There were so many shows at Airwaves last night that our team had to fan out across the city to catch them all, from the Reykjavík Art Museum to bars, hostels, and the Hard Rock Café’s massive basement venue. Here’s part two of our in-depth review of the festival’s opening day.
Hannah Jane Cohen – Performance frustration, authentic rap, and good ol’ shut eye
After grabbing my wristband from Harpa using the empty media line, which always makes me feel like Anna Wintour, I headed down to the Grapevine party at Gallerí Port. On the wall lined every past Airwaves cover Grapevine had done and it was a shocking to see just how long this “special relationship” has gone on. My favourite cover was without a doubt two years ago, where artists like Misþyrming, GKR, and Vaginaboys shared space in a spicy classroom. It was bizarre, unexpected, and well-produced—exactly what the Grapevine should be.
Now, Mighty Bear. I had only seen them once before in passing, and had never really made up my mind on it. Their music is basically a mix of ambient soundscapes, yelling, and weird samples—imagine a potential soundtrack to an ‘Eraserhead’ remake. Standing behind their equipment, masked, surrounded by a blue curtain (which was cool), they started playing. Immediately, I had one big issue. I felt like they were totally held back by the environment and their equipment. When I go to shows, I want to see a performance, not just someone play their tunes exactly like it is on their Soundcloud. If they do that, why would I not just stay home and listen to their Soundcloud? I got the feeling Mighty Bear had the capacity to be a super great performer but never got the chance to really go for it crazy because they stayed behind equipment the whole time. This was frustrating. Seriously, I would forgive a little playback if it meant I could watch someone emote. That’s why I come to performances!
I left Might Bear early to see Hrnnr & Smjörvi at Bíó Paradís. The venue is a bizarre one for rap as the stage is surrounded by tables and chairs and standing room is in the back, which means it’s difficult to get the place turnt. That said, the boys created a ton of energy, which is to their credit. I’d call them one of the most authentic acts in the country, which is why I never miss a show!
After, GKR took the stage, but I could barely keep my eyes open. Why? I suffer from insomnia and hadn’t slept for two days before. Maturely, I thought if I was really going to do Airwaves without having to pump myself full of Red Bull, I better get some good ole’ shut eye.
Valur Grettisson – Hip hop cliches and a robotic dance party
The first day of Airwaves was a little uneven when it came to the artists that were playing. It went from bromidic performance up to an insane robotic experience.
The night began with the amazing JFDR, who played from her debut album, ‘Brazil.’ I’ve been a huge fan since I heard her voice for the first time as part of Pascal Pinon, whom will also play at Airwaves this year. Her voice and soothing world of sound didn’t betray me—it was absolutely beautiful and mesmerising.
The house was packed at Loft Hostel, but the atmosphere was a little dull. I got the feeling that JFDR was saving her voice and energy—and understandably so, because she’ll be literally running between venues throughout the festival. But it’s always special to see JFDR, and her strong songwriting shined through.
Next stop was the princess of hip-hop, Glowie, who performed in Hafnarhúsið, The Reykjavík Art Museum. The house was half empty when I arrived, but there was a huge fanbase in the front row. Glowie didn’t really seem like an Icelandic artist. She had adopted all the hip-hop moves from L.A., and her sound was basically a faint echo from all the mundane hip-hop songs that I’ve heard past five years. Glowie is an incredibly talented artist, and I hope she finds her unique voice and breaks out of these hip-hop clichés.
The discovery of the night is definitely Halldór Eldjárn. He came out of nowhere and played at Húrra, beating the drums with his friend on the keyboards—and a robot was in the middle, also playing the percussion, if I understood this right.
The robot was more or less like a huge stick on the middle of stage, and its presence was weird and intriguing. The music was energetic post-rock, and perhaps a little bit like Trans-Am at their best. The place was packed and sweaty and Halldór won his crowd completely. I would go to this party every day of Airwaves if I could. You can catch him at the Oddsson off-venue at 6pm on Friday—check him out, it’s a robotic party that you won’t forget.
Charley Ward – Emotionally charged manbun
The night began at the Grapevine Airwaves cover exhibition at Gallery Port with some atmospheric and ominous vocals from Mighty Bear. I was impressed by the power in his voice but a bit worried he might overheat in his mask. He seemed fine though, to my relief. This was followed by half an hour of smooth and refined electro from Án, before I hot footed it over to Hresso for some hip hop by Fever Dream. She geared up throughout the performance—you don’t have to understand Icelandic to know that she has skill. But for me, the highlights of her set shone through when she brought her mate onstage with her and I felt the energy really begin to flow. For her final song she whipped off her denim jacket to reveal only a mesh t-shirt underneath: a bold sartorial choice. I think I heard her mentioning ‘free the nipple,’ in between the Icelandic verses.
Next, I caught emotionally charged manbun Högni at Gamla Bio. The dude sure knows how to hold some tension, and to begin with I thought it was kind of sexy. But after such a quivering build up, I was waiting for some kind of release, which never really felt like it came. But I’ve had experiences like that before, so, you know. I’m used to it. Next up was Moses Hightower, and their delightfully cheery poppy jazz ensured I could finish off the evening with a dance. Lead singer Steingrímur’s smile kept breaking out in between verses and it was infectious. I jived about with my beer in hand, then stumbled to bed, excited to see what tomorrow will hold.
Grayson Del Faro – Chill seeking/thrill seeking
If there is anything that Airwaves has taught me, it’s that you need to pace yourself.
So for Day 1, I traded my usual mentality as a thrill-seeker for that of a chill-seeker. I warmed myself up with Daði Freyr’s off-venue gig at American Bar. On principle of being an actual American, I’ve never set foot there before. (Nationalism! Gross!) While I was ashamed to see that every artist who plays there must suffer the indignity of doing so in front of a massive American flag, I admit I was impressed with the sound quality. Next I saw Faroese film-director-turned-chamber-pop-artist Heiðrik at the swanky Petersen Suite, playing his first gig out of sixteen over the next five days. Yes, literally sixteen. There was a charming moment in the middle of one of his songs when someone’s phone started ringing and everyone looked around the room with that classic “who’s the asshole” glare. Then Heiðrik himself picked up his phone off the speaker, silenced it, let slip a slight smirk, and continued on with his melancholically adorable warbling without missing a…warble?
The highlight of the day for me, however, was catching the last two gigs of a lineup curated by Jófríður Ákadóttir at Loft. Best known outside of Iceland as JFDR or as a member of several bands (Samaris, GANGLY, Pascal Pinon), she cherry-picked some of Iceland’s best talent to play back to back. Although I missed the first acts, to my distress, I managed to step in just in time to see Gyða Valtýsdóttir (known to some through múm) play a mesmerizing solo set. She dug up some rare gems from her older work, mostly playing the guitar instead of her iconic cello. Backed with vocals from JFDR herself and Prim Waters, she put on full display the epic extent of her musicianship, blending rock and jazz into something I don’t know what to call.
The evening concluded with JFDR performing her solo work. I have seen her perform before with Samaris and GANGLY as well as having heard her new album. I have been impressed but remained slightly skeptical of the hype—until last night. Armed with a guitar and backed with a band, the sincerity in her voice and the simplicity in her musical arrangements give way to an unprecedented and unforgettable complexity. I think my jaw literally dropped by the end of her last song. I have spent years of seeing them obscured by their bands, however good. Finally seeing Gyða and Jófríður, two of Iceland’s greatest musicians, each front and centre, unhindered and fully in charge, was simply extraordinary. Don’t miss their official shows. I repeat: do not miss their shows or you will probably die.
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Posted November 2, 2017