Navigating a new city is never easy. Especially when it’s foreign. Getting lost is inevitable, but sometimes it can lead to a worthwhile adventure. After having an unfortunate experience with a taxi driver and ending up in an unknown part of Reykjavík, I was lucky enough to stumble across some striking scenery of the city. While the unexpected exploring was fun, I was excited to get back to live music.
Having not released an album since 2013, Lay Low didn’t have new music to share at her late Wednesday night performance at Harpa Norðurljós. Instead, she played new versions of old songs such as “Please Don’t Hate Me” and “Beauty,” a good choice as the live version had a fuller sound that filled the room better than her studio versions have. Lay Low’s personality shined through her performance as she told quirky anecdotes between songs and stopped during the middle of “In The Dead of Winter” as she giggled and explained how the dramatic pause was in fact not the ending.
You step off the plane and its the darkest morning you’ve ever seen. Wind tears across your face as a light rain begins to fall and you meander towards a grey bus that will lead you to the city that you’ve been hearing about for months: Reykjavík. In a city with a population of approximately 320,000 citizens, the Icelandic capital located on the Southwestern seaboard, is a place to behold in what has only been roughly 24 hours.
After a quick one-hour bus ride to the Hotel Foss Baron, situated in the heart of downtown Reykjavík, we struck out to get acclamated with our home town for the next six days. But what would this foreign city hold for nine Americans who were a long, long way from home? To begin our time here, we began our day at 9:00 am by walking along some of the windiest lakefront this Chicagoan has ever felt, to scope out the Harpa, which I would come to find is the spot for many of the week’s coming shows. Opening its doors in 2011, Harpa is the home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera most days of the year, but this week it will host up-and-coming Icelandic acts from Lay Low to Samaris to Bloodgroup. The design of the building is courtesy of Olafur Eliasson and the architect spared no detail in the building’s crystallized design which when the light reflects off the structure at different points in the day, turns different shades of beautiful blues, pinks, reds, purples, and greens. After rallying at Harpa, it was time to delve further into downtown Reykjavík.
We walked through the town square, passing various street food vendors, boutique retail stores, and stumbled upon a hidden gem: a museum with the artifacts of what is thought to be the one of the first homes built of turf in Reykjavík. The home would’ve been the residence of a farming family with livestock and was in considerably good condition, estimated to have been built some time around 980 AD. After a quick (free!) tour from a young gentleman who told us about how the home was discovered in 2001, we took in artifacts such as Viking axes, sedimentary foundation and a virtual view of how the coastline and surrounding area of Reykjavík might have looked in roughly 871 AD.
After this fascinating look back in time, we pressed on to peruse some of the city’s many coffee shops, music venues such as Idno, and City Hall. All of this was spread out along cobblestoned streets and an ocean that cut in from the rocky coastline, making downtown Reykjavík a picturesque backdrop for what will be our base camp over the next week. We marched up the city’s trendy Bankastraeti St., passing local record store and mainstay 12 Tónar, before coming to one of the most beautiful buildings in downtown Reykjavík: Hallgrímskirkja. This church is the largest church in Iceland and to look at it from the bottom is intimidating, to say the least. Tourists and locals alike flock in front of the church’s square on their way to the areas many restaurants, bars and small businesses.
This may sound like a quick start to the day on what was merely two hours of sleep, and it was, but it all came to a head when we slipped into a local community swimming pool for a quick afternoon dip. Equipped with geothermal heating, these pools serve as one of Reykjavík’s local hangs and a nice place to get a little exercise or perhaps just relax with friends. We chose the latter and after a few laps in the pool, we hopped outside to the “hot pots”, which are large hot tubs set at 39 and 43 degrees Celsius, respectively. Let me tell you, if you have ever rolled around in the snow and then jumped in a hot tub, then you know what these hot pots feel like: heaven. Feeling rejuvinated, it was over to the KEX Hostel to visit KEXP Seattle 90.3 FM where they are the only American station broadcasting live from the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival. Celebrating their 5th year of being at Airwaves, the station has become adept at seeing potential in young and up-and-coming bands and giving them a stage to perform on in front of listeners near and far. We enjoyed “Classic” beers in the bar while listening to Caveman, a New York City band who mix pulsing synthesizers with jangly guitars for a sound that fit the laidback atmosphere to a T. After a quick chat with one of KEXP’s DJs, it was goodbye to the KEX Hostel (who could not have been more welcoming) and off to dinner for the evening.
Now one might think that since Iceland is so far North in the Atlantic Ocean, that good food is a little tougher to come by. You would be mistaken in thinking that though as we quickly found out at the downtown eatery Tapas Barinn. We were treated to a five-course meal, which started with smoked puffin in a blueberry sauce. Let me tell you: cute birds make a delicious dinner. The puffin came over a bed of small lettuce encrusted with corn meal for a crunchy flavor that was something I had never tasted before; and it only got better from there. We feasted on trout with couscous, grilled lamb with root vegetables in a mushroom sauce, whale steak with sweet potatoes, lobster so soft it melted in your mouth and a passion fruit white mousse for dessert to wash it all down. If we had any doubts about what sort of meals we would be having while in Iceland, the bar was set pretty high after the first night on the town. We finished up, said our goodbyes and headed out for an evening of live music to kick off the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival.
Lay Low: October 30 20:50 at Harpa Nordurljós
Lay Low is the brainchild of Icelandic singer-songwriter Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir. The 31 year-old singer performed with the confidence of someone who has worked a room before and she more than held the attention of the audience that crammed into the Harpa Nordurljós. Supported by a bassist, drummer, and two backup singers, Sigrúnardóttir commands her tight band with the casual glance and her sultry voice. She bounced between upbeat numbers like “Helganga,” from 2011’s Brostinn Strengur, and then lamented on songs such as “Bye and Bye,” which dealt with how she did a former lover wrong. But the climax of the night was the last song of the set, “Please Don’t Hate Me,” which received a raucous applause from the crowd and could’ve fit on an old John Lee Hooker album with its 12-bar blues chords and teardrop in your beer lyrics. Look for bigger things from Lay Low in the near future.
Valdimar: October 30 22:00 at Reykjavík Art Museum
Valdimar was initially supposed be just a two piece rock outfit. Oh how things have a way of changing. This lineup has now swelled to six members and at the Reykjavík Art Museum, they employed the help of an additional two trumpet and two trombone players as well. The effects were impressive, with the band rarely taking a moment to chat between songs and instead plugging through a 40 minute set. Guitarists Ásgeir Aðalsteinsson and Högni Þorsteinsson took turns trading licks while lead singer and trombone player Valdimar Guðmundsson kept the energy high as the crowd danced through most of the band’s performance. Valdimar also includes a heavy light show where strobes dance to the beat of the music, which only heightened an already strong performance. As they closed with their hit “Yfir Borgina,” the crowd swayed out the door with the feeling of satisfaction that only good live music in a beautiful venue can provide.
Nolo: October 30 23:20 at Harlem
Nolo is a hometown band, hailing from the suburbs of Reykjavík with a serious ear for hooks. A sweaty crowd of hip 20-somethings packed the upstairs bar at Harlem to hear Nolo’s brand of indie dance pop music.
Rife with heavy bass lines, syncopated drumming and delicious psychedelic guitar riffs, they showed why they deserved their nomination for the 2010 Nordic Music Prize for their album No-Lo-Fi. Sounding like a mix somewhere between Tame Impala and Beach House, there is no shortage of warm vocals being washed over a bed of Korg synthesizers that aimed to please. By the reaction of concertgoers dancing in the front rows, the band looked like they were genuinely enjoying themselves, even for the brief 30-minute set. The band plucked out dance rock numbers at ease, with the highlight of the evening being “Steel” from their 2013 album Human, which has an eerie synthesizer intro that immediately sinks its hooks into you. It was a triumphant evening for the band and fans alike, as both sides seemed like they accomplished what they came to do.
Follow the blog all week as I’ll be hoofing it around Reykjavík taking pictures, interviewing bands, reviewing shows, and taking in some of the city’s nightlife!
Also included in the two-hour special were six preview pieces showcasing different parts of Icelandic culture, ranging from literature to Norse mythology to films to food. Click on the links below to listen to the show in its entirety.