Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Sigur Rós at the Grand Ballroom, 06/16/08
Last night, after years of enduring envy-causing accounts of friends attending amazing Sigur Rós concerts, I was able to catch the Icelandic band at the Grand Ballroom in Manhattan. While I usually try to not have too much of a buildup in my expectations, I just couldn’t help expecting a mind-blowing experience. To their credit, Sigur Rós lived up to my prediction.
The band revels in intense and epic music which can be too much for anyone not completely on board with their sound. Still, I imagine it’d be hard not to get swept up in the beauty of their sound. I can only use Arcade Fire as a comparable live act. Neither band waste a single second of the show to fill the entire venue with energy and sonic power. Arcade Fire’s approach seems to be a bit more frantic, something I would compare to being in an unrelenting earthquake, whereas Sigur Rós is like being hit with a constant cascade of tidal waves.
The night started with Helgi Hrafn Jónsson performing solo. It turns out he’s the trombone accompanist for Sigur Rós but he was impressive enough for me to buy his EP. He hails from Iceland like the main act, but actually sings in English.
Sigur Rós opened with my favorite tune, Svefn-g-englar. Thus, within the first 5 minutes of the show I actually felt like crying. I almost wished they had saved the song for later, worried that the rest of the night would be a letdown for me. The band sounded a bit rusty on the opener, possibly needing a warm up, but they only got better as the concert went on.
Jón þor Birgisson’s vocals are simply incredible. Listening to the albums, I’m constantly amazed at the levels he can take his voice to, which is just as stunning in person. I also loved that the band brought along a string quartet and a brass section. Every show should use live musicians over synthesized orchestration in my opinion. It adds an integral dimension to the music. Especially for Sigur Rós; I couldn’t imagine their sound being as impactful without that fuller sound.
Birgisson used his trademark bow on his guitar but it was nice to see the band shuffle in different instruments throughout the night. My favorites were the tiny toy piano which created a distinctive chinking sound and the xylophones. It’s the accoutrements in music that totally do it for me. I think I love Radiohead’s No Surprises mainly for the xylophone in the background.
The highlight of the show was definitely Hafssól. Georg Holm started everything off using a drum stick on his bass guitar to create a hypnotic and driving rhythm, which led to a 12-minute buildup into an orgy of sound and light.
The band ended their set with a tune I didn’t recognize but it was requested that everyone stand up and clap along. I can only describe it as a song that could’ve felt right at home in a European pub where all the regulars sing and dance while getting sloshed. It was a nice indicator that the band aren’t too pompous or pretentious about their art.
For the encore, the band played another epic, Popplagið. Again, it was an instance of a song with a gradual build up to a big payoff, but it was another of several moments in the night that I felt like my heart was swelling up from the beauty and intensity of their music. Birgisson’s vocals were on full display and were truly awe-inspiring.
I also have to note that the light effects for the concert were the best I’d ever experienced. They were simple and fit the mood of the music perfectly. The lights were subtle in the quiet moments and blinding during the explosively loud ones.
Sigur Rós plays another show tonight at the MoMA, which I would be 100% for attending if it weren’t already sold out.