It was almost 3am and the festival was coming to an end. The youngest in the audience had gone home to rest but excited party people had taken their places. The oldest in the crowd, a couple in their eighties, wiggled hand in hand to SSSÓL’s 90s’ hit ‘Mér finnst rigningin góð’ (I Like the Rain). Watching them captured the spirit of Aldrei fór ég suður (translates I Never Went South). A wonderfully romantic mix of joy and celebration of life. Frontman Helgi Bjöss was cooler than ever and I even found myself singing along to a song I’ve spurned since my teenage years. It’s hard to say what was in the air inside that old warehouse in the desolated fishing town of Ísafjörður, but the song suddenly seemed the best one ever written.
The now frantic crowd cheered Rockmaster Mugison, his dad, wife and all the other organisers as they joined SSSÓL in a sing-along to ‘Farðu alla leið’ (Go All the Way). They are the town’s heroes. Recognition well deserved. With their own unique festival, Mugison and co. have put their remote hometown on the music map as one of the most rockin’ towns in the world.
Three Generations of Rockers
In its fifth year, the annual Aldrei fór ég suður festival has never been bigger than last Easter weekend. Two days, 34 bands and all for free! Unlike so many music festivals around, there is nothing complicated about this one. Staged in a warehouse down by the harbour, each band gets 20 minutes to fascinate the audience no matter whether they are legendary Megas or newcomers to the music scene. There is no actual headliner. Everyone is equal, sleeps in the same dorm or crashes on a friend’s couch. Sound checks are for wusses and bands swap drummers and guitarists, which leaves room for whole lot of mistakes and an equal amount of fun. Here, everyone is a friend, a relative or soon-to-be friend or relative. Over the weekend, music is celebrated in front of a homemade stage decorated with fishnets and Christmas lights.
Among rock stars throwing empty beer cans around, kids munch on pizza slices and young couples make out in the corners. Babies with headphones cuddle up to their moms, their grandparents nod, a little shocked, to XXX Rottweiler’s aggressive hip-hop beats while their teenage sisters wait in awe with drumsticks and baseball caps for their idols to sign. Three generations gather to rock with people from around the country and beyond. “This is the best festival in the world!” I heard repeatedly, from guests who had travelled from as close as next door to as far as many hours on a plane to get to this isolated Westfjord location.
Ísafjörður’s population doubles during the Easter weekend and the festival has become so popular that it was impossible for us to get accommodation. The Grapevine team therefore had to settle for the next neighbouring town, Bolungavík. That got us to know this friendly community even better and learn that hospitality is more of a rule than an exception. “I love to drive. I just hate to charge for it,” the taxi-driver who shuttled us from Bolungavík told us before welcoming us inside his home to use his computer. “Feel free to come any time if you need anything. Our name is on the doorbell,” his wife added. Thanks!
“Throw Something At Me!”
The two-day feast started with fish stew, which we missed unfortunately. When the five of us arrived after a seven-hour drive from Reykjavík, the festival goers had swallowed the last bite before heading to the concert venue. We tagged along.
As a first timer to AFS, the charm of the festival and its stunning surroundings left me tonguetied. “Ísafjörður is a metropolis in the Westfjords” one local festival goer told me over a beer. “It’s a creative community where everything is possible. Everything happens so fast. I think it’s because death is always so nearby”. He has a point. Locked in by a long fjord and ruthless mountains, the harsh environment is frightfully apparent even while you sense something magical about this town of roughly 3,000 inhabitants.
Bob Justman opened the festival with incredible charisma and the crowd rapidly grew. Kids climbed on top of whatever made them see the stage better, police-dogs sniffed for drugs and the line outside the outdoor toilets steadily grew.
The line-up for the weekend was immensely diverse, musically and experientially. Hot-shots in Hjaltalín, with all their complex instruments, cramped the same stage as Faroese diva Eivör. Johnny Sexual dressed to impress while Steintryggur impressed with no fancy clothing required. The middle-aged in the room showed equal interest in Ísafjörður’s own Mysterious Marta and in Ben Frost’s experimental guitar noise (although two ladies in the front row commented that this act was “perhaps a bit too loud”)
Punk-rockers in Morðingjarnir owned Friday night. That is indisputable. “Throw something at me!” screamed Atli, the intoxicated bassist, before he fell on the floor. The crowd didn’t think twice. Beer bottles flew onto stage before the sound guy stepped in and put a stop to it. Although the threesome didn’t know all their songs, their attitude set the mood for the evening, which included Hjálmar playing with Megas and Megas supporting Hjálmar. Mugison himself closed the night with a performance and applause that almost made the roof explode. No explanation needed.
Yellow Gloves and Priceless Spandex
Swarms of hung-over festival goers roamed around town in search of food and wake-up coffee to prepare for the extensive programme on Saturday afternoon. Those brave enough to think of alcohol at that time loaded up on beer from the liquor store. Nearly 12 hours of music, dancing, hugging and kissing lay ahead.
We saw a couple of great performances, some curious bands and missed a lot of super acts (Biogen, Múgsefjun and Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán in particular, which we heard were all crazy). The young Sudden Weather Change grow with every performance, Sprengjuhöllin and Sign both showed why they are such huge crowd-pleasers and the sexy Skátar sporting golden spandex tights brought the crowd to a level of general insanity. “I bought them for 3,000 ISK. Now I’ve played in them so they’re priceless!” guitarist Kolli told a young female fan who clearly wanted nothing more than to get his pants off after the gig.
But it was a local act that drew the biggest crowd and the warehouse was way more than packed when the working-men’s choir Karlakórinn Ernir squeezed onto the stage. The whole town had arrived to see their local heroes so it was a brutal fight to get a glimpse of what was going on. Dressed in their Sunday best, with yellow rubber gloves, fronted by Dr. Spock’s singer Óttarr Proppé, the choir reached unknown heights when performing Spock’s Eurovision contribution ‘Hvar ertu nú?’ Clearly one of the festival’s highlights.
In all, this was a unique event. The coolest festival I’ve ever attended. My only worry is that it might be growing too fast for its own good. I hope it will stay small and homey, as being part of something so spectacular makes you feel privileged. To all those who rocked, we salute you!