Iceland Airwaves / Sigur Ros, Reykjavik Nov 2012

November 9, 2012

I can’t remember when I first became obsessed with Iceland. I can probably trace it back to Magnus Magnusson and his Icelandic sagas; or maybe watching Graham Souness sythe into a poor Icelandic player on TV and deciding I’d support Iceland from then on. Certainly the album cover of the Bunnymen’s Porcupine had something to do with it. And the Sugarcubes (and Kukl before them).

Obsessed I am with this bleak, beautiful and bizarre island, so seeing Sigur Ros play in their homeland was going to be the apotheosis of my Iceland obsession. Their show was the climax of Airwaves, a unique festival that spans four days, features dozens of bands who play inpromptu gigs in cafes, bookshops, even banks. Punters buy a ticket that gives them access to all gigs (venue capacity permitting). Those without tickets can catch the plethora of free gigs going on around the city. As the junior anoraks were too young to attend (over 18s only) the we fell into the latter camp.

Using the amazing new concert venue Harpa as our base we managed to catch some great sets (and one terrible one from a hairy Led Zep wannabe). The highlight being Low Roar – a slim young man with a soaring voice and a set of beautiful, sorrowful songs. Imagine a young Leonard Cohen mixed with early Chris Isaak, looking like Johnny Depp and you’ll get somewhere near.   Buy his album, you’ll not regret it.

It’s a pity Sigur Ros didn’t choose Harpa, as it would have been a fitting setting to their superlative defying music. Instead they chose a sports hall that had all the ambience of an aircraft hanger. Only worse. With the whole population of Iceland except the ponies, and a fair smattering of Brits and Yanks crammed in as well. Then they made the audience wait an hour after the advertised start time, while making them endure a one note drone that Throbbing Gristle would have been proud of as a wind up. Even the adoring home crowd were having their patience tested. It’s a good job Icelanders are a polite lot (outside the gig had the most well organised, self policing queue I’d ever seen). If this’d been the UK, the cans of warm Tuborg (Tuborg! Does it still exist??) would have been flying stageward.

When they did finally ’emerge’ they played the first three songs behind a curtain which had trees projected onto it. Not a word uttered. I sorely wanted to shout ‘are you Pink Floyd?’ I’m not sure it was arrogance. I think they wanted to put on a ‘show’, but in such a truly awful venue it came over as cold and aloof.

A cheer went up when the curtain finally dropped, but the rest of the set was equally downbeat. Hoppipolla, was almost thrown away mid-set – a gesture, I’m sure, to the people who just know them for that one song (let’s face it, most other bands would climax their set every time with that awesome song if they had it in their armoury. Even bloody Chicane managed to make it sound OK). I’d seen Sigur Ros play a truly joyous set at  Bristol’s Colston hall a few years ago. One that featured crazy costumes, singalongs and tickertape. The atmosphere in Reykjavik was just too reverential, the set too monochrome.

It wasn’t the ecstatic end to the trip I’d hoped for, But it didn’t matter. I’d seen the Northern Lights; swam in the Blue Lagoon in a hurricane; seen moonscapes; snowscapes and crystal clear skies. I’ll be back next year.

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