppable groove steamroller. If their rhythm section didn't keep the discofied double-bump going, their hips alone could probably have done the trick. Even lesser tracks from this year's 'Donkey' turned on the heat at their Saturday night show, and when frontwoman Lovefoxxx, wearing a gloriously ridiculous body suit, hit the chorus of 'Music Is My Hot Hot Sex,' the Art Museum audience erupted into a riot of crowd-surfing and making out.
Reykjavik's Dýrđin are basically Iceland's own version of the Go-Go's: speedy, peppy and totally charming. Friday night at Organ, the indie-pop septet could barely stop grinning at their own hooks and harmonies, and a cluster of their fans was bouncing up and down at the front of the room. The three women slaloming around each other's singing parts up front, the charging-bull rhythm section at the back, and the giddy garage-rock organist between them raced through two-and-a-half-minute pop songs in about two minutes apiece.
4. <3 Svanhvit!
At least eight or so members of <3 Svanhvit! climbed onto the stage at Organ on Wednesday night, and their fans sang along lustily with every one of their songs. I can't imagine them ever making a listenable record, but their performance was a delight -- they're as enthusiastic as the Polyphonic Spree and a lot messier. Most of them were sporting painted-on animal noses or whiskers, and there was one woman in the band whose sole duty was banging along with the beat on a pot with a wooden spoon, except for a song in which she swooned to the ground, got rescuscitated by her bandmates, then leapt up and started whacking the pot twice as enthusiastically. Adorable.
5. Florence and the Machine
The British buzz band Florence and the Machine don't have any records out yet, but they do have a MySpace account, a couple of YouTube videos and a surprising number of fans in Iceland. At their Thursday night Art Museum show, they showed off their assets: a fine, Feist-y singer who pranced barefoot around the stage, arrangements whose unusual countermelodies were played on a harp, a bunch of good songs and one totally great one: a mutual-domestic-abuse-can-be-fun anthem called 'Kiss with a Fist.' Florence and her keyboardist celebrated its instrumental break by staging a mock catfight onstage.