Compared to other festivals of its longevity and international stature, Iceland Airwaves – the music festival launched 18 years ago with a proud emphasis on homegrown alternative rock and experimental pop – is a tempest in a shot glass: a compact high with sustained force. You can walk to most venues, from the city center in Reykjavik, inside five minutes; most are the size of a neighborhood bar. Except for the concert complex Harpa and the Valshöllin sports hall, even larger rooms like the Gamla Bío theater and the Fríkirkjan church have the intimacy of clubs.
The 2017 edition of Airwaves, which ran November 1st through the 5th, was at once bigger and smaller than in recent years, with a hit in scale and international attendance due to local economics, a weakened dollar and an even more battered British pound. But a spurt in venues, up to 13, offset the reduction of shows at Harpa, where the American band Fleet Foxes and the Icelandic singer-songwriter Asgeir played to full houses in the main symphonic room Eldborg. The only arena-worthy international act, Mumford and Sons, closed the weekend at Valshöllin.
But Airwaves, founding sponsor Icelandair and the regional airline Air Iceland Connect opened a branch of action in the far north this year, adding two nights of performances in Akureyri, about 90 miles short of the Arctic Circle. The location was apt: A proto-Airwaves presented by Air Iceland was staged there in March 1999. That October, the first Airwaves was held in a hangar at Reykjavik airport; the headliners included a young Sigur Rós.
The basic numbers this year were 207 artists playing 229 official Airwaves sets in Reykjavik, with 7,500 tickets sold (and another 1000 in Akureyri). There were lines – and inevitable disappointment for those in them – at shows that could have used bigger capacity: Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini; the eccentric English soul singer Benjamin Clementine; the iconic local band Mammút. But there was no shortage of options. This was my eighth or ninth Airwaves – I’ve lost count – and, for me, a traditional mix: reconnecting with music and bands I know, then walking into the new.
That included: the strings-and-electronics quartet Amiina, performing a live soundtrack to the French silent film Fantômas; Skelkur í Bringu, a rattling, minimalist trio fronted by a perky stick of vocal dynamite, bassist Steinunn Eldflaug, who sang in Yoko Ono–like yelps and wildcat exclamations; and We Made God, a guitar-symphony quartet of some vintage (I bought their 2011 album, It’s Getting Colder) and addicting vigor. In Akureyri, I got the neighborhood effect when 200.000 Naglbítar, a power-punk trio formed there in 1993, instantly got the crowd on their feet, singing along to what were obviously local hits. I also found out from one band member where the name – 200,000 Pliers – came from: a character in the 1948 novel, The Atom Station, by Iceland’s Nobel Prize–winning author Halldór Laxness.
Back in Reykjavik, there was some nostalgic afterburn from a reunited version of Tappi Tíkarass, a key band from Iceland’s Eighties post-punk scene best known for its original singer, a teenage Björk. (She was, on this night, otherwise occupied.) And the country’s great renegade sage, Megas, performed twice with a two-dozen-strong complement of electric band, strings and choral singers: a November 2nd theater spectacle reprised, in brief, three days later at the KEX Hostel, part of a weeklong series of live broadcasts there by Seattle’s KEXP-FM. Now in his mid-seventies, the Bob Dylan of Iceland has a voice as reduced by age and wear and the sumptuous accompaniment evoked Dylan’s recent red-velvet stay in the Frank Sinatra songbook. Except Megas sang his own rebel songs, about street life and bohemian aspiration in Iceland – including a Fifties-style rocker in Icelandic that was, I was reliably informed, very simple and extremely pornographic.