By Michael Christopher
Rock Music Menu has been running around just below the Arctic Circle over the past week and a half for the 18th installment of Iceland Airwaves music festival. We’ve been here before over the years, but as in times past, it continues to grow in scope, attendance and quality.
Fourteen main venues and 60 some “off-venues” hosted more than 200 bands from all over the world over a five-day period. Airwaves has become more Iceland-centric in recent years, which only makes sense with the rich musical and artistic well of talent to draw from. However, there were many imports from other spots around the globe as well, building a solid mesh of talent.
Here are some of the highlights.
John Lydon — better known as Johnny Rotten — kicked off the festivities Nov. 2 by appearing at the opening of the Icelandic Punk Museum in downtown Reykjavik, the capital city of the country. The Sex Pistols frontman was his typical outspoken and irreverent self, his personality a perfect fit to the raw cold and smattering of rain that fell as he fielded questions from media and fans alike.
The one show everyone had their eye on — if they could get tickets — was to see Björk, who, with Sigur Rós and more recently Of Monsters and Men, remains one of the country’s top musical exports. At the gorgeous venue Harpa, she performed for one of the final times last year’s heartbreaking ‘Vulnicura’ about the demise of her relationship to American artist Matthew Barney. The title itself translates to “Cure for Wounds,” and seeing the singer go through the album live, backed by a 30-piece orchestra, was like witnessing an exorcism of heartache.
Local heavy metal outfit Dimma has gone down the English-language road a few times on their releases, but decided in recent years to do all of their songs in Icelandic. No matter what language they are singing in, the melodic, guitar heavy riffs resonate — loudly — even though they had a somewhat short set compared to some of the other acts on the evening they played.
The aforementioned Of Monsters and Men played a packed house at the venue Nasa, but then word spread they were going to do a “secret show” hosted by festival founding sponsor Icelandair at the Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, the Free Church of Reykjavik, which was founded in 1899. The hometown favorites put together a seven song acoustic set, a contrast to their rollicking folk-pop from the night, and punctuation mark to end their year-and-a-half support tour for their album ‘Beneath the Skin.’
Heading to an off-venue site, in the basement of the tiny Bar 11, Myrra Rós played a basement show two days after one at Harpa’s Kaldalón hall a few nights before. This one had a few technical difficulties at the start, but the singer/songwriter pushed through it to deliver her passionate songs of longing.
Throws were one of the surprising highlights where you sort of end up in a venue not knowing what to expect and walking out blown away. Hailing from the UK, the harmonizing synth and guitar pop duo has recently released their self-titled first album, but recorded it in Reykjavik, making the show at Gamla Bio a sort of homecoming. Featuring a rousing full men’s choir on many of the songs, there was a celebratory nature to the gig that carried into the audience.
With all of the stunning sounds and scenery at Airwaves ’16, it was hard to imagine festival closer PJ Harvey being able to top what came before her late night show at the Vodafone arena. Somehow, she delivered a brilliant, 20 song set that enthralled and captivated.
Leaning heavily on her fantastic April album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project,’ Harvey started out with a marching band for “Chain of Keys,” following them out brandishing a saxophone, showing off her varied musical talents. She also pulled out familiar hits like “Down by the Water” and “50ft Queenie” in the sweltering hall which didn’t seem to affect anyone’s enthusiasm.
It’s always been a bit of an extra step for locals trying to get to Airwaves or Iceland in general by having to get to New York or Baltimore to fly direct. There’s good news though, as next spring, Icelandair will begin flying out four flights a week out of Philadelphia International, opening up a whole new travel market to the region.
To contact music columnist Michael Christopher, send an email to email@example.com. Also, check out his blog at www.delcotimes.com