There is a Bee Gees song that goes, “I started a joke which started the whole world crying.” This lyric highlights one of two overriding themes present in my thoughts upon viewing Sigur Rós in concert last Friday night at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall. One was the audience’s seeming desire to dig something they felt they were expected to like. The other was how much my consciousness is dependent upon The Funk and its accent on the One.
21 Mar 2003: Radio City Music Hall New York
The will to go bear witness at Sigur Rós’ concert amidst a spring-previewing thunderstorm was a badge representing the wages of hip, the sold-out crowd turning the show into an Event virtually on par with a tent revival leached of its holy roller-isms. It certainly seemed as if Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section had been emptied so as to gratify the co-authors of The Hipster Handbook with passion plays illustrating the types they describe in their decidedly un-hip tome—like outtakes from an updated Jane Austen drawing room drama for the times. From pretty boys sporting the “Emo Combover” to librarian-looking girls bordering on agoraphobia, all could be accounted for. It was a shock to the system being immersed in this sea of Attitude and sartorial superiority as cold as the Arctic waters off Iceland’s shores must be.
Don’t let my distaste dissuade you from listening to the lovely-named “Victory Rose”, although there is a degree to which their records—one untitled and devoid of proper song designations—are as arch as many among the assembled multitudes. Laurels have come from usual suspects like David Bowie and Radiohead; I spied Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson leaving early. Perhaps the band’s orchestral explorations point the way to a relevant future for students coming out of Conservatory in the 21st century. The best praise I can give Sigur Rós is that they finally enabled me to comprehend the awesome glory of my friend and colleague Gregory Tate’s avant jazz-rock arkestra chamber the Burnt Sugar. (About to release their own variations on Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring, Burnt Sugar is very much the groovy version of this Icelandic ensemble—Sigur Rós on the One, if you will.) In its own peculiar way, Sigur Rós’ music is beautiful and astonishing, if not quite leavened enough to keep one awake for 90 minutes or so. Call me a philistine if you will for praying on some Funk, or at least some astral projection on par with the late great Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos.
If Jimi Hendrix were alive today, he’d probably be enamored of these Icelandic phenoms. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson would likely appear on some of his projects, bow and all. James Marshall would no doubt marvel along with us all at a Scandinavian Sound beyond the Sugarcubes, ABBA, Sahara Hotnights and Bjork—who knew? The notion of Hendrix in collaboration with this band makes me think of Richie Havens, his acoustic-centered counterpart, who covered “I Started A Joke” and whose original compositions such as “Woman”, “Indian Rope Man” and “Cautiously” suggest what these ears would expect of an act using the tools Sigur Rós has at hand. “Woman” is as ethereal and atmospheric as this band’s untitled compositions, but the melody and arrangement are grounded in accessible provinces and the contrapuntal strumming is as tribal as a collective heartbeat. Hendrix, himself given to majestic soundscapes, played ably against his own leads and hitched stars to his improvisations that were visible.
What’s missing in Sigur Rós is a rhythm section that can make you lose your mind. I can scarcely credit a bass player as unfunky as Georg Holm, making him as alien to me as would be the deepest Africa upon whose vibes I thrive to a man from Iceland. The majority of the audience appeared to get off on the proceedings and trip the light fantastic, or at least pretended to as they’ve been schooled—hence the joke I alone was not privy to—but the music, for all of its power, came off as pictures of carefully controlled angst rather than heartfelt renditions of the actual thing.
So the Joke is on the throngs of Hipsters in their ironic ‘70s tees with decals and Pumas scuffed just so for their self-consciousness in the Hall, the way they whooped and yelled in the spaces between the music’s peaks and valleys indicating that they are a decadent generation without the appropriate tools to absorb this delicate sound and react responsibly. Certain cell phone-bearing and pot-smoking heathens in the balcony and to the sides always seemed on the verge of yelling “Freebird!” and carried on rudely amidst the music’s hushes and crescendos in volumes disproportionate to what was being played.
And the Joke is on me, for Sigur Rós’ decidedly Apollonian approach to playing, with their four-piece ensemble Amina in accompaniment, left me cold, my inner adhesions unmoored even when drummer Orri Páll Dyrason abruptly picked up the tempo after long ponderous passages. One might suppose that if I need gospel-inflected words and blues underpinnings—even if kozmic—then I lack originality and adventurous ears. Like the baby in its womb haven projected behind the band at one point, all of my senses must be hide-bound to a known universe I can control. The smoke machines and red spotlights and haunting ambient sounds dividing the Vikings from their fawning Visigoth idolaters obscured the angsty energy behind the veil.
But then again it wasn’t just the use of unpopular instruments rarely seen today outside a jazz context like the xylophone that denoted difference. Birgisson not only distorted his mostly disembodied voice, and thus his emotional heart, but he often sang facing stage right, looking not at the audience but off into the wings at whatever demons were lurking there.
Who wears the mask?