The savvy traveler that she is, our beloved majordomo of this site Michelle was kind enough to ply with me all kinds of information about the best places to go during my stay in Reykjavik, and one of them was this charming little cafe called Grái Kötturinn, or the “Grey Cat.” Her main selling point: Björk apparently frequents this below ground eatery. Sold.
Well, to my disappointment, she wasn’t there sitting in her favorite booth or waiting tables as I imagined. But the place was hardly a letdown. It’s a warm spot with about 10 tables inside, bookshelves stuffed with novels lining the walls, and a small counter for ordering coffee and food. I did the right thing and ordered “The Truck,” the dish they are known best for: a heaping plate with two sunnyside up eggs, potatoes, a bit of tomato, bacon, three thick buttermilk pancakes, and a topped with a huge piece of bread. I’m not entirely sure where the name of this meal comes from, but my best guess is that it was called that because you feel about as big and cumbersome as a semi after I stuffed myself with it.
The rest of the morning and afternoon was caught up with waiting for my luggage to get delivered by Icelandair, a hard won nap, and then back to the world of record shopping. The first stop was Geisladiskabúð Valda, a spot I was hipped to by this list that was published the same day I took off for the airport. And it was everything the writeup promised: a front room packed floor-t0-ceiling with CDs, DVDs, and video games, and a small back room equally full of vinyl LPs. And the owner is a charming metalhead who will happily extol the virtues of Skid Row’s second album to you even as he’s shrugging at the British pop records that you’re buying along with it.
Travel tip #3: nothing is terribly cheap here in Reykjavik, and that goes for music too. The records I saw ranged from just under $4 for the stuff they were trying to get rid of to around $35 or more for new releases. Choose wisely.
I hadn’t planned on dropping by another music shop, but I stumbled upon 12 Tonar on my way back to the guest house to drop off my purchases before heading out for the evening. But once I saw its sign hanging over the sidewalk as I walked back to the guest house, I couldn’t resist its tractor beam.
Again, everything people had told me about this place was absolutely true. The clerks working there were more than happy to make recommendations of music, and were quick to put an espresso in my hands so I could caffeinate while browsing. I took the suggestion of one of the employees and picked up a reissue of the first album by Icelandic atmospheric metal band Sólstafir (who I was disappointed to later hear were going to be playing a show at Harpa on the day that I depart), and grabbed a physical copy of the debut by jazz trio Jónsson & More, who we’ve featured here on the site.
The best part of the day was finally getting out to see some music, as Wednesday was the official kickoff of Iceland Airwaves. I saw a bunch of bands on this first night, but unfortunately I’m only going to tell you about two of them as I’m saving the others for an Iceland Airwaves-themed Metal Monday post.
What I did see was fantastic, though, starting with a set by the heavily-bearded and mightily talented Magnús Leifer. I loved that he and his sharp band looked like they were about to blow our hair back with a set of meaty riff rock. Instead, Leifer’s music was a much more delicately rendered indie pop affair, with a great use of dynamics, spare bits of thumb piano and percussion, and his bold vocals. When he soared up to some booming high notes, it damn near shook the walls of Tjarnabió.
I saw Leifer later on at Harpa, when he and his girlfriend slipped into the crowd to catch the set by Axel Flóvent. He wasn’t alone either. I spied a few other Icelandic musicians there to support this young, but incredibly talented singer/songwriter.
His music skews towards atmospheric folk with slight electronic touches that do well to add extra shades to the beauty of his melodies and acoustic guitar playing. There are plenty of bands and artists trucking in a similar sound, but it’s Flóvent economical songwriting that makes his take on it feel much stronger than the rabble. He could, with little effort, turn his songs into epics, with long drawn out guitar solos and burbling intros. Instead, Flóvent cuts right to the heart of song, says his piece, and then pulls the chute before overstaying his welcome. It made his 40 minute set feel like it flew by, but not unpleasantly so.
I’m still getting my sea legs on this adventure that I’m on, but it’s much easier to acclimate now that I’m in the thick of the festival fun. Look for my next report tomorrow. Until then, some more photos from my wanderings.
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