On Thursday morning I noticed someone had placed a pair of headphones on the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, leader of the Icelandic independence movement. Surely this is a fitting tribute to the spirit of the 2013 edition of Iceland Airwaves, and possibly a sign of good things to come. On the other hand, perhaps this mild defacement is a portending of anarchy and chaos in the near future. The latter might be a bit off the mark, although there were moments of feedback squalor on Thursday night at Harpa Silfurberg that certainly felt like mayhem, if not the breakdown of law and order.
That being said, the night got off to a very middle-of-the-road start. Snorri Helgason and his band took the stage and competently and pleasantly worked their way through a set of earnest tunes. These are a bunch of well-appointed folks playing country-inspired folk, at times reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s California sound more recently tackled by bands like Beachwood Sparks. Harmonica and a small ukulele-like guitar were present onstage right off the bat, setting the tone for a masterfully played but often uninspiring set of easy listening tunes. Helgason is an extremely proficient guitar player, he and his female cohort create lovely harmonies, and his backing band is skilled enough to be almost unnoticeable at times – arguably part of the point in songs like these. There was nothing horribly offensive here, although the band’s rendition of a Scottish folk song, something about a king and his daughter, could have been deleted from the set list. Things picked up with the newer song “Summer’s Almost Gone,” the band’s last, but I was happy to move on from here.
Next up was a perfect example of why I love coming back to Airwaves every year. Prins Póló was one of those surprises, at least to this reviewer, which the festival offers up time and again. Frontman Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson took the stage wearing a paper crown (judging from an online search of images of him, this seems to be his head gear of choice) and began to sing a simple melody in Icelandic while playing piano. From there, the band commenced to perform an extremely engaging set of all-around interesting rock, ranging from new wave to discordant indie to danceable post-punk. Eysteinsson sang entirely in Icelandic, and as an English speaker in the crowd, I had no complaints. Who wants to hear another guy singing about heartbreak, anyway… if that’s indeed what he was singing about? He certainly elicited more than a few laughs from the audience with his banter in-between songs – again in Icelandic, and again, that’s just fine. The band seems to place value on equality between its members, positioning everyone at the front of the stage – including the drummer, who stood and pounded furiously using a tom in place of a kick drum. Near the end of the set, the very same drummer told the crowd that the next song was about being fresh, and he hoped that we were, indeed, fresh. Then he meowed. Then the band played another great song.
At this point, after seeing several people dressed up as members of the Catholic clergy, lions, and wearing assorted masks, I remembered that it was Halloween. Happy Halloween.
Next up were the popular Hjaltalín, who took the stage to an electro beat and waves of synth wash. Singers Högni Egilsson and Sigríður Thorlacius traded off vocals, each one emoting and vocalizing with great aplomb, as songs heavy with (melo)drama and atmosphere moved the crowd. Every song seemed to center around an electronic beat; indeed, programming and a general sense of being informed by electronic music permeated Hjaltalín’s music. This became particularly evident as a pulsing beat coincided with a blasting light show mid-set that threatened to give everyone seizures. I must admit to being a bit perplexed by the band’s mix of r’n’b, rock, and electronica at the start. But by the end of the performance, Hjaltalín had mostly won me over. The band’s cover of Beyonce’s “Halo” didn’t hurt either.
Finally, Yo La Tengo took the stage and promptly divided the crowd. About ten minutes into the band’s set, people started to leave. It wasn’t a flood, it was more like a trickle, but it was steady. By the end of the show, less than half of the crowd remained to watch the first Icelandic appearance of one of America’s stalwarts of indie rock. Perhaps this was not what people were expecting, especially those from a younger generation. Yo La Tengo continues to carry the torch for face-melting, guitar-warping anti-solos, especially with the demise of Sonic Youth (who were kind of getting soft in their old age anyway). Of course, that’s not all they do, as they proved on this night. They also play hushed songs with pretty vocals about love and relationships. They even occasionally dip into Motown and soul as Ira Kaplan engages his falsetto.
I prefer the guitar rave-ups from albums like May I Sing With Me and Electr-O-Pura to the band’s more mellow work, and this was a set focused on the loud, albeit drawing heavily from more recent albums. The band manages to create a hell of a lot of noise for a trio, as Georgia Hubley unabashedly pounds her drums, James McNew calmly plucks his bass, and Ira Kaplan pulls off some Old Man Hendrix moves, flailing his guitar about and sweating on his strings. He’s kind of like a garage-rock John Coltrane at times, his signature jazz-like solos wringing noises out of his guitar that don’t seem possible. Yo La Tengo ended the night with a 15-minute blast of krautrock-inspired drone with purpose, before taking the stage again for an encore that consisted of Antietam and Sun Ra covers. Perhaps Iceland is not ready for Yo La Tengo, or maybe Yo La Tengo is not fresh enough for the younger generation of Icelanders. Either way, those who stayed were treated to a monster of a set that will stick in their memories for a long time.