Live from Reykjavik: An Insider´s Look at Iceland Airwaves 2006

It´s 10:30 p.m., and I´m packed into a club called Gaukurinn on the west side of town, cheek to cheek with hipsters in skinny pants and ruddy-faced fans screaming for the next band, and I feel like by getting here, I´ve accomplished the social equivalent of tackling Everest. The line to get in still snakes all the way around the side of the building, and it took me nearly half an hour to get to where I am now, center stage in the middle of the room, where we´re packed in so tight that I can feel the ribs of the person next to me pressing against my arm and I can see the flecks of gold in his green eyes even in the dim light. In any other circumstance, this would qualify as a date, but here, it´s just what you have to do to get to the music.

This isn´t some club in Soho, though, or even L.A. or Miami. Instead, it´s one of approximately a half dozen venues in Reykjavik, Iceland, where, for the next five days, nearly 200 bands, solo artists, and DJs from Iceland, the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Britian, and more will perform from Oct 18-22 as part of Iceland Airwaves 2006. For five days, every night from 7 p.m. until 2 or even 3 a.m., there are approximately a dozen hot spots around the city where you can crowd in with other music fans and be the first hear the music that´s almost certain to already be working Europe into a frenzy, and almost equally certain to be doing the same thing to America in the next six months - bands like Canada´s Islands and Wolf Parade, the U.S.´s We Are Scientists and Brazilian Girls, and the UK´s Kaiser Chiefs and The Cribs. All you need is the trademark red wristlet that marks you as an Iceland Airwaves participant.

The Airwaves festival has been one of Europe´s hottest since its inception in 1999, where the first was played in a Reykjavik airplane hangar. Since then, however, the festival has garnered a great deal more cool and cache by making Reykjavik´s city centre the festival setting and by attracting artists and bands like Bjork, FatBoy Slim, and others on their way to fame. In part as a result, Reykjavik itself has earned a reputation as one of Europe´s party capitals, and the festival itself has routinely attracted lots of fans from across Europe. On the whole, however, because of the predominance of European music acts, it has still flown under the radar of American music fans.

This year, however, just might be the year that changes all that.

That might be, in part, because of the festival´s increasing visibility. Myspace is hosting a stage at the National Theatre Basement, beginning today through Saturday, Oct. 21, which will feature artists like Sweden´s Jenny Wilson, Germany´s Trost, and Canada´s Patrick Watson, all of whom are beginning to make a name for themselves. The site has a festival page, complete with pictures, interviews, and a festival lineup, which, given Myspace´s popularity in America, may well get some attention from the many young Americans whose staple is a daily visit.

In addition, America is becoming a growing presence among the long lineup of festival performers, which may well begin to pique American interest in the festival. Artists like We Are Scientists, a rock band that got its start in L.A. but now call New York home, are making their first appearance this year, and members Chris Cain, Keith Murray, and Michael Tapper say they hope to return. This year, Reykjavik is just a brief stopoff for the band - they were only able to stay in town for a day, just long enough to take in a tour of the city, attempt to track down one of Iceland´s famous hot dogs, and play last night at Gaukurinn before hopping on a plane first thing this morning to begin preparations for their three week tour in the UK.

The band, who is becoming increasingly known both for their infectious music and their wit, recently released an album that has, overall, been more popular in Europe and the UK than in America. Murray said that, after being on tour a year and half, an appearance at Airwaves was hard to quantify, but, he said, of all the places they´d been, it was most like Edinburgh - cold, northerly, and also possessed of a haunted tour of the city, one of the few things the band had time to take in before leaving.

Cain said that more Americans should tackle festivals like Airwaves, but was skeptical about whether or not they´d actually do it. "Given that Americans can´t support their own festivals, I don´t know," he said. Tapper, however, said that, after experiencing Airwaves, the band, at least, wanted to come back to Reykjavik. "I´d like to do more than one day. I´d like to do the whole thing," he said. Perhaps, he said with a smile, if more American celebrities came and did something crazy while at the festival, it would become more well-known.

For now, however, Reykjavik seems like one of the few places left where almost anyone can find anonymity. Like most cities and towns in Iceland, Reykjavik is perched at water´s edge and framed by snow-capped mountains and spare, volcanic acreage, and it is possessed of the simultaneous and somewhat startling charm of a melding of both ancient and modern culture. Historic houses are situated on the same block as modern Scandanavian designs; on the main shopping street, Laugavegur, throngs of tourists weave in and out of designer boutiques and coffeehouses, while Icelandic women leave their carriages containing coat-clad babies on the sidewalks while they step inside to shop.

The city´s small population - approximately 115,000 people - , its isolation from mainland Europe, and its traditionally low crime rate make it an appealing getaway destination. Ít´s a place where even American celebrities can stroll down the streets in relative obscurity. Today, I passed Harrison Ford and a friend as they strolled down Laugavegur. Most of the passersby seemed to glance at him but left him alone, with the exception of one young Icelandic women, who did a double take, turned, and ran after him, calling "Robert Redford! Robert Redford!" Ford turned, smiled, and then went on his way, strolling off down a side street and slipping into a bar, and in seconds, the spectacle was forgotten. I can´t think of many other places in the world where a celebrity like Ford would be both so blessedly misidentified and could disappear so effectively.

If anonymity is what you want, Reykjavik can certainly offer it, but Airwaves itself is an intimate experience - the bands stay in the same hotels and go to the same clubs and bars as the fans before and after the show, and in a city centre as compact as this one, the population of the city and the festivalgoers soon all become familiar faces, even after just a day. This morning, as my friend and I headed back to our hotel at 3 a.m., after hearing five bands, including We Are Scientists and the ambitious, entertaining, and unquestionably danceable The Handsome Public, who whipped their crowd, composed of mellow mods and frenzied schoolboys, into near-ecstacy, we lamented how many bands we had missed. Tonight, we promised ourselves, we´ll do even better, even though, as we collapsed into our beds, we felt as if we´d done enough to last a week.

Stay tuned, everyone - five bands, one interview, a hundred shops, a whirlwind tour of the city, and a chance encounter with Harrison Ford, and that´s just day one. The festival´s just getting started.