I’m going to admit that by the last day of Iceland Airwaves, I was pretty spent. Festivals are great, but it’s exhausting being that culturally engaged and well-dressed for four days straight. (I kid, but I don’t…) Nevertheless, though I groused and was generally not fun as we got ready to go see our last round of shows on Sunday, I was very glad that we did venture out for Day 4. Our plan for the last day of shows was two-fold: see Ásgeir Trausti at the Kex Hostel and then head over to Laundromat Café early to stake out seats, have a late lunch/early dinner, and see Samaris.
If you haven’t heard of Ásgeir Trausti yet–and I mean that ‘yet’–it’s because you haven’t been in Iceland lately. Twenty years old, and sure to spend the better portion of the next decade being compared to Bon Iver and Sufian Stevens, Ásgeir’s music is everywhere here–when I first arrived, his song “Leyendarmál” (‘Secrets’) basically followed me, catchily driving me crazy until someone finally told me what it was. This song, as well as a few other of the tracks off of his debut album “Dýrð í dauðaþögn” (“Glory in the Silence of Death”), is played in buses, at the gym, in restaurants, in shops. We ended up buying his CD in our local Bónus grocery store. This album and this musician is ubiquitous in Iceland right now. So it’s very lucky that he’s very good.
Ásgeir played about a kazillion official and off-venue shows during Airwaves, all of which, we were told, were packed to the gills. We decided to wait until his last show at Kex both because we thought it might be less crowded if visitors were spending their last hours in Iceland at the Blue Lagoon instead of at concerts (it still ended up being crowded with probably more Icelanders than visitors), and also because we had been wanting to check out Kex itself for quite a long time.
In classic Brooklyn fashion, Kex is a shabby-chic, super hip hostel/venue/bar/restaurant which is housed in a former biscuit factory on the Reykjavík waterfront, hence the name: “kex” means “biscuit” in Icelandic. (How ’bout that Brooklyn? Doesn’t that sound like a familiar institutional set-up?) The stage area is located in the restaurant and bar on the 2nd floor (there’s actually outdoor seating as well)–it’s a lovely open and airy room with a bar in the middle and large ocean-and-mountain facing windows all along one wall. There’s an semi-open kitchen in the back corner and long beer-garden style tables and benches throughout the room. The brunch and snack menu seems to be going for an upscale Icelandic comfort food vibe–sides of roasted root vegetables, open-face sandwiches with ample horseradish sauce, and dried fish with butter sauce as a snack (for those of you are unfamiliar, that’s harðfiskur–follow that link for the most stylish, most informative music video you’ve probably ever seen about a dehydrated snack product)–but overall, the menu wasn’t too expensive. To complete the ambiance, most of the light fixtures–those which aren’t large industrial lamps left over from the factory days–are Edison bulbs encased in mason jars. I’m not trying to diminish the “Icelandic-ness” of this place, but it seriously felt like we had teleported to Brooklyn for a few hours–we even struck up a conversation with a woman from Williamsburg who made our day when, after finding out that we were Americans, stated as fact: “You’re from New York.”
Arrived well ahead of Ásgeir’s set, we took up a spot leaning on the bar for the country-fresh Danish trio My Bubba and Mi who were playing a melodic, old-timey, and ironically saccharine cover of a decidedly un-sweet Peaches song. (I’ll let those Peaches fans among you guess the song–the title is not exactly mom-friendly, so I’ll just have to be vague here.) We were able to move up a little and lock down one bar stool between us before Ásgeir’s set, but by the time he started, the room was shoulder-to-shoulder, tip-toe room only, with lots of people standing on chairs and tables to get a better view. (In a very savvy bit of local product promotion, the bartender started making his way around the bar, handing out free vodka tonics made with Reykja vodka just after the first couple of songs, when everyone was just getting amped up.) Ásgeir has a pretty quiet stage demeanor, but he–and his seven or eight band members–really do fill a room with sound. His falsetto, which is excellent when recorded (fact: I’m a big sucker for men singing falsetto), holds up quite well live, and he sticks pretty closely to the recorded versions of his songs when playing live. So even though we were sardined in with half of Iceland and the goodly number of foreigners who were waiting for the Sigur Rós show that afternoon, it was really good show, and a really good cap to Airwaves.
I linked to “Leyendarmál” above, and below you can see a live performance of “Dýrð í dauðaþögn.” Since there is an English-language version of this album in the works now, I recommend that you all start phonetically learning the lyrics to these two songs so that when Ásgeir really hits big in the U.S. (or elsewhere, if he hasn’t already) that you can say that you knew about him back in the day.
The Samaris set at Laundromat that afternoon was also very crowded and very good–we would have bought an EP if either of us had any cash, but Iceland has broken us of that lousy paying-with-cash habit. But having written so much about Samaris and its sister project (haha! I joke!), Pascal Pinion, I think that I will now bring the Iceland Airwaves 2012 saga to an end. It’s been a very full four days here in Reykjavík!