Every November for the past 20 years, a few thousand enthusiastic and adventurous music fans join hundreds of acts from dozens of countries in Reykjavik for four (or more) days of performances, partying and Iceland’s world-famous hot dogs.
Iceland Airwaves began as an idea in the northern town of Akureyri with the first show being held at an airplane hanger. Since then, it’s hosted homegrown heroes such as Bjork, Sigur Ros, and Of Monsters and Men, internationally renowned acts including Sufjan Stevens, Florence and The Machine, Hot Chip and The Knife, and launched the careers of hundreds, if not thousands, of up and coming artists from all over the world.
This year, Airwaves played host to almost 200 acts from over 30 countries, playing in 20 different venues throughout downtown Reykjavik. It also marked the first year where the festival was run by Sena Live, who bought it from founders Icelandair earlier this year. For the first time attendee, this probably meant nothing, but for many who’ve made Airwaves an annual pilgrimage this meant a few more rules and bit less of a DIY aesthetic. In years past, one could walk down Laugevuger, the main shopping street in Reykjavik, and stumble upon someone performing in a clothing store, coffee shop, souvenir stall, you name it, every few feet. These “off venue” shows, where a ticket wasn’t necessary to enjoy the performances, rewarded those who wandered around the city, no wristband required. But Sena Live, who undoubtedly saw these free performances hurting ticket sales, clamped down and a bit and only sanctioned a handful versus the hundreds of years past. If this change means Airwaves is around for the foreseeable future, then so be it.
The festival unofficially kicked off on Wednesday morning with a performance by singer and pianist Soley at an unlikely venue: a senior center south of downtown called Grund. Seniors in wheelchairs, jetlagged festival goers and local children packed the hall. The show began with group stretching and an impromptu singalong of traditional Icelandic tunes. The president of Iceland even showed up to talk about the importance of music for healthy living.
The president, at a senior center, opening for a singer. Welcome to Airwaves.
Airwaves is also part of the Keychange initiative, which encourages festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022. While other festivals may struggle with this balance, Airwaves is one of the first to reach it. And it was the women who reigned supreme at this year’s festival, packing venues and wowing audiences all week long.
Feminist punk band Hormonar led the charge with two electrified shows, one at a small, dark club called Gaukurinn and another at an off venue cafe in a hotel. The all-female trio Kaelan Mikla began their sets by lighting incense and then cast a spell with their powerful take on dark wave. One of Iceland’s biggest stars, Mammut, played a secret show to 20 people at an out-of-town defunct brothel and then at two more sweaty and packed shows to ravenous crowds. JFDR also began its Airwaves week by playing a secret show but this time at a chocolate factory to celebrate the release of a chocolate bar/EP in partnership with Omnom chocolate. She then glittered brilliantly on the final night dressed in a head-to-toe sequined dress.
Although Bjork wasn’t on this year’s bill, she could be seen dancing and rocking out in clubs across town, at performances by up-and-coming rapper Ragga Holm, dance pop queen Milkywhale and more.
It wasn’t just the females that had all the fun, though. Agent Fresco brought big arena rock to the Gamla Bio theatre, Asgeir played a stripped down, emotionally driven set in the Frikirkjan church and Dev Hynes, AKA Blood Orange, closed the festival down in style on Saturday night.
Someone once described Airwaves as a festival where you don’t go to see your favorite band–you go to see your next favorite band. Airwaves 2019 takes place Nov. 6-9. Who will you discover?