Jónsi brings epic performance to the Pantages

Stumbling out of the Jónsi show at the Pantages Theatre, there was a breathless combination of What the..., How the... and Wow. The Icelandic frontman honed his sense for the epic in his years with Sigur Rós, but his solo show, with it's amazing combination of sets, video projection and lighting design brought immersive and atmospheric to a whole new level for a pop singer. Granted, I'm not shelling out to see Lady Gaga in concert and I'll be standing outside TCF stadium when U2 tries to land it's 120 semi monstrosity there this summer and while I'm sure those kind of acts have impressively choreographed and technical shows, there's no way that you could get their kind of punch packed into the intimacy of the Pantages. For the effect of the Jónsi show, you have to go to works like Brief Encounter that Kneehigh Theatre blew away at the Guthrie this spring or artist William Kentridge's design for The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This was a complete work of art that felt like something that wherever else you go and see music and video combined, Jónsi is going to be the touchstone.

With their instruments packed tightly on stage, the band stepped out in front of a dark grey scrim that stretched across the entire stage, flanked on both sides by two large cabinets made of frosted glass, dressed to look as if they had survived some fire damage. The design was simple and austere, allowing Jónsi to open the show as the focus in the center of the stage with the spotlight on him, dressed in a high-necked white coat covered in a multi-colored patchwork fabrics. After opening with "Stars In Still Water," brilliant percussionist/drummer (and awesomely Icelandically named) Thorvaldur Thór Thorvaldsson began to use bows on the vibraphone to create the thrumming, expansive air of "Hengilás," the closer for Jónsi's album Go. Sung in Icelandic, the tune felt keyed in tighter than Sigur Rós songs, but lacked none of the magisterial elegance of that body of work. As Jónsi exhaled the lyrics, drawings of butterflies appeared in the boxes on the side of the stage and sketches of deer and birds were projected across the backdrop, slowly to be consumed by fire, which turned the taxonomic drawings of butterflies into a computer animation of dozens of glowing, fiery butterflies fluttering as if trapped in the cases, a simple yet beautiful image.

With the stark black and white images layered on each other to create a full and nuanced vision, the naturalistic imagery, the combination of fire and water and the implication of birth, death and regeneration hinted at its own visceral life. The video work had its finest moment early on when sketches of wolves and deer came to life so that as the wolf chased the deer across the backdrop, flickering in black and white so that it felt aged and familiar, but still astoundingly new. As they chased, the deer transformed into an owl and the perspective switched on the backdrop to the owl-eye, dizzyingly avoiding branches and flying forward. The owl changed back into a full stag which turned and charged the wolf and as the white lines came explosively together, the screen dropped away suddenly as the audience gasped. The drop revealed the major set piece, a tall stretch of rectangular panes, like you would find in an industrial warehouse that broke down on stage left to reveal a second projection screen behind.

With the final set in place, the rest of the video work relied more heavily on ambient lighting cues and occasional flashes, which felt almost low-key after the jaw-droppingly intense animal animation sequences. The animations picked back up with "Go Do" which featured a green wash and images of ferns and plant-life re-generating, building the uplift into the stutter-patter childish wonder of "Boy Lilikioi," which drew hearty cheers from the audience. The main set ended with "Around Us," which instead of using video, had Jónsi writhing on the ground by himself, layering his vocals over and over as yellow and orange light flashed around him and the audience waited and waited until they could applaud, which resulted in an immediate standing ovation. For the encore, Jónsi came out wearing a tall feathered crown and for the two-song encore of "Animal Arithmetic" and "Grow Till Tall," the synthesis of sound, light and motion did not let up. Ants started swarming the stage, their legs eerily mimicking Jónsi's headdress, and proceeded to pull cans, cigarette butts, scraps of letters and other detritus across the screens. As the songs shifted, the howl picked up a storm literally brewed on stage, with rain lashing across the projections, and flashing white lights blinding the audience into an epileptic haze of wonder.

The band surrounding Jónsi were excellent, shifting fluidly between all instruments on stage, but Thorvaldsson (who apparently goes by "Doddi," which is a lot easier to handle) as drummer, all-around percussionist and scraper of bows and metal bowls deserves an extra special nod. He was an absolute beast, tapping out air time signatures and provided a shamanistic texture to the whole proceeding. Jónsi's music, for as expansively ambient as it is, also relies heavily on rhythmic and percussive changes to create the richness and subtlety of textures, emulating nature's own grunting rhythms. Before the show, musician Dan Wilson mused at the possibility of Jónsi having been asked to write some tunes on spec for the Where The Wild Things Are movie, given the playful innocence yet dark nature of his work. That may be speculation, but on thing is for certain; with his team of technical wizards backing him up, Jónsi let his boy king run wild all over that stage.

Opener Joel Thibodeau, who performs as Death Vessel, was the complete opposite in terms of stage show, just one man standing with his guitar. He was not so far away from Jónsi in terms of spirit though, singing plaintive folk songs mixing love, nature and images of technology into a moving pastiche. The real cognitive dissonance was getting past his gruff speaking voice and perfectly pitched soprano singing voice. Thibodeau sings with clarity in an upper register that would make Joni Mitchell proud and once past that disconnect, the experience was lovely and Thibodeau won himself some fans Sunday night. Given that City Pages just awarded "Best Male Vocalist" award went to Peter Miller of We Are the Willows for his soprano, Thibodeau's successful upper-register action shouldn't come as any surprise.

Stars in Still Water
Icicle Eyes
Thinking of my Friend's Tits
Saint Naïve
Go Do
Boy Lilikoi
New Piano Song
Around Us

Animal Arithmetic
Grow Till Tall