By day, the city of Reykjavik, Iceland is quiet, almost ruminative, going about its business with a dutiful and elegant sense of purpose. Tourists stroll the streets sipping coffee, swinging their shopping bags like children; stoic natives thread through them, intent on getting to work.
Under a bright blue sky and the forgiving light of a mid-day October sun, the city stretches
out like a langorous cat, spreading its limbs toward the sea, and in that moment, there is not in the world a more beautiful, more fascinating place to be.
But come night, that scene disappears behind a curtain of darkness, and another scene is
lit, this one revealing a nightlife that is, at some times merely strange, at others sinister, but always wholly out of control.
It´s day four of the 2006 Iceland Airwaves festival, and I´m beginning to feel it. The last
few nights in this dynamic and totally demented town are beginning to wear on me. Every
muscle in my body aches, my feet hurt, and I have bruisies on my rib cage and hipbones. This
is seems, is the price of fun, and I´m more than willing to pay it, if I can, at least,
avoid a repeat of what happened last night.
My friend Elise and I had been looking forward to the Friday night bands, in particular the
Canadian band Wolf Parade, and we were determined to be at the very front of the venue. We
realized after our experience at We Are Scientists that we had to take a tactical approach
to this festival: choose the bands we most wanted to see, get there early, and hold our
Our strategy was successful on Thursday night at the Reykjavik Art Museum, where we were
front and center for the sweet and sultry U.S. band Mates of State, UK rockers Hot Club de
Paris, whose unique blend of clever barbershop ballads and solid punk riffs were as
appealing as their sexy Liverpool accents, and the Omaha, Nebraska-based Tilly and the Wall,
a must-see because of their pure innovation - the six-member band´s percussion is performed
by tap-dancer Jamie and the band´s two lead singers, Neely and Kianna, are uniquely
appealing - one gifts the audience with a gorgeous voice and a Veronica Lake smile and the
other channels Pat Benetar into a performance full of joyful anger and prodigious talent.
By far the standout performance on Thursday, however, was at club NASA from the Canadian
band Metric, which was preceded by an athletic performance by the hardcore Icelandic band
Reykjavik! Metric produces dark and mesmerizing music laced with lyrics possessed of a
biting wit, and lead singer Emily Haines is unforgettable, blessed with the airy vocals and
angry passion of Tori Amos and PJ Harvey and an uncanny repoire with both her band and her
audience that gives her one of the most powerful stage presences in the business.
After Thursday´s tremendous success, we were looking forward to Friday. We reluctantly
decided to forgo a performance by Canada´s Islands at the Reykjavik Art Museum in favor of
staking out a good space for the night´s headliner Wolf Parade, so again, we headed into
club Gaukurinn and found a spot at the front of the venue.
Through a couple of the night´s first performances, the crowd was manageable. By the time
Norway´s 120 Days, a powerful band with a passing resemblance to early U2 fueled by
electronica, hit the stage, the room was full, and as the young Icelandic band Mammut and
the popular Jeff Who! made their appearances, the room became not a collection of people,
but a living, breathing organism all its own. We were packed in so tightly that I could feel
the barrier rubbing against my ribs, the sweat of my neighbors running down my back,
someone´s elbows in my shoulder and neck. I had to grab hold of a metal pole running down
the front of the barrier in order to simply stay standing up and in place.
When Wolf Parade hit the stage, however, the room erupted into utter chaos. People jumped when
there was no place to jump. They screamed into their neighbor´s ears. And all of them tried
to get to the front of the room, which meant that all of us at the front had to engage in
gladiator-style heroics just to keep our place. I´ll admit it - I shoved people, I elbowed
them, I butted them out of the way. I waited nearly three hours for this, and I wasn´t
Wolf Parade´s performance was simply brilliant, despite some inconsistencies in the sound
mix. I have a feeling that, someday, it will be the kind of performance that I will be able
to tell people 'I was there.´But what I will remember most about last night, I think, is not
what the band sounded like, althought that will stay with me, too. What I will remember will
be the constant roar of the crowd, the thousand people that threw their hands in the air in
response to a song, the looks on the faces of the people around me and on the faces of the
other well-known Airwaves bands who snuck in the side door just to see them.
Despite being soaked in sweat and not being able to feel my feet, I was happy when we left
the club, knowing I´d seen something memorable, and at 1:30 in the morning, I was ready to
tackle nightlife in Reykjavik.
I had no idea what I was in for.
When we walked out of the club, the city was a changed place. Gone were the relatively empty
streets and the clutches of tourists. Instead, the streets were filled with young Icelanders
dressed to the nines, shouting to one another, heading into clubs and bars.
Needless to say, the rumors about Reykjavik nightlife are all true - in essence, on the
weekends it is Tortuga as depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean, the island of chaos
where Jack Sparrow seeks refuge. Last night, I saw groups of men standing on corners
with their pants around their ankles, people launching themselves through the air and rolling
down the street, full beer bottles hurled against the sidewalks like rice at a wedding. I
was manhandled by at least three men in an Icelandic bar, and had my rear end smacked by
another on the city´s main street by another. In fact, I´ve felt more comfortable walking
down 125th street in Harlem at 3 a.m. than I did walking through Reykjavik last night.
But that doesn´t mean I won´t be going out tonight. Instead, I´ll just have my guard up, my
friend by my side, and I certainly won´t be making any more trips into Icelandic bars,
unless I have mace and perhaps a tire iron in my possession. Tonight, my friends, the UK
bands The Cribs and the Kaiser Chiefs are playing, and I won´t miss them. My time here is
growing short, and though it took me a while to learn it, it seems like the key to surviving
Reykjavik and the Airwaves festival is wit, determination, and a good offense.
Wish me luck.