Inexplicably, at midnight, the bar gets crowded.
There’s no clear reason why. The house lights have come on and Reykjavík! have stopped playing. By all traditional indications, this should be the end of the night. But the stairs leading down into Krúsin are packed and the lobby area that doubles as the club’s bar is straining to contain the sudden onrush of tall, giddy, grinning blondes.
As it turns out, this encounter is the ideal preamble to this year’s Aldrei fór ég suður (”I Never Went South”) festival, a two-day music event that takes place in the small Icelandic village of Ísafjörður, located in Iceland’s northernmost fjords. The following 48 hours would be full of loud drunks happily trying to cram themselves inside buildings too small to hold them, all in an effort to get an earful of a few minutes of music.
An art project of a town
The town of Ísafjörður is a visual miracle. Surrounded on all sides by massive, awe-inspiring cliffs, the village feels like an art project: a brightly-coloured, economically-designed township nestled dead in the centre of gargantuan natural marvels. It’s as if someone had dropped it in using a crane.
Unlike Iceland Airwaves, Aldrei fór ég suður focuses mainly on local and unknown bands. Indeed, the biggest international “name” on the bill is Ólöf Arnalds, and the next biggest is the festival’s organiser, rock experimentalist Mugison. Where Airwaves usually books a handful of international bands, Ísafjörður’s festival is proudly, stubbornly local. It’s also charmingly and deliberately amateurish. As Mugison said over a lunch of fish stew before the festival opened, “No one gets a sound check, everyone uses the same equipment, and there’s no hierarchy in selecting the set times” (perhaps as if to prove his own point, he scheduled himself to play early on the first night).
The festival’s relentless egalitarianism means that the musical choices can often be baffling. On Saturday night, a group called Yxna, comprised mostly of men in their sixties sporting leather jackets and sunglasses, bashed out bar blues to a mostly appreciative audience. Their set concluded with a cover of I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You, sung by Oscar nominated Icelandic film director Friðrik Þór in a craggy voice that would make Tom Waits sound like Celine Dion.
Icelanders love to push and shove
The festival boasted just as much bad music as good, but that’s somewhat beside the point: the event’s the thing. Parents wheel out well-bundled infants in strollers, dads hoist excitable four year-olds up on their shoulders, grandparents mill around by the hot dog stand. Though the festival is held in an unheated cement warehouse, the sheer number of bodies crammed into that small space provides ample heat. Indeed, the festival’s biggest drawback is the enthusiasm of its audience: much like that first night at Krúsin, audience members are more than willing to consistently push, shove and bully their way into the building.
But there’s no good reason to linger on the downside. More than anything, the festival speaks to a passionate and generation-defying love for and appreciation of Icelandic music. Where many other festivals come off as a celebration of song (still others, a celebration of commerce), the festival in Ísafjörður feels like a celebration of Iceland. Few of the bands have much ambition to be successful anywhere other than their homeland, so it seems petty to call out the less-than-spectacular.
Especially when the festival offered more than its share of gems: Ólöf Arnalds, always a treasure live, deigned to break out the sublime lullaby Við og Við, a song she has yet to perform any time I’ve seen her play in the U.S. Reykjavík!, who are easily as thrilling as any post-punk band the States has lately produced, hurtled through their set, a bracing shot of spastic noise.
Quiet can be just as good
The quieter acts were often just as good: Lára Rúnars offered the kind of cheery, chirpy indie pop that would make fans of Lykke Li swoon. The orchestral pop act Hjaltalín was angelic, lacing simple pop melodies with strings and brass and even an oboe, proving it’s possible to add a string section to your band and not sound like a mimeograph of Arcade Fire. That their set ended with a rapturous cover of Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough was merely a bonus.
Often, the bands were harder to pin down: Biggibix went from approximating the ’80s nostalgia of the Killers to the ’80s nostalgia of Daughtry. Still, it was harder to resist his last number, the broad and soaring Situation (the recorded version of which sells it short by a great deal). A small army of fellow friends and musicians crowded on to the stage—somewhere between 15 and 20 in all—locked arms and belted out the song’s giddy, shout-along chorus and, one by one, the audience caught on and joined in. In the end, that’s what Aldrei fór ég suður is about: a community raising cheerful, drunken voices in song and in celebration.
J. Edward Keyes is Editor-in-Chief for the awesome eMusic site. He has been writing about music since 1997 for publications including RollingStone.com, Newsday, the Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. And the Grapevine!
What’s on for AFÉS 2011? We have no idea, but we hear for reliable sources that the programme is already being put together.
See www.airiceland.is for schedules and more action-packed day trips.
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