A trip up to Ísafjörður, the seat of Westfjörds’ municipality Ísafjarðarbær, is always a treat.
It’s one of those towns where you feel like you’ve exited the real world, somehow. Even getting there is slightly surreal, whether winding around the narrow road, clinging to the cliff-base close to sea-level, or by flying. When coming from the air, the plane descends into the fjörd, dropping below the majestic flat-topped mountains that cradle the town before taking a steep, alarming left turn and thumping down onto the icy runway almost the second the wings are straightened.
The airport, and the town itself, feel unlikely in their very existence. Both sit perched on tiny shelves of flat land between vast precipices and the cold ocean, and are subject to an intense sub-Arctic winter. But the spirit amongst the people who live there is strong, and great to experience. At the town’s equally unlikely annual Easter music festival, Aldrei fór ég suður, seemingly the whole populace drops by. From great-grandparents to toddlers, they stand in the freezing cold to watch Reykjavík’s finest play alongside a mixture of local bands, eyes shining in the knowledge that the gruelling snowy season is drawing to its end.
It’s also, notably, an event that comes without any of the cynical baggage that dogs modern music festivals. No billboards, no heavy-handed security, no drunken brawling or thievery, no long queues, complex ticketing systems or wristbands. It’s a free party with a community spirit, created just for the people, and the hell of it. The bands play for the experience of being there, and for the love of playing, in a shining example of the kind of carefree cooperation that makes Icelandic music what it is.
(courtesy of www.aldrei.is)
We sadly miss the opening night, which this year took the form of various smaller indoor parties dotted around Ísafjörður’s handful of bars and community spaces, arriving as Boogie Trouble warm up the festival’s main warehouse venue with their adorably analogue 70s disco-pop grooves. They’re accompanied by an unstoppable, full-on, white rhinestone-clad Stayin’ Alive dancer guy for the occasion. Next up is a Nintendo-punk chip-tune show, during which the sole performer screams and growls over his backing track whilst punching the air as if fronting a hardcore band. Hemúllin, it turns out, has existed in some form or another since 2001, and a nearby Icelander translates the bluntly political lyrics for me as basic stuff like “fuck the bankers.” Both bands are a lot of fun, and give it their all.
Another good thing about Aldrei fór ég suður is that the artists get an entirely equal footing. There’s a healthy crowd throughout the day, and all the bands have a very quick soundcheck and changeover, whether a local emo band or an Icelandic pop legend. Every performer receives hearty, heartwarming cheers from the audience.
(Courtesy of Emmsjé Gauti’s Facebook)
A clear crowd favourite, though, is Emmsjé Gauti (pictured above). The bleach-blonde, white-clad Icelandic rapper arrives onstage like a force of nature, bouncing, dancing and prancing around with a preternatural confidence. His band play a heavy rock-rap backing track that veers at times into nu-metal territory, but such is the irrepressible energy and a consummate flow of their frontman that stylistic considerations kind of go out of the window. When Gauti is bet by a band-member that he can crowdsurf the room to the sound desk and back, he leaps into the hands of the adoring audience, and not only manages it, but high-fives the soundman before surfing back to the stage. And there’s no arguing with that.
Local boys Rythmatik emerge for their soundcheck laden down with instruments and leads, receiving a loud ovation even before they play a single note. Having just won the national battle-of-the-bands Músíktilraunir, the community is rightly proud of the returning teen-heroes, who breeze through a bracing set of pop-punk, screamo and indie-rock tunes. Rough around the edges they may be, but their talent is still germinating; their infectiously melodic sound will no doubt get sharper with every gig they play.
If you should happen to be in Iceland one snowy future Easter, Aldrei fór ég suður is a no-frills festival experience you shouldn’t miss. But really, any time of the year is a great time to visit Ísafjörður. It’s a picturesque, charming, cosy place, full of eccentric characters, grassroots Icelandic culture, rusting seaside properties and interesting local history. You’ll come away feeling fresher from the experience.
Thanks to Dóri at Húsið for providing us with a room in Ísafjörður for the weekend.