Hot happenings in the land of ice and snow - a few dodgy geysers, and some very late nights!
In a world that is getting smaller every day, the dedicated festival goer doesn’t have to hang up his or her silly hat just because the British Summer has passed on by.
Leaving home at around 6pm, we found ourselves checking into our hotel in the heart of Reykjavik at just gone midnight. I’ve spent longer getting from London to my Glastonbury tent site.
On the bedside table are two sets of earplugs. Is this an omen about the music we are hear to be an audience to? We sincerely hoped not!
For those of you who don’t know, then Iceland Airwaves festival is laid on predominantly by the national airline, Iceland Airways. The package of flights, hotel (4 star B&B) and access all venues festival pass therefore comes in at a smidgen over £400.
For this, you not only get the nightly fun of a city wide music festival spanning a clutter of musical genres, but you also get to benefit from the rich cultural heritage and natural beauty of Iceland, and in particular its capital city of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik. Considerably easier to say than to spell. Not as much as could be said for Leikhuskjallarinn, one of the festival venues that we uncovered over the weekend.
Let’s face it. Unless you are Icelandic then you probably couldn’t care less what Magga Stina of Hringir look, sound or taste like. Some of you will have heard of Sigur Ros perhaps – and it’s quite likely that more of you will in the future – but will it be of any interest to you if we tell you that XXX Rotweiler use the chorus line to We Will Rock You in one of their raps?
So we reckon that what you really need in this review is to hear are a few musical anecdotes, be given a couple of thoughts about the different venues, get a lowdown on some Icelandic customs and get some idea about what the hell you might do with yourself for the daylight hours in this most northerly of capital cities.
To be frank, the music itself is almost secondary to the spirit of this festival. It gives a sense of purpose to the all-night bar crawling that inevitably takes place, but whether you are listening to angry German Chicks on Speed, chilled out instumentals from Ulpa, rockin’ indie courtesy of America’s Sparta or the New Orleans funk of Jaguar Blackxploitation (with their furry animal slippered bass player – don’t ask) what really counts is that you are doing it in Iceland& and that Iceland welcomes you with open arms.
Remember, by all means, that you are at a festival – but please don’t be surprised to find yourself buying Gucci boots and Diesel Coats (tax free of course!) at one of the cosmopolitan high street boutiques rather than a silly felt hat from a bloke with a soggy cardboard box. And consider it quite normal that rather than chowing down on greasy burgers and noodles you will probably be dining on meals consisting of lobster, puffin, reindeer or rotten shark!
Okay, so that said, what about the music? Well the promised appearances by headline UK acts failed to materialise. Strangest, perhaps, of the no-shows was Gorillaz – particularly given the fact that Damon Albarn is part owner of a local bar. However, this lack of superstars was probably no bad thing. Given the size of the venues and the density of the crowds that gathered to see such media magnets as Silt AKA Botnleoja, it can only be said that if you go to future Iceland Airwaves events hoping to catch the current big thing then turn up early and don’t give up your seat.
The bands that do play are grouped loosely into genres, with different venues being given over to styles that are fairly closely matched from act to act. About half of the listed venues are too small to host live acts, and so are given over to DJ sets with an intimate feel that can sometimes border on the downright claustrophobic.
As you are unlikely to recognise more than 5% of the artists listed then it’s well worth asking around amongst the very English speaking locals to get some idea about what is going to be playing where. Take a walk around the venues in the early evening to get your bearings and find somewhere that feels comfortable and where the music due to be offered is to your taste. Now go and tuck into some of that wildly exotic food that is on offer and take advantage of some of the happy hours where drinks are only moderately expensive. By the time that you have finished eating and drinking it will be about 11pm – and it’s about that time that the party starts.
This. Maybe, is the biggest warning we are likely to give. If you are in the habit of tucking up in bed before midnight then this isn’t going to be a festival for you. The Icelandic tradition of going out late and staying up until early has not been cast aside to cater for our own relatively sane hours. Things are just warming up as the clock creeps past twelve, and it’s not uncommon for things to still be buzzing come 5am. You have been warned.
Our own favourite spots to catch the music were Gauker a Stong and Leikhuskjallerinn. Gauker is very much a traditional big rock friendly pub, with three bars (one being upstairs) and a small low stage. The queues to get in were an indication that this wasn’t just our favourite. Leikhuskjallerinn is very different – looking to all extents and purposes from the outside like some Nazi bingo emporium. Inside, however, three bars are set in ante-rooms off a main seating and dancing area where the stage dominates the room. There is a plush but bohemian feel to the venue, and whatever is playing, you somehow feel that Marlene Dietrich will be next up.
The smaller venues were very much a mixed bag, and just need to be explored. This is never difficult, because despite being a capital city, Reykjavik is only home to some two thirds of Iceland’s meagre 1/4million population. This lack of quantity seems to have translated into a focus on quality and style – but the real beauty is that a crawl from one side of the city centre to the other can be achieved in no time at all.
The same can’t be said for the country as a whole. If you really want to make the most of your festival visit then extend it either side of the event and get out into some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll find anywhere. Chill out and have lunch on a glacier between the excitement of snowmobiling and the exhilaration of husky dog-sledding. Mend your skin and warm yourself in the mineral pools of the Blue Lagoon. Get out off the coast and spend a day watching whales do their whaley thing.
But just around Reykjavik itself there is plenty to do and see. Countless museums and galleries are at your disposal, and entry is included in the bus travelcards that are available for just a few pounds a day. Check out the main art gallery, where we saw huge pop-art murals by Iceland’s own Eros – or if you are feeling strong stomached then try the Phalological Museum, which, if you haven’t guessed it from the name, glories in exhibits and examples of the penis from across the animal kingdom. If live animals sound preferable, then go an play with the seals and see the reindeer (before you eat one in the evening) at the local Park. If all you want to do is shop or sip coffee and nurse last nights hangover, then feel free – because the City seems to thrive on people just like you.
Alternatively, if you are feeling like topping up your suntan then you can have the strange experience of sunbathing (weather permitting of course) on the heated beach on the south side of the peninsula. Here those nice men from the local council have piped some of the abundant geothermal hot water down into a man-made enclosed lagoon which they have finished off with a few hundred tonnes of imported golden sand. A short walk up the hill will bring you to another man-made feature, this time a fifty foot steam geyser that springs forth every few minutes from a steel pipe buried in the hillside. Topping off this vantage point is a giant water tower that houses a huge glass atrium and an impressive revolving restaurant.
This Festival may not have the big acts sported by the likes of Reading or V for example and the atmosphere is entirely different – far more intimate and not a portaloo in sight, but it does all add up to an excellent long weekend away. We’d most definitely recommend that you give it a go next year. And one more plus – as Iceland is not part of the EEC you can stock up on your duty frees, not forgetting to get Iceland’s very own brew ‘Black Death’. So “Thanks” to Iceland Airways and we’ll be chilling in the land of ice next year.