Sigur Ros at Roy Wilkins, 4/3/13
Photos by Erik Hess
with Oneohtrix Point Never
Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Midway through Sigur Ros' set at the Roy Wilkins last night, Jonsi Birgisson broke out of his thoughtful repose to address the audience. He hadn't spoken the entire night, but this was important stuff: today was one of the tech crew member's birthdays, a veteran of 14 years with the band. Birgisson and his bandmates broke into singing "Happy Birthday," and the whole rest of the room tried to follow suit -- except that it was in Icelandic, so the accompaniment turned into a giant mumbling mass.
"I was hoping you'd all sing along in Icelandic," Birgisson joked. And then something extraordinary happened: on their very next song, the band made a false start. The perfectly choreographed show came crashing, momentarily, to a halt.
"Shit," Birgisson blurted, sounding slightly embarrassed. Then the bassist, Georg Holm, chimed in with a quip of his own: "I guess 'Happy Birthday' threw us off," he laughed.
Almost everything else about Sigur Ros' two-hour show last night was immaculately done. The trio brought along a full backing band, including three-piece string and horn sections, so that for most of the set there were as many as 11 musicians on stage at once. Seeing them all there was an impressive sight in and of itself, what with the spread of amplifiers and keyboards, drums and percussion, all surrounded by lofted light bulbs. But the band also brought a comprehensive projection set-up with them as well, blasting colorful, artsy images up at the back of the stage.
In fact, as the night opened, the band were concealed behind a giant, three-sided scrim, which was back lit so that you could just make out the figures of some of the musicians as they played. The scrim stayed down for the first two songs -- just long enough to make one wonder whether it might stay there permanently -- with Birgisson put in the spotlight for the second song, "Ny Batteri." It was, in his own uniquely extravagant way, the singer's grand entrance: a silhouette playing guitar with a bow, head bowed down, and tassles hanging off the sleeves of his shirt.
As it turned up, such ceremony didn't really set the right tone for the early part of the show, for the first half of the set seemed to highlight too many of Sigur Ros' weaknesses. The tempo of the songs was slow and rarely picked up, with the requisite build-ups not really coming off effectively enough; after all, when a band has this kind of orchestral conceit, it inevitably strives to be grandiose -- and many of these songs, unfortunately, were not.
Part of the problem -- one not to be too unexpected at the Roy, it should be noted -- was that the sound was lacking. At the quieter moments, the mix didn't seem to balance out all the parts quite right, which is vital for such lush arrangements. More problematically, the band didn't really manage to fill the cavernous space of the room. It was still pretty stuff, of course, but the edges were a little harsher than they should've been.
But beyond that, there simply wasn't enough variety in the songs, each of which were drawn out to five minutes or longer, the underlying principle being one of delayed gratification as the inevitable crescendo arrived. The affect of Birgisson's songwriting -- and, honestly, what could be more affected than singing in a made-up language? -- proved limiting in this sort of situation, because there was so little to grasp onto. Sure, the songs can mean anything that you want them to. But in a tautological sense, a song that could be about anything is also, in the end, a song about nothing.
Ironically, it was the birthday-song-induced faux pas that seemed to light a fire under the band's playing, and helped turns things around for the second half of the show. The song with the false start was a mash-up of "Hoppipolla" and "Med Blodnasir," a combination with a downright poppy, shimmering melody that lifted the energy in the room considerably. It even prompted Birgisson to stand with his eyes closed, his hands outstretched, motioning the audience inward.
Not too long after, "Kveikur," a new song, brought an authentic rock edge to proceedings, with thundering drums and a rhythm that was almost primal. Sigur Ros, of course, aren't really a rock band, but all the same, they were finally filling the room, and the sound, too, was rich and dense. The last song of the main set was another new one, and it was even further afield from the early part of the night, a rumbling sort of prog-metal number that sounded like it was getting pumped through a Moog synth. It was unexpected, but it also worked.
And so it was left to the encore -- and in particular, the very last song of the night, "Popplagid" -- to fully sum up the evening. A 15-minute epic, "Popplagid" seemed to encapsulate everything that was both good and bad about Sigur Ros' performance: for the first seven or eight minutes, it meandered slowly through its labyrinthine sections, so slowly as to let the mind wander. But then, in the end, it built up to a spectacular finish. Just in time, it would seem.
Critics Bias: Every so often I come back to listen to Agaetus Byrjun, but it's not really a regular thing.
The Crowd: All very quiet, respectful to one another, and as full as I've seen in the Wilkins in a long time.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I fucking love this!"
Random Notebook Dump: Oneohtrix Point Never were the openers, and I was disappointed to miss them. Bummer.
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