x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Airwaves festival bathes Iceland in ocean of music

Blasting in at a vicious angle straight off the North Atlantic, icy rain and arctic gales sweep through Reykjavik with alarming regularity at this time of year.

The veteran artist and musician Yoko Ono delivered a controversial set at Airwaves.
The veteran artist and musician Yoko Ono delivered a controversial set at Airwaves.

Blasting in at a vicious angle straight off the North Atlantic, icy rain and arctic gales sweep through Reykjavik with alarming regularity at this time of year. October in Iceland can be tough, although chilly sunshine and magnificent rainbows are never far away. As the local people like to say: if you don't like the weather now, just wait 15 minutes.

But for music connoisseurs, October in Europe's most northerly nation means more than extreme climate and a harshly beautiful volcanic landscape. Because this is when Iceland Airwaves, a five-day festival sponsored by the national airline, Icelandair, fills the brightly coloured wooden halls, hotels and museums of downtown Reykjavik with hundreds of bands, rock fans, foreign tourists and reporters. Since its low-key launch in an aircraft hangar in 1999, Airwaves has grown into a global brand, a boutique music festival in a boutique nation that consistently punches above its weight on the world stage. The best-selling US rock magazine Rolling Stone even calls it "the hippest long weekend on the annual music-festival calendar".

Indie-rock traditionally dominates the Airwaves menu, but the 13th annual festival, held from October 12 to 16, raised its game with a sprinkling of left-field pop legends, mostly female, plus a highbrow sidebar of contemporary classical music. This is also the year that Reykjavik's majestic new concert hall Harpa, a glistening, geometric palace of glass and steel jutting on to the city's harbour, made its debut. Salvaged from Iceland's catastrophic economic collapse, Harpa is a defiant symbol of cultural confidence despite this bankrupt nation's lingering financial woes.

For many people, of course, Icelandic music begins and ends with Björk. This was literally true at Airwaves, where the 45-year-old pop diva bookended the festival with two sold-out hometown shows at Harpa to launch her new science-themed album, Biophilia. Wearing an explosive red wig, the singer was joined by a 24-strong all-female choir, a small team of boffin-like musicians and an eccentric array of purpose-built electro-mechanical gizmos. But for all the high-tech theatricality of this superbly conceived show, the elemental voice at its core was still the most remarkable instrument on display. A molten blast of fire and ice, Björk remains Iceland's only flesh-and-blood rival to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

Even without its superstar queen, Reykjavik boasts an unusually rich music scene that kicks into high gear during Airwaves, filling around a dozen official venues and many more unofficial performance spaces dotted around the city. Most local acts seem to favour a kind of cheerfully amateurish, homespun folk-pop style, but many on this year's bill aimed for something more creatively ambitious - such as Retro Stefson with their Afrobeat and disco-influenced grooves, or the chilly electronic futurism of Apparat Organ Quartet.

More impressive still was Reykjavik's new generation of contemporary classical composers. A master of cyclical melodic motifs that accumulate emotional force as they slowly build, Johan Johansson hosted a spellbinding concert combining laptop electronica with a string quartet and a small brass band. Meanwhile, Valgeir Sigursson and Daniel Bjarnason of the left-field pop collective Bedroom Community did something similar on a grander scale in a specially commissioned collaboration with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in the main hall of Harpa.

On the far side of Reykjavik bay, opposite Harpa, the Imagine Peace Tower shoots a gigantic skyscraper of light high into the night sky. This powerful monument to John Lennon was inaugurated in 2007 by the late Beatle's widow Yoko Ono, a regular visitor to Iceland. Last week the 78-year-old Ono was back at Airwaves, fronting a new pan-generational line-up of her Plastic Ono Band, which now includes her son Sean Lennon on guitar. Ono's discordant wails eventually drove away two-thirds of the capacity crowd, but her abrasively arty spirit remains perversely admirable and thrillingly uncompromising.

Another divisive female music icon, and another hot ticket at Airwaves, Sinead O'Connor has spent much of the past decade in semi-retirement. Earlier this year she attracted uncharitable media attention for her ballooning weight and for a column she placed in an Irish newspaper advertising for potential boyfriend candidates. But for her rare appearance in Reykjavik, the 44-year-old singer proved to be on charming and witty form, appearing strikingly ageless and only a little heavier than the waifish gamine who first became famous in the late 1980s.

Playing a stripped-down, semi-acoustic set with just two backing musicians, O'Connor mixed up old favourites with some fine-sounding folk-pop ballads from her forthcoming album, Home. Her voice has attained a new huskiness with age, but she can still hit those broken-glass emotional peaks with ease. After revealing that her quest for romance had been successful, she giggled as she improvised silly rhymes about bananas during her biggest hit, Prince's Nothing Compares 2U. This was great fun and a warm, irreverent, uplifting comeback.

Booking Björk, Ono and O'Connor as your key headline acts is not just a testament to the power of the female voice, but also to the unorthodox agenda behind this unique boutique festival. Iceland is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

And even long after these starry shows ended, every basement bar and hotel lobby across late-night Reykjavik was still buzzing with rock and pop, techno and folk, fascinating rhythms and unchained melodies. That's the magic of Airwaves: if you don't like the music now, just wait 15 minutes.