WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Northern Spotlights

By on November 10, 2015

Dancing to troll music with Jackson locals at Iceland Airwaves.

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AURORA closing out the night at the Reykjavík Art Museum in Iceland. (Photo: Andrew Munz)

Jackson, WY – In the dim lights of KEX Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland, Liliana Frandsen and I stood just feet from the stage, ready to enjoy our first concert of the Iceland Airwaves music festival. The first night at KEX was an Irish showcase, with three bands from Ireland set to perform. Surrounded by the buzz of foreign conversations, I could barely make out a word until I heard someone yell, “Prugh! Over here.”

I turn around and sure enough Jackson real estate mogul Greg Prugh is meandering through the venue to sit down at a table. We exchange greetings and express our excitement for the event. I’m introduced to Joe Spiegel who is already sitting down drinking some Icelandic beer wearing a Brennivín shirt.

Liliana and I shared a laugh over the fact that even though we were 5,000 miles away, Jackson Hole is inescapable. There we were in the northernmost capital of the world along with other Wyomingites experiencing the mellow tunes of the Irish band Slow Skies.

But it’s no surprise. Since it’s first festival in 1999, Iceland Airwaves has been a go-to event for millions of music lovers around the world. Similar to the multi-venue feel of SXSW in Austin, or even Jackson’s Contour Festival, Airwaves has concerts all across Reykjavík from the 1,500-plus seat Eldborg music hall in Harpa to the standing-room-only wooden attic of Dillon Whiskey Bar. This year, the concert hosted 142 different musical acts at countless official and unofficial venues throughout the city.

With the northern lights showing off overhead, the city buzzes with heavy bass and applause. The unique energy of the festival and the people who attend it is unstoppable and impatient. With music starting at noon and the parties ending at 3 a.m. or later, there is no rest to be had. As the Airwaves website so accurately states: “It’s 4 a.m. You’ve been to five cool clubs, seen 10 great bands, made 15 new friends and fallen in love 20 times. You’re tired. You’re wired. You’re ready to find a bed. You’re ready to find the after-party. You can’t believe you’re here. You’re already making plans to come back next year. And guess what? It’s still day one.”

With so much happening over a span of five days, I could not attend everything at the same time, nor did I enjoy everything that I attended. However, there are bands that stand out, some that I’d never heard of before and some who now rank as among the best concerts of my life so far.

AURORA was, hands-down, one of the liveliest concerts of the entire festival, though many had to forgo seeing Father John Misty to see the 19-year-old Norwegian answer to Lorde. Her arms floated and flailed, her face contorted in pain and sorrow. And after each song the crowd exploded in cheer, causing singer Aurora Aksnes to giggle and dance in gleeful gratitude.

In a similar vein, American singer VÈRITÉ brought the house down with her electro indie pop sound, and the crowd erupted during the song “Weekend.” Though those who were in a dancing mood were smart to check out Icelandic band Vök, who incorporate saxophone into their trance-like beats, or Retro Stefson and their Latin pop punk jams.

For festivalgoers eager for a more melodic folk sound, two bands that would do very well performing in Jackson would be Edward Sharpe sound-alike Júniús Meyvant and the gorgeous harmonic female duo, Ylja. A weirder vibe can be found with the six-piece fairy-acid-folk band Grúska Babúska, whose lead singer sounds like she’s 8 years old, and with Hjaltalín, whose frontman looks like he just came back from a Viking raid. And, if you can pronounce them, Árstiðir sings melodies that need to be heard by the ears of everyone I’ve ever met.

However, nothing can compare to the experience of seeing John Grant perform with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in the massive Eldborg concert hall. Thirteen rows from the stage, the orchestra and Grant’s Leonard Cohen-meets-Rufus Wainwright voice blasted me with gales of cacophonous beauty.

Airwaves is the most rewarding, exhausting festival I’ve ever been to, and I can only recommend that Jacksonites jump on the opportunity next year. I’ll see you there, somewhere in the back of the bar, shouting your last name to come sit down next to me and have a beer. PJH

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