Akin to the common belief Eskimos have multiple words for snow, Jónsi (of Sigur Rós) must possess numerous ways to define celebration. At least that forms my initial thoughts while listening to his solo album Go. The first two tracks “Go Do” and “Animal Arithmetic” are quite bustling and express the merriment of living life to the fullest (and clearly lyrics like “go sing too loud” and “people are so alive” support that hypothesis). Compared to those by Sigur Rós, these songs are shorter in length and hook a listener faster.
So I was partly disappointed to see the crowd for Jónsi’s Philadelpha Electric Factory show, passively attentive as if adhered to one location. Though their applause in between songs did reaffirm their existence, the crowd seemed not to share my enthusiasm. But this did not detract from the show itself. In many ways, the audience’s anticipation, like my own, had built up to experience profound beauty. Expectations for an epic stage production, part art installation, film and animation presentation and theater performance, may have resulted in people’s statue-esque manner. And it all started the moment Jónsi’s website teased the album.
Of course, any fan of Sigur Rós, like volcanic ash one of Iceland’s main exports, should already be familiar with the band’s usage of artistic elements and animal themes and Jónsi’s did not differ. The set designers even borrowed another Sigur Rós tactic and partly obstructed the backdrop, a collection of “windows” half in ruins, by an ethereal fabric. With Sigur Rós on hiatus, lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson’s (Jónsi) Go Tour 2010 troupe includes Alex Somers (his collaborator on the Riceboy Sleeps album) on guitar, Úlfur Hansson on bass, Þorvaldur Þorvaldsson on drums and Ólafur Björn Ólafsson on piano. Just after 9 pm, Jónsi quietly made his way onto the stage. He opened with an acoustic, non-album track, “Stars in Still Water”, strumming his guitar delicately and crooning in his distinguishing fragile falsetto. Then the rest of the band filed out to join him on the minimally lit stage for similarly slight “Hengilás” before going into another non-album song, “Icicle Sleeves”. The latter’s emphatic snare crashes served to build up the show’s dynamic arc, while the set remained still relatively concealed.
The powerful “Kolniður” proved to be a catalyst, as it sent down the sheet and kick started the animalistic visuals across the screens. One of the few songs in Icelandic on the album, “Kolniður” started off quietly but midway through it exploded, sending Jónsi’s voice soaring into its upper registers. Yet Jónsi stood practically still through these first four songs attired in an outlandish outfit that itself merits attention. Upon inspection, his ornate military-looking jacket, adorned with red, yellow and green scarves and feathers, appeared cobbled together from worn, neutral-toned patches. Jónsi and the band quickly gathered around a set of glockenspiels as an introduction to “Tornado”, a song less celebratory and decidedly more gloomy and ambiant. The production dialed down a bit allowing this song to channel its inherent power. Then at the piano for “Sinking Friendships”, Jónsi sang another “sad tune” as Þorvaldsson’s vigorous percussion rumbled like thunder. Calming water visuals worked in effect with the lyrics. Rain first appeared sliding off a window pane before the set filled up like a container with raindrops splashing. Of course these songs are not celebratory, but forged from Jónsi’s personal experiences they were even more poignant.
Just after the notably shy Jónsi addressed the crowd, remarking on the heat, the band took off into full festive mode with “Go Do”. The lights created a whimsical sensation as they opened and closed the “windows” of the set piece, like a Willy Wonka contraption. “Boy Lilikoi” followed immediately after, continuing the wild rumpus and music sensations. Vines sprouted on the screens, birds drank the nectar from flowers and best of all, Þorvaldsson went ballistic, enthusiastically putting his entire body into playing.
There were a few more songs whose newness and unfamiliarity lent to the air of excitement as well as other album tracks like “Animal Arithmetic”. But nothing prepared me for the final song “Grow Till Tall”. Jónsi, wearing a shaman’s headdress he donned during a break, transformed his fragile voice into a sonic layer so grand that my friend described it as “too big” for her ears. His captivating vocal incantation was backed by hushed snow falling on a wintery landscape punctuated with moments of crashing lightening. Through the extended outro, Jónsi, entranced in his own ritualistic spell, ensnared the audience as well. The collective audience mind was uplifted by the musical and visual combination and shown a brief glimpse of Jónsi’s sublime world.