Close to the northernmost tip of Iceland lies Ísafjörður, a small town nestled deep in the crook of Skutulsfjörður. Several hours of mountain road from the lights of Reykjavík, it’s a remote spot for a music festival, especially in the usually chilly Icelandic springtime. But the climate doesn’t deter the organisers of Aldrei Fór Ég Suður, or the 2,000+ festivalgoers who have kept this popular occasion rolling into its tenth year.
The Grapevine team sets out for Ísafjörður under blue skies, scything around the sea road at the feet of Esja, through the long tunnel north and past mountains draped in leftover snow and reflected in mirror-like fjords. We see the remains of recent heavy blizzards, with drifts engulfing roadside fences completely and mountaintops gleaming like iced cakes.
But as the Westfjords draw near, a wall of weather sweeps in. The car is swiftly eaten by clouds and the journey turns into a nerve-wracking whiteout. The ice-blue snowdrifts grow together until they merge with the sky in a yawning, bright white void. It feels like we’re driving from nothing, into nothing, the car a slow skier slaloming between the roadside markers and shocks of yellow grass.
By the time we crawl around the tip of the final peninsula and down into the dramatic, sweeping bay of Ísafjörður, Sindri Már Sigfússon is on stage. He cuts a recognisable figure even from way back in the car park, standing static with his distinctive stoop as he strums and sings. His band Sin Fang has changed configuration since ‘Flowers,’ their sunny, melodic sound taking an indie-rock flavour via the addition of a second guitarist. The set is comprised entirely of unreleased new material, but Sindri’s eddying vocal melodies lend a sense of familiarity and continuity to the show, winning a rousing reception from the bustling crowd.
A WORKING CLASS HERO
After a short break, the festival’s tiny beer & pylsur tent empties for Bubbi Morthens. Looking like a lost member of Status Quo in sunglasses and a waistcoat, his style is gleaned directly from the impassioned Americana of giants like Dylan and Springsteen. Kids are hoisted onto shoulders and there suddenly seem to be a lot of stetsons in the crowd. The festival is in a party mood for this show, erupting almost immediately into a mass sing-along.
Bubbi is apparently Iceland’s working class hero, his everyman lyrics transposing Icelandic culture onto traditional rhythm & blues—so rather than being about the cotton fields or the dusty crossroads, his songs are about working in fish processing plants and surviving the long, dark winter nights. He seems like he could go on for hours, revelling in the limelight and packing his thirty-minute set with crowd participation antics, but even this legend of native rock only gets a short extension on the standard twenty-minute slot.
After an equally Icelandic take on rockabilly from Langi Seli og Skuggarnir and some workmanlike post-rock from Stafrænn Hákon, the night is rounded off by Valdimar, who plays a celebratory set of jubilant, enticing songs backed by an impressive big band. The sound quality has been uniformly excellent throughout, especially considering the hasty changeovers, but it seems to click especially well for Valdimar. After a warm-hearted and thoroughly charming performance, people pour out into the snow, beaming their smiles into the darkness.
THE LOCAL SCENE
After a morning spent exploring the defiantly remote and breathtakingly picturesque nearby towns of Flateyri and Suðureyri, we head back to catch some of Ísafjörður’s local bands and hometown heroes. The first act we see is the unashamed dad-rock five-piece Sniglabandið, who grin from ear to ear throughout their robust set; they’re followed by proficient-but-nervous teen metallers Hörmung, who’ve clearly put in the practice-room hours but are perhaps a little dazzled by the stage lights.
If there has been a slight lack of edge in the music so far, Futuregrapher reverses the situation with a set of mid-afternoon jungle and hard breaks, accentuated by some genuinely unhinged, simian dancing. After starting the music, Futuregrapher comes out in trackie-bottoms and proceeds to bounce around the stage screaming for a few minutes, jabbing at the crowd and conducting the rapid-fire rhythms like the scariest 7 AM amphetamine-tramp at Glastonbury; he’s joined by a rapper who seems comparably zoned out and almost gets into a confrontation with the laptop operator when a sudden change of pace interrupts an extended anti-capitalist rant. The music itself isn’t breaking any new ground, but the aggressive, nihilistic stage spectacle is absorbing and creepy in equal measure.
Prins póló play with an extended line-up that includes Benni Hemm Hemm on bass and Borko on extra percussion, giving an impressive boost to their ever-charming scruffy indie sound. They’re followed by Dolby, who finish on a ruthlessly efficient crowd-pleasing medley of soft rock anthems that includes snatches of “Smoke On The Water,” “Jump” and “Eye Of The Tiger.”
A JUBILANT FINALE
The young stars of Reykjavík on tonight’s bill are Oyama and Samaris, both of whom up the art-factor considerably. Full disclosure: I work with Oyama, so I somewhat predictably like them a lot, but I was a fan first, and the show reminds me why as they gallop through a four-song set of stylish, discordant shoegaze. The shimmering intro of “Everything Some Of The Time” gets a roar of recognition before the drawn out noise-rock finale of “The Garden,” which peaks at ear-splitting volume.
Samaris are a vehicle for the maturing talents of Jófríður Ákadóttir, whose breathy, emotive vocal delivery is spineötingling tonight. On the strength of this performance the sky is the limit for the eighteen-year-old singer, and as Samaris play set-highlight “Góða Tungl” I wonder if the warm but ‘90s-retro production can match her rapid development.
Ojba Rasta deliver an effortlessly entertaining collection of dubby reggae, playing with a laid-back passion that earns them a rare Aldrei encore. This paves the way for Jónas Sig, who is joined by roughly half the town’s inhabitants in the shape of the Ísafjörður town orchestra, for a jubilant finale to a fun night.
The Bubbi lyric from which the festival takes its name goes “I never went south, I never had the courage.” But in 2013 it takes more courage to head into the freezing Westfjörds, and for those who braved the cold, there was a party worth the journey.
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