Iceland shuts down, but music continues

Just like the disastrous 12-month period that was 2020, music tours and festivals continue to get scuttled this year, including Iceland Airwaves, the annual event that brings international artists far and wide to Reykjavík, the world’s most Northernly capital just below the Arctic Circle.

Last year, organizers of Airwaves presented “Live from Reykjavík,” a highly heralded livestream event that showcased some of the best local talent spanning a variety of genres. This time around, the theme was repeated with a very important distinction: it would be in front of a live audience in addition to the worldwide livestream.

There was a bit of a catch though; four venues played host to the festivities, with multiple acts appearing at each one, but concertgoers could only buy a ticket to one place and had to remain there for the duration. It led to a bit of pickiness. As a frame of reference, albeit an extreme one, let’s say at one venue you had the Stones, Pearl Jam, the White Stripes…and Barry Manilow. At another there’s Alice in Chains, Paul McCartney, the Kinks…and Steely Dan. You’ve got to take the good with the bad either way.

Rock Music Menu, a longtime proponent and attendee of Iceland Airwaves, made the trek to Live from Reykjavík this past Saturday to see just how much this years’ experience would differ from those in the past.

Things started off well enough upon arrival, as restrictions were pretty lax in Reykjavík given the low rate of Covid cases. That took a sharp turn as the week went on with cases going up, and before Saturday’s Live from Reykjavík event, the pandemic reared its ugly head in near full force, leading the Icelandic government to declare early closures of businesses and reduced capacity at all bars and venues.

Still, there was a spirited vibe at Gaukurinn, the downtown venue where I ended up decamping. The up-and-coming teen gugusar kicked off the night, replete with a cadre of annoying followers who alternated in catcalls and trying to start a mosh pit, wholly out of place with her borderline avant-garde performance. She kept a steely focus on the show though, ignoring all of the aforementioned.

Inspector Spacetime were up next, delivering a ho-hum back and forth dance pop salvo that left the audience itching for something of more substance. That came shortly thereafter in BSÍ, a duo who dropped a bit of punk with a dash of pop and then pushed the limits of protest. Towards the end of their set, they stepped up to declare “No Borders/No Nations,” a call against deportation of immigrants, particularly calling out the airline Icelandair, who were sponsors of the festival.

Daughters of Reykjavík were the night’s headliners, made up of nine viciously talented women who I overheard someone describe as, “the Spice Girls’ camaraderie mixed with the attitude of Wu-Tang Clan.” That was certainly apt, as they took total command of the crowd, having them jump with glee, pump fists in the air and leave jaws dropped in amazement.

Restrictions due to the pandemic got much tighter as the days wore on, and who knows if Iceland Airwaves will event come to pass next year, but if what the strides made by the Live from Reykjavík movement is any indication, it’s all going to work out just fine.

A version of this article appears in this week’s print and online editions of my syndicated Rock Music Menu column under the title “Iceland shuts down, but music continues.”

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