Live From Reykjavik, Part III: An Insider´s Look at Iceland Airwaves 2006

The countryside in Iceland is vast and unflinching, miles and miles of empty fields, rocky crags, and snow-capped mountains.
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It´s Sunday, the final day of Airwaves, and Reykjavik has emptied of tourists as quickly as water poured from a pitcher. The streets are all still today, the shops shuttered and dark, and, after a week of loud music, crowded venues, and late late nights, it seemed only natural that my friend and I chose to get out of town and see some of the countryside. There are a few more performances tonight by local bands, but it is our last full day in Iceland, and in our opinion, nothing could compare to the caliber of last night´s performances.

Saturday night in Reykjavik was perhaps a hair less harrowing than Friday night, or, perhaps I simply got used to the furor. Two venues promised great shows - at club NASA, the UK´s Fields and the U.S. band Brazilian Girls, and at the Reykjavik Art Museum, The Cribs and the Kaiser Chiefs were playing, both UK bands as well. It was a tough call, but we decided to wait it out at the art museum - we knew we´d have a chance to catch the Brazilian Girls once back in the U.S.

As always, we arrived early and grabbed a spot at the front of the venue. First up was a series of four Icelandic bands - Daniel Agust, Petur Ben, Biggi, and Leaves. The best of the bunch was unquestionably Daniel Agust, whose complex melodies and well-crafted lyrics complemented his powerful vocals.

Next up was The Cribs, a band who I´d eagerly been anticipating - after picking up one of their albums, I was thrilled to get the chance to see them in concert. Unfortunately, the performance was merely mediocre, which had to do somewhat with the band´s laissez-faire attitude. Much of the fault, however, should be placed with the audience, who weren´t as engaged by the band´s clever, catchy music as it well deserves.

When the Kaiser Chiefs took stage, however, all of the crowd´s lethargy disappeared. The credit for the tranformation rests on the shoulders of lead singer Ricky Wilson, whose performance was nothing less than stellar. Wilson´s vocals and his intoxicating ability to make each member of his audience feel like the only person in the room prove him a better frontman even than Mick Jaggar, and when backed by a band fueled by tremendous talent and instinct, the combination moves the performance from mere music into the realm of artistry.

If you can, pick up the Kaiser Chief´s album, Employment, but realize that it does not nearly do them justice. More importantly, if you have the chance to see them live, do so. It´s an experience you´ll never forget.

After an uneventful return to our hotel and a good night´s rest, my friend and I got up this morning and decided to rent a car, get out of the city, and take in a few of Iceland´s scenic sites. Reykjavik is relatively close to the country´s three largest tourist attractions, called the Golden Circle, and so we decided we had time enough to tackle them before heading home.

Luckily, driving in Iceland is relatively easy - Americans staying less than 90 days don´t need an international driver´s license, and Icelanders drive on the right side of the road just as we do. The only precaution that drivers are urged to take is to rent an appropriate vehicle - if you are planning to travel anywhere that is toward the interior of the country well off the Ring Road, the highway that traverses the entire circumference of the island, you would be foolish to rent anything other than an SUV with four wheel drive.

For our purposes, however, a Toyota Yaris was sufficient, and so we set out in search of the first stop on our excursion - Thingvellir, where Iceland´s first settlers held their national assembly, the Althing, in 930. The site was blessed with a beautiful view and massive rock fissures courtesy of the earthquakes that have occurred there as the American and European tectonic plates that are joined there gradually separate and Iceland itself slowly splits apart.

Once outside of Reykjavik, the landscape quickly transformed from merely beautiful into absolutely breathtaking. The countryside in Iceland is vast and unflinching, miles and miles of empty fields, rocky crags, and snow-capped mountains. The land is dotted with houses and buildings here and there, but little, it seems has changed since the time of the Vikings. It is picturesque, desolate and somehow supremely frightening; as we drove toward our second stop, Iceland´s well-known Geysir, we moved from a divided highway to a narrow paved road to a dirt and gravel pathway, across land that, if not so bone-chillingly cold, could have easily been mistaken for desert. For kilometers, there was not a building or a human in sight. It was easy to imagine how American pioneers felt as they traveled west, into both an unknown land and unknowable future. I shivered at the thought of getting caught here after dark, and my friend and I joked about how perfect a setting it would make for a horror movie.

After our brief stop at Iceland´s Geysir, where we weaved our way through steam and boiling pools of water to the largest spout Strokkur, which shot water nearly seventy feet into the air, we made our way ten kilometers down the road to Gullfoss waterfall where, even from the top of the cliff, we could feel the water from the roaring falls hundreds of feet below spray against our faces. Finally, it was time to backtrack to Reykjavik, and as we headed down the stretch of gravel road that lead to Thingvellir, Iceland offered us another surprise: the landscape that had before seemed so desolate was, in the dying light of the sunset, alive with color. The gray-green moss capping the rocks suddenly glowed emerald; straw-colored brush glimmered slim and golden. It was as if we were driving through a completely different landscape, and all of sudden, I realized how much I will miss this terrible, wonderful place.

Leaving Reykjavik tomorrow will in some ways be a blessing; I will be ready to go home, finish my book, resume my normal day-to-day life. But some small part of me will wish I could stay here a while longer, take apart and analyze more of the country´s problems, understand its successes, and relive Airwaves all over again. There are many cities and many music festivals out there, some more organized, others more successful than this one. But there is nothing quite like this month, in this city, in this country, at this festival, and because of that, I plan to tell everyone I know that they should not miss it.

Somehow, someday, I will come back. Perhaps I´ll see you when I do.

Read Part I and Part II of the series.

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