Seeing Björk in concert is a major production that can involve major drama. Since the singer tours infrequently and only stops in a handful of big venues (the American leg of the Volta tour included only five cities), catching her requires a hefty amount of legwork. With tickets at a premium of nearly $100 with taxes and fees for orchestra seats (travel costs not factored in), Björk’s Volta shows are among the priciest of the year. And, even at these astronomical rates, the performances sold out in minutes. Chances are, if you blinked, you missed your chance to see one of the most dynamic voices of our time onstage, at the peak of her career.
Any truly great live show must have an equally inspired venue. For two of her three stints in NYC, Björk went with stalwarts: Radio City Music Hall and the Apollo Theater. For this special Saturday night performance, though, the musician decided on the United Palace—a renovated, repurposed church in Washington Heights. The site (which seats a capacity crowd of just over 3,000) boasts gorgeous, intricate gild-work from floor to ceiling, and its red-and-gold opulence is suitable for royalty.
The army of Björk fans that invaded the venue was a show all its own: elderly men with their elderly wives, a ton of entertainment-industry types, big and beautiful Goth girls wearing velvet capes, pretty women in little dresses and impossibly tall high heels, hippies, Africans, Natalie Portman, people dressed like Anime characters, Tori Amos fans scamming seats in the front, and every hot gay man in the tri-state area. While this crowd seemed innocuous enough at first glance, it proved to be a handful for the theater’s security personnel: fans tried to sneakily rush the stage from nearly every direction only to be held back by the staff.
Once the strains of “Cover Me” filled the auditorium from behind a massive velvet curtain, the restless bunch calmed down a bit, much to the delight of the security. Unfortunately for them, Björk quickly appeared to the jittery beats of her new single, “Earth Intruders.” Upon first sight of the outrageous, phenomenally gifted songstress—dressed in what could best be described as an arty, vaguely ethnic ensemble thrown together by Rainbow Bright’s crazy little sister (and finishing off the look with American Apparel’s holographic silver leggings and what appeared to be a pink triangle headband)—the United Palace throng erupted in a fit of multi-national, herky-jerky movement.
During the song, she brought out two members of Konono No. 1 (who opened) to play. The mix of tribal percussion and new-world fuzz set everyone aglow, bouncing in a wash of staccato, Timbaland-style beats. When the bowel-shaking opening bass notes of “Hunter” (from the brilliant Homogenic) started, the crowd went even more insane. Other tracks that the singer chose from the 1997 masterwork (“Bachelorette” and the absolutely vigorous “Pluto” among them) inspired similarly positive reactions from the crowd and the best from her new group of players.
Adding to the energy, Björk’s ten-piece, all-woman cadre of horn-playing back-up singers (dressed in cheery day-glo and bathed in black light at times, with crazy little side ponytails that had flags attached to them) were front and center on most of the tracks. While they started out a bit shaky, the women quickly found their footing. Not only was their instrumental arrangement spot-on (the glorious brass on “Wanderlust” actually brought a tear to my cynical concert-going eye), their bold backing on Vespertine‘s dark, engaging “Pagan Poetry” showed that they are equally gifted singers.
If nothing else, the guests trotted out by the Icelandic singer are a testament to her commitment to true cultural hybridity: besides Konono (who hail from the Congo), there was the towering Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons (whose delicate voice was a bit lost beneath the heavenly brass arrangement and Chris Corsano’s drumming perfection on the soaring duet “Dull Flame of Desire”); Brit producer Mark Bell; and Min Xiao-Fen, a pipa player who is known for her work in traditional Chinese and contemporary classic music.
Of course, what stands out most about any Björk show is the prowess and uniqueness of the singer’s soaring vocals. Clear and commanding, Björk fired with all cylinders on intense, crowd-pleasing ode to OCD-style lovin’, “Hyper Ballad,” which was remixed to include a stunning, beat-driven ending. Certainly Björk possesses one of the world’s most distinct voices, but, until you see the alchemy happening in front of you, her command of it is hard to explain. She’s a real, thought-provoking artist working at the top of her game to inspire reactions from her listeners. This is why Björk is constantly returning to her back catalogue and re-arranging the compositions. Sometimes it works magnificently: the menacing thunder of “Army of Me” (Post‘s opening song) fit nicely within the politically hot context of the new songs, incorporating inspired punctuation from the brass players. Other times, as on “Oceania” (from the mainly vocal Medulla), the musical arrangement seemed a bit forced and awkward. Of course, when it came time for the singer to hit the powerhouse a capella notes, she nailed it. No matter the result, her penchant for revision is an adventure—showing a spirit that most touring artists are afraid to indulge.
Jumping around the stage like a hyper six-year-old, Björk made the tough loud notes seem effortless (seriously—the sheer force of the woman’s voice could stop a train!). Though she played for a paltry hour-plus, the energy that she put in made up for the missing hits (all of Debut, particularly “Human Behavior” was conspicuously absent, as was anything from her soundtrack work on Drawing Restraint 9 and her Oscar-nominated Selmasongs, for Dancer in the Dark). Of course, the singer’s personal take on cultural displacement and abandonment, coupled with her frenzied delivery, made up for the brisk 16-song set list.
On a stage filled with imaginary flags festooned with weird animals and piercing green laser-beam lights straight out of an ‘80s roller skating rink, Björk took the opportunity to unleash the beast: during “Declare Independence,” in which she and her fluorescently-garbed back-up ladies encouraged everyone to “raise their flags/ higher/ higher,” a chant built raucously into an anti-authority anthem that culminated when she began to scream her head off in a controlled, meticulous way (not like some insane banshee), begging the crowd to break away from convention. It was a moment of complete awe and liberation for those in attendance. It was a rallying cry—Björk’s call to arms.