Sigur Ros’ performance at Starlight on Thursday night felt more like being cast under a spell for nearly two hours than seeing a rock show.
The Icelandic trio rarely spoke to the crowd and preferred to sing Hopelandic, an imagined language. Carried by singer Jonsi Birgisson’s angelic falsetto, the linguistic structure only enhanced the trance. Unencumbered by English, the songs could be about whatever you wanted them to be. Augmented by three piece horn and string sections and a pair of multi-instrumentalists, the group created heavenly textures that juxtaposed near operatic beauty with stains of hard rock.
The M. Night Shyamalan of ensembles, Sigur Ros patiently builds layers and moods before suddenly whisking the listener around in another direction. This was especially true on “Hrafntinna” which build tension from discordant horns before ending with a lush brass coda that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Kauffman Center.
Arrangements are designed so that each part complements without drawing attention until suddenly the key instrument emerges at the perfect moment. Despite the presence of so many musicians, the mix was pristine. On “Festival” I could hear bass player Georg Holm’s pick hitting the string on each heavy downstroke.
Sigur Ros ended a three-year hiatus with the release of their sixth album, “Valtari,” last year, the band has already moved on. One quarter of the setlist drew from the new record “Kveikur,” which is scheduled for release in June. The material blended well with the older songs, but also showed a new, darker dimension. The title track featured digital textures, exotic percussion and heavy drums. “Brennisteinn” opened with a nasty, distorted synth bassline and sounded like a musical wrestling match between good and evil.
The setting was nearly as expansive as the sound. The first two numbers were delivered behind a trio of sheer veils, which cast wild shadows and broad colors. When the curtains fell, a video screen spanned the width of the stage, projecting images of nature. The slow pan of craggy rocks gradually revealing a mountain range on “E-bow” made the stage seem like it was moving. The low-50s temperature reinforced the mood cast by pictures of rainstorms, bleak landscapes, flashlights in fog and other monochromatic patterns.
Starlight was three-quarters full, optimistically, and the audience soaked up every moment in reverie. There was very little talking and most applause was held until the end of a piece. The big exceptions were the one-two of “Hoppípolla” and “Með Blóðnasir” which spontaneously had the crowd on its feet with evangelistic fervor. The joyous horns at the end of “Festival” rang out like church bells on Christmas Day and inspired a few pockets of dancing.
Setlist: Yfirborð (new song); Ný Batterí; Vaka; Hrafntinna (new song); Sæglópur; Fljótavík; E-bow; Varúð; Hoppípolla ->Með Blóðnasir; Kveikur (new song); Olsen Olsen; Festival; Brennisteinn (new song). Encore: Glósóli ; Popplagið.
Sigur Ros concerts have a sustained emotional intensity matched only by Radiohead’s events. On his own, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi ratcheted the passion even higher. The 80-minute set focused only on Jonsi’s solo release “Go” and a few outtakes. Although the material was original, the textures, delivery and emotions echoed Jonsi’s other band, including a climax that was one of the most sustained and forceful moments in which I’ve ever had the joy of being included. Read more.
Emmylou Harris, July 18, Stiefel Theater, Salina, Kan.
Four days after delivering a short set in the blistering heat to the Lilith Fair crowd at Sandstone Amphitheater, Emmylou Harris took her Red Hot Band to tiny Salina, Kan. For two hours she gave an intimate set in a theater slightly smaller and slightly newer than Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The set reprised many of the songs performed at Lilith – including a beautiful a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ hymn “The Pearl” – a lovely tribute to her departed friend Anna McGarrigle, and other gems spanning her entire career. Harris’ enchanting voice captivates in any setting. Removed from the heat and placed in a charming surrounding it shined even brighter. Read a review of Lilith Fair here.
Pearl Jam, May 3, Sprint Center
Nearly all of the 28 songs Pearl Jam performed during its sold-out, two-and-a-half hour concert were sing-alongs. Kansas City fans has waited eight years since the band’s last stop to join in with their heroes, and the crowd let the band know it. Near the end, Eddie Vedder introduced Kansas City Royals legend Willie Wilson by wearing a No. 6 Royals jersey. Vedder later invited onstage wounded Iraqi war vet Tomas Young, who appeared in the documentary “Body of War.” With Young in a wheelchair to his left, Vedder performed “No More,” the song the pair wrote together. During the encore, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic bobsledding team, joined the band on bass for “Yellow Ledbetter.” As the song ended it felt like the evening was winding down, but guitarist Mike McCready refused to quit, spraying a spastic version of Jimi Hendrix’ arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sept. 21, Midland Theater
An ice storm and obscurity kept many fans away from Sharon Jones’ previous show in the area, a January gig at the Granada three years ago. With those obstacles removed, a crowded Midland Theater audience witnessed a soul revue straight out of the early ‘60s. With a band rooted in the Stax sound and a performance indebted to James Brown and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones never let up. Jones only stopped dancing to chastise over-eager fans who kept climbing onto her stage. The tight, eight-piece horn section provided motivation enough for everyone else to keep moving.
Flaming Lips, Jan. 1, Cox Area, Oklahoma City
The year was less than an hour old when the Flaming Lips provided one of its top moments. After performing their standard 90-minute set, complete with lasers, confetti and sing-along versions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Then more balloons and confetti ushered in the new year. The Lips celebrated by bringing opening act Star Death and White Dwarfs onstage for a joint performance of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety. Read more.
Izmore/Diverse – Like Water for Chocolate Tribute, March 19, Czar Bar
Combining hip hop and jazz became something of a cliché in the 1990s. The results typically only hinted at the union’s potential, and didn’t satisfy fans of either genre. Ten years after Common released his landmark album “Like Water For Chocolate,” a hip hop album that paid tribute to jazz, Afro-beat and gospel with the help of Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, Cee-Lo Green, J Dilla and others, some of Kansas City’s finest artists decided to celebrate the anniversary. MC Les Izmore delivered Common’s rhymes while the jazz quartet Diverse provided innovative and imaginative new backdrops. The result was both jazz and hip hop at their finest, with neither form compromising to the other. Read a feature on the event here.
David Gray, March 17, Uptown Theater
After releasing several solid albums in obscurity in the 1990s, David Gray finally broke into the mainstream at the turn of the century. As his tours grew bigger and catalog became richer, a Kansas City date remained elusive. On St. Patrick’s Day, Gray finally satisfied a ravenous capacity crowd with a two-hour set sprinkled with the songs that made him a household name. Songs like “Babylon” and “World To Me” are written well enough to make the show memorable, but the passion and energy Gray and his band invested in the night made this an amazing night for even this casual fan. A strong opening set from Phosphorescent made the evening even better. Read more.
Black Keys, June 4, Crossroads
The Akron, Ohio, garage blues duo opened Crossroads’ summer season with a sold-out night that focused on their latest effort, the spectacular “Brothers.” Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach were augmented with a bass player and keyboardist on several numbers, but their trademark sound remained unaltered. Read more.
Public Image Ltd., April 26, Midland Theater
On paper, fans had a right to be cynical about this tour. After embarrassing himself with a handful of half-assed Sex Pistols reunions, Johnny Rotten recruited two new musicians to reconstitute his Public Image Ltd. project. Although Rotten was PiL’s only consistent member, and his current X-piece band had never played together before, they managed to flawlessly replicate the band’s finest moments. The Midland was embarrassingly empty – the balcony was closed, and the floor was less than half full – but Rotten played like it was the final night of the tour in front of a festival crowd. Read more.
Allen Toussaint, Jan. 8, Folly Theater
Seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint has been writing, producing and performing hit singles for more than 50 years. His songs include “Working In A Coal Mine,” “Mother In Law,” “A Certain Girl” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” Toussaint performed all of these numbers and more in what was remarkably his first concert in Kansas City. His own remarkable catalog aside, the evening’s high point was an amazing solo version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Read more.
When bands play Liberty Hall, they usually park their bus on Seventh Street, on the south side of the building. Prior to Jonsi’s show on Thursday night, that space was conspicuously empty except for two huge generators with power cords running inside the theater.
The generators only hinted at the energy Jonsi, lead singer for the atmospheric indie rock band Sigur Ros, would pour into his 80-minute set. The performance culminated with “Grow Till Tall” and the most powerful emotional moment I’ve experienced at a concert.
Before we get to that, however, a little context is appropriate. The Icelandic quartet Sigur Ros formed in the late ‘90s, but didn’t break through until their 2002 release. The album didn’t have a title – fans have named it “()” or parenthesis based on the symbols on the cover – or song titles. The lyrics are in Hopelandic, a nonsense language the band invented. It’s admittedly pretentious, but surprisingly accessible once one gets past the packaging and listens.
Sigur Ros songs are built on minimalist structures equally influenced by rock, classical and ambient elements. Imagine Radiohead singing in a foreign language spiked with a heavy dose of Brian Eno and you’re getting close. On his own, Jonsi still hews pretty closely that sound. Although he didn’t perform any Sigur Ros songs on Thursday, he likely could have slipped one in and only the audience response would have given it away.
Backed by a four-piece band that included his partner Alex Somers on guitar, Jonsi delivered all of “Go,” his debut solo album released this month, and four new songs that didn’t make it on the record. Jonsi and Somers, the masterminds behind “Go,” crept onstage together in the dark, the unmistakable falsetto of Jonsi’s voice marking their entrance. While Jonsi played acoustic guitar, Somers used a violin bow on vibraphone keys to create a gentle feedback. The rest of the band emerged on the next number, but this approach – Jonsi’s gorgeous, angelic voice placed within inventive settings – remained a hallmark of the night.
The music was bolstered by the theatrical staging. Four large, luminescent boxes framed the stage and an intricate glass and screen installation stood behind the band. As the projections on the boxes and screen changed, so did the mood of the room. All the images were developed by 59 Productions, and at times the combination of music and visuals threatened to overwhelm the senses. One could almost feel the heat from the fire projected around the band, smell the ozone after the simulated storm and taste the fat, wet raindrops dripping down the screens.
The band shifted textures by changing instruments after nearly every song. On a given number there might be three people playing keyboards, or two guitarists, or toy piano, percussion, vibraphone or digital manipulation. The consistent musician was drummer þorvaldur þorvaldsson. Þorvaldsson attacked his kit with the power of John Bonham or Dave Grohl, but had the finesse of a seasoned jazz drummer. More than any one player, he could change the mood of a song with a single cymbal crash and he was frequently the driving force behind the powerful crescendos.
The main set closed with Jonsi on piano, a single light shining over his shoulder. It felt like the house was privy to a late-night songwriting session. The number, appropriately titled “New Piano Song,” gave way to “Around Us.” As the melody entered, a golden glow of light settled on the crowd that felt like a sunrise. The song ended with Jonsi’s singing dissolving into a digitized barrage of vocals that ended suddenly, letting his live, pure sound ring out.
The sold-out crowd responded as it had throughout the night, waiting until the number was finished, then jumping to its feet with applause. Each number was held hushed reverence, punctuated by delighted bursts of applause between numbers. It seemed no one wanted to break the spell by talking. Pristine sound also helped perpetuate the atmosphere.
When Jonsi returned, he wore something on his head that resembled an American Indian headdress and matched the multi-colored fringes on his shirt. After “Animal Arithmetic,” the quintet moved into “Grow Till Tall.” With a forest scene projected around the band, it felt like the performance was coming from the home of “Where the Wild Things Are.”
As the song shifted, autumn settled on the forest and falling leaves swirled around the musicians. The leaves gave way to a gentle snow, which warmed into a hard rain. As the rain intensified so did the performance. Jonsi was bent over at the waist, singing into the floor and the rest of the band flailed as if caught in a terrific wind.
Like a roller coaster car inching its way to the top of a hill, the music kept ratcheting in intensity, building past any release point until it became a dense sheet of white noise, and even then it continued to swell. It seemed the only thing that kept the audience from being engulfed by the sound and the building from being torn apart was the fragile magnificence of Jonsi’s voice that penetrated the noise.
Three hours after that moment, the emotion remains strong. In a review posted on Jonsi’s Web site moments after the show, one fan stated that the performance had taken her through every emotion except anger and she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. That should have given her plenty of time to drive up to Minneapolis for the next concert. I know of at least one person ready to go with her.
Setlist: Hengilas; Icicle Sleeves; Kolinour; Tornado; Sinking Friendships; Saint Naïve; K12; Go Do; Boy Lilikoi; New Piano Song; Around Us. Encore: Animal Arithmetic; Grow Till Tall.