Rock Music Menu: Iceland Airwaves festival marks 20 years | Ticket

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Iceland Airwaves, the annual music festival taking place in the city of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Reaching such a milestone when so many other destination events in that time is quite the accomplishment, even more so is that it’s retained a uniqueness that no other music event comes close to touching.

There was a bit of a wildcard this year as the four-day festival was taken on by new owners. Some of the diehards – yearly attendees on both the fan and industry side – were worried what that might mean, despite the incoming management promising a return to the roots. Despite the growth in popularity over two decades, Airwaves has managed to retain its cozy vibe for the most part. Would the new owners look to make it something completely different, altering the small-town feel?

Thankfully, all the fears were unfounded; in fact, this time around was almost a back to basics event, not just with the focus more on Icelandic artists, but with the size of the venues. Recent years have seen the gorgeous building Harpa, with its stunning glass façade, ground zero for many of the performances with its multiple concert halls. This year saw more of the smaller venues utilized; familiar ones like Iðnó and Gaukurinn, as well as Skúli Craft Bar and the National Theater of Iceland getting a prominent boost. As usual, all the spots were within walking distance from one another.

Though it felt small, the 2018 installment of Airwaves featured 240 bands from 25 countries – the most ever in its history. And while heavily skewed toward homegrown talents, headliners like The Voidz – featuring The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, British singer/songwriter Blood Orange and fellow countrymen indie pop outfit Superorganisms gave a bit of mildly familiar names for those not sure of what to see.

Not knowing where you’re going next is possibly the best thing about Airwaves, and typically leads to the discovery of your favorite new artist or artists. It seems like every nook and cranny in Reykjavik is host to some sort of musical event while Airwaves is going on. The dive bars, a downtown hostel, any of the many record stores – even one of the outdoor pools that dot the city turn into venues for the festival.

A few of the highlights Rock Music Menu caught while jumping from place to place were of the unexpected kind. The basement of the Hard Rock Café – yes, they are everywhere – saw Iceland’s Karitas play a soulful singer/songwriter set and then, midway through, she did a proverbial 180. Leaving the stage to change outfits, she came back with a new group, making their debut that very night, called Hedband. With an 80s style both visually and musically, it turned an otherwise innocuous performance into a full-on party.

Up and coming Nashville-based singer/songwriter Soccer Mommy (aka Sophie Allison), took the stage at Gamla Bíó for a midnight show, bringing a fiercely, yet tender set that commanded the attention of the audience. Luckily, she’s on tour in the States right now, and comes to First Unitarian Church Dec. 8.

Icelandic indie-rockers CeaseTone did a couple of sets over the days, one of them coming at 4:30 afternoon at Slippbarinn, a tiny bar inside the Icelandair Hotel by the marina. Their fiery set caught some of those who popped in for a midday pint by surprise. The gig was a warm-up for their expanded show the following night where they incorporated a string quartet into their performance.

Local singer/songwriters Hildur and Una Stef were also two can’t-miss acts, with the latter accentuating her sound with a brass band backup that had the audience dancing nonstop. And UK-based Nadine Shah destroyed the crowd with her mix of jazz and R&B recalling Nina Simone if she were born in the present day.

Going strong into its third decade, Iceland Airwaves has already revealed its dates for 2019, Nov. 7-10. Heading into our ninth year covering the festival, Rock Music Menu can’t recommend it enough. These days, flights are ridiculously cheap via Icelandair, which flies direct from Philadelphia International to Iceland.

More than music

Even though it’s one of the smallest countries by population, Iceland has an abundance to offer both culturally and scenically. There’s no shortage of things to do while there, and Rock Music Menu was intent on exploring the landscape to see just what else we could get into in the so called “land of fire and ice.”

Make no mistake, the Blue Lagoon ( is a tourist trap – but in the best possible sense of the word. It’s heavily promoted with seamless transfers between the airport and downtown Reykjavik and will definitely put a dent into your wallet. But it’s also completely worth it for the experience.

The geothermal spa has expanded over the years to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the country, which makes it feel less crowded than it is. Rich in minerals, silica and algae, the warm waters are nourishing, (maybe) healing and above all, relaxing. There’s nothing quite like the steam rising out of the milky blue waters while you sip a beverage – from a swim up bar no less – and watch as the sun goes down over the surrounding volcanic landscape.

Getting out of Reykjavik and deeper into the countryside is a chance to see nature at its most breathtaking. The company Into the Glacier ( does a variety of tours, the most popular being into the Langjokull Glacier, which is the third largest of its kind in Europe.

A bus tour will take you from Reykjavik to Húsafell – about a two-hour drive – where you will then transfer into one of the enormous glacier vehicles that will begin rolling up the mountain to the base camp of Klaki. There’s then a ride that takes about 45 minutes or longer (depending on the weather) up to the man-made ice tunnels in Langjokull.

Being inside of a glacier is an adventure in the wonder of nature. Strapping crampons onto your footwear for added traction and traversing through the beauty of gorgeous blue ice surrounding you for the hour-long walk is nothing short of stunning. From the chapel where weddings are sometimes performed – which also doubles as a bar – to the other manmade rooms where DJs and even bands have played, it’s a truly inimitable setting and one worth exploring.

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