From Iceland — Nashville in the North

Nashville in the North

Published November 3, 2006

Nashville in the North

In explaining the success of Iceland Airwaves, the organisers, Mr. Destiny, surprised me by explaining that 9/11 had a strong effect on the festival. Coming up on 2001, Airwaves featured large acts, and that year they planned on featuring the Gorillaz. Instead, with their international audience not willing to get on a plane, they went local, went small, and found themselves with a gorgeous little festival that featured the city of Reykjavík as much as anything else. They found gold.
This year, Mr. Destiny seemed to perfect the elusive formula that they started developing in 2001. Without any central stars, without any one attraction other than the city, the 2006 Airwaves proved to be as perfect a festival as Iceland has seen. In fact, judging by the comments of our visiting writers, the 2006 Airwaves was as good music festival as has been put together in the last decade… anywhere. By the end of the weekend, I had started thinking of Airwaves as the ultimate ensemble cast Robert Altman film; this year’s 147 bands were arranged to capture the imagination, to show a glimpse of intelligence, but they were also left to keep their individuality, and, honestly, none were allowed to steal the show.

Location, location, location…
While we’re working the film analogy, the locations, or venues, were the most talked about aspect of the festival, at least at our offices. The Gaukur á Stöng of this year may have been the single most hated venue this side of Rhode Island. (Yes, that’s a Great White concert joke, and yes, it is too soon.) To explain the hatred, here’s an anecdote from our own Steinunn Jakobsdóttir, who was assigned to take over reporting from the venue after yet another reporter said, “I’ll cover anything, just get me out of Gaukurinn.” Our hearty Icelandic reporter took over, wedged herself into the audience, only to notice that the man a few feet to her left had overimbibed. As he threw up on himself, she realised that not only could she not flee, but the heat of the overpacked venue and the lack of ventilation would in fact keep the smell of the man’s stomach acid at its most pungent.
Gaukurinn was such a bad venue that it became a story, somewhat celebrated. MTV was rumoured to have fled the venue during the We Are Scientists gig on Wednesday, fearing for their safety. There was the above vomit story. By the time visiting writer Nick Catucci, who made his reputation covering the indie scene throughout Brooklyn and New York for the Village Voice, declared that Gaukurinn was “the most dangerous venue I have ever entered” we started thinking of the place as supernatural.
For the record, I caught wind that Gaukurinn is allowed about 600 people, according to fire code. Of course, as it is a two-floor bar usually, and as during this festival it only used the first floor, that figure should have been revised. It was cute and funny to suffocate at Gaukurinn this year, but if someone tries this again, it will be simply criminal.
A few bands managed to perform well despite Gaukurinn, especially We Are Scientists, The Whitest Boy Alive, Wolf Parade and Whomadewho, and, on Sunday, Patrick Watson and local bands My Summer as a Salvation Soldier and time-tested live acts Jan Mayen, Jeff Who?, Hölt Hóra and Hairdoctor.
Þjóðleikhúskjallarinn (listed as National Theatre Basement this year) and Iðnó were the gems of the festival. Featuring less well-known line-ups, these venues charmed audiences, reporters and bands. Maybe the best example of how much a venue affects a band, affects an experience, was Ghostigital’s set this year at Iðnó, compared with their frustrating, truncated effort last year that blew out Gaukurinn’s old sound system. Last year, Einar Örn came off as a punk iconoclast loner, this year, as an artist comfortable at on the edge, in very good company here in Iceland.
Finally, regarding location, the off-venue shows complemented the festival perfectly this year. 12 Tónar hosted decent events, though the cancellation by Brazilian Girls was a letdown, Smekkleysa gave a few local bands an extra venue and Kaffi Hljómalind, which feels like it has been the centre of Reykjavik music for decades, not months, injected life into the festival, first with a day of hardcore, and then with a surreal performance by Tilly and the Wall.

Top billing
The concept for this article is that this year’s Airwaves reached a level that a truly brilliant Altman movie reaches, that inexplicable moment when excellent performances, scene, nuance, come together for a massive, unique whole. The most obvious reason for the analogy: the cast list. If you had a pleasant time at Airwaves this year, you likely enjoyed eight bands, two of whom you expected to see, one that you had actually heard long before you started getting ready for the festival.
This year, it seemed as though Mr. Destiny had sent out a memo to the visiting bands, all of them save one performed without ego, treating locals as casual friends, many even getting involved in extra performances. Erlend ­Øye of The Whitest Boy Alive seemed to jump into any show in town, as did Islands frontman Nick Diamons.
The local and visiting performers who decided to play with different bands, who decided to take chances and play casually, fit in best. Benni Hemm Hemm found himself performing with at least four bands, among them Skakkamanage, Jens Lekman and his own celebrated show. Árni Plúseinn’s shows with both Hairdoctor and FM Belfast were pitch perfect, as were Lovisa’s shows both as Lay Low and with the Benny Crespo’s Gang.
Compared with these bands who seemed so excited about music and performing that they likely would have played a bus stop lavatory had they been offered a mic, the Kaiser Chiefs, this year’s resident divas, came off as bigger assholes than they probably actually are. They famously brought their own entourage and isolated themselves. To their credit, isolation for the Kaiser Chiefs seems like a good strategy. Their show, which felt to me a lot like karaoke on bingo night at an old folks’ home, demonstrated that beyond their ability to write an occasional hook, the band is without stage presence, style, humour or charisma. And, had they let people talk to them, someone may have asked why their record has 30 guitars, but their live performance just sounds like someone pushed the demo on a Casio keyboard while beating on a kickdrum and asking their soused uncle to recite nursery rhymes.
To repeat, it is likely that the Kaiser Chiefs are not bad people. But for the purposes of this year’s festival, it was absolutely thrilling to watch the one band who acted like stars perform as badly as they did, just as it felt somewhat life-affirming to see how well some of the members of Islands played as they joined Patrick Watson for an extra, free show to close out Airwaves.
Like an Altman film, the festival even seemed to have a loose kind of moral that so many of us picked up on. Like the moral in an Altman film, it’s best not to oversimplify and distil this moral… it was there, it had something to do with the reason behind beauty, and the reason things get corrupted, and somehow, in the odd week of Iceland Airwaves, the people who deserved to do well did.

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