At Gamla Bíó’s seated concert hall, we show our enthusiasm for a band by gently wobbling in our chairs. Tilbury’s opening performance, however, had the crowd rollicking on their asses like buoys in a storm on Reykjavik’s Old Harbour.
The band’s music builds like a slow clap and each musician adds an essential layer to the dynamic, pop-funk sound. The drums go from a walk to a stampede and the keyboard makes a ghostly entry, almost sounding like a pipe organ. The singing isn’t phenomenal but it doesn’t have to be, this band is built on the tight, sweet delivery of a sound rather than vocal or lyrical majesty. The guy sitting next to me was actually the handsome doppelganger of Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig (the resemblance was mind-blowing) and the point of me telling you this is that he couldn’t think of any band that Tilbury could be compared to. I couldn’t either and for that, we both gave Tilbury high marks for originality and incomparable groovy-ness.
After Tilbury was Marius Ziska, the Faroese answer to Fleet Foxes, if Robin Pecknold sounded like he had completed puberty. Marius Ziska was my favorite performance of the festival thus far and one of the most beautiful bands I think I’ve ever heard. The three front men harmonize like a Ramayana chant and you can literally feel the sound traveling through the floor, up the chair and into your bones. They play baroque-pop that sounds mythic and otherworldly. At one point the lead singer, Marius Ziska himself, whipped out a ukulele to play a song he had written for his son. It was a lullaby in the guise of indie rock and a reminder of how lullabies are truly the oldest form of folk music and perhaps the most universal. The last song they played was in Faroese and they could have been singing about circus hamsters and I wouldn’t have strayed from my mesmerized absorption of their sound.
Following Marius was Hymnalaya, which has a core group of four but I counted thirteen members on stage at one point. Hymnalaya play with horns, strings and a mixed bag of percussion so while they were setting all of this up, I was bracing myself for a tribe performance of Arcade Fire design or the freak folk convention that is an Edward Sharpe show. It was actually a very mellow performance and sole vocalist Einar Kristinn does a fantastic job of tying all of the band’s musical elements together. He sounds a lot like Rufus Wainwright and is similarly enhanced when backed by orchestral strings.
Ólöf Arnalds was the night’s folk heroine and one of the greatest Icelandic acts I’ve seen. She sings a high-pitched, Ozark-style folk and I distinctly remember thinking at one point while she sang a song off of her recent album “Innundir skinni” that only a woman could sing like that. Her sound is like a less cute and more fantastic and polished Joanna Newsom. She was an incredible singer and storyteller and skilled guitar player. I could have watched her perform for hours.
Sweden’s Mariam The Believer was the best surprise and perhaps proof that I’ve been living under a rock. I noticed Gamla Bíó getting more and more packed prior to her performance, which peaked my curiousity enough to start asking people if Mariam was big. My neighbor (no longer Ezra) said I was sure to recognize at least one of her songs and when she opened with her hit “The String Of Everything” the familiarity was instant. Mariam is fantastic, badass and bluesy. Her songs are soulful with infusions of salsa and Middle Eastern mysticism. At times she employs a psychic howl and at other times she sounds like Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. Her drummer is an essential part of this mix and his jazzy solo during one song was a fresh edition to the dominating vocals. If you like Amy Winehouse, you’ll love Mariam, but be ready for something uniquely her own.
Villagers followed Mariam and they were a good, token Irish indie rock band. They had a heady following in the crowd and loads of supportive dancing to fuel the electricity they emitted on stage. Their lyrics are carefully written and lead singer Conor O’Brien has a breathtaking voice, though I wouldn’t say it is in anyway like Justin Vernon’s of Bon Iver as claimed on the band’s Airwaves bio. They are a talented band and a fantastic, if not incredibly unique, show.
The last act of the night was Sin Fang, which caused an anaconda queue outside of Gamla Bíó. This is what Airwaves is about – catching the native kid that all of the locals want to see explode. Sindri Már Sigfússon (Sin Fang) is that kid. Sindri opened his own set by playing his one-handed psychedelic electronica backed by his youthful and dreamy vocals. He was then joined by Maggi (of Tilbury and many other acts) on drums and bassist Arnljótur Sigurðsson of Ojba Rasta (and many others) as well as a horn player and another guitarist and keyboardist. Together they added ambient acoustics to Sin Fang songs about dreams, sunbeams and his hit ‘What’s Wrong With Your Eyes?’ By the end of the show, there was loads of dancing going on and an encore was demanded.
The rollicking spilled into the aisles, balconies, doorways and stage front where hair was whipped into a storm and flailing arms dashed through the air and, in true ‘Airwaves’ form, everyone floated away with the music.