29 September 2008

peace on earth... for a few hours

I went to purchase the new Sigur Ros album (Med Sud I Eyrun Vid Spilum Endalaust - which translates, apparently, from Icelandic into English as, "With A Buzz In Our Ears, We Play Endlessly") not on the day of its release, but at least the week it came out. While I was pretty sure it wasn't going to hit me over the head with its awesomeness the way its predecessor, Takk..., had, but given that I've been enamored with every one of their albums and EPs and singles that I've gotten my hands on since 2003, I wasn't exactly worried. I had no reason to worry; despite the fact that "Gobbledigook," the album's first track, is bizarre even for the ethereal post-rock that is Sigur Ros's calling card, the music is gorgeous, lush, beautiful, and uplifting in the way that only music can be (I'd write more, but this is a posting about a concert, and not so much about an album. Besides, I don't want to take away from what could be a nicely written response when I fashion my list of my five favorite albums from 2008... more on that in a few months).

First, a bit more background. When Takk... came out, Sigur Ros' tour took them to, I believe, the Gothic theater in Colorado. It's an all right venue, but nothing that's going to deliver a life-changing experience. It's fairly small, kind of cramped, and very short of an inspiring space. I don't like paying more than $20-25 for a show unless I can be assured of its unassailable awesomeness (Pearl Jam opening for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Smashing Pumpkins at Red Rocks); in re
trospect, seeing Sigur Ros would've been enough to qualify for "unassailable awesomeness," but I was younger, and much more foolish. I passed on the $35 for the show. I wonder, now, what that would've been like.

Let's fastforward to... the past. Saturday, September 27, 2008. Sigur Ros, live, at Red Rocks. One of the most amazing bands in the world at what could only be described as the best venue in the world (you're welcome to disagree with me, but I won't listen to you). A show I had been waiting to attend for, well, a while.

I was expecting it to be cold, but it wasn't. It was actually nice and... almost balmy, with just a hint of a breeze all night. Maybe it's possible for a whole lot of positive energy to affect a similar change in the weather, or perhaps Colorado's climate decided to be cooperative for once. Regardless of the reason, the fact of the matter is that it felt, well, practically perfect once Vanessa and I arrived at Red Rocks (she'd never been for a show, by the way. What an introduction).

I didn't (and still don't) know much about Parachutes, the opening act, but they're about the perfect Sigur Ros openers. Ethereal and beautiful, whispy and yet... potent, they embody an altogether similar, yet different, aspect of their homeland than Sigur Ros; that is to say, if Sigur Ros sounds the way you'd think Iceland looks and feels, Parachutes might sound like how it feels to live in Iceland. There's a sense of community to their music, almost one of harmony (it's almost got this foreign small-town quality to it), the kind of thing I instinctively associate with a small community of people that could well be connected at an almost fundamental level.

My opinion could well be influenced by their performance, where what seemed like every member of the band took their turn on virtually every instrument onstage: percussion, string, wind, even vocals. It was almost like watching a collective of artists emerge from their little compound for the first time in, well, a long time, to perform in front of an audience that's not themselves. They were very much in their own special world onstage, and that really lent to the magic of the entire experience. I figured the band opening for Sigur Ros would be good, but I didn't figure on them legitimately being a musical treat. I should look into some of their music...

Anyway, on to the main event, what's probably going to take the cake for my favorite live concert in 2008 (anyone that's not performing at Red Rocks is seriously kneecapped from the start, and anyone that's not Sigur Ros is in serious trouble, too).

I don't honestly know where to begin. It was a beautiful, stirring experience from start to finish, and I'm really not kidding when I say that, from my piddling little perspective, the entire world really was at peace during the time they were playing. I don't know if I've ever attended a show where I was surrounded by so many [shiny] happy people. It was a time of unrestrained joy throughout the venue, and I think we're all better for having participated in it.

I bet there were some people less than enthusiastic about the fact that the band didn't travel with its backing players (the horn section, specifically, which apparently was present during the Takk... tour), but I rather liked the... minimalism. Insofar as you could attempt an intimate, personal show at Red Rocks, I think they did, and I think they succeeded. I think everyone in the amphitheater felt the same way that Vanessa did when she said that, at times, it felt like there was no one else around except for the band, and us.

My personal highlight was the performance of my absolute favorite Sigur Ros song, "Saeglopur," off of Takk... The band began the song surrounding the keyboardist, playing all variations of percussion and keys, then spread out back across the stage as the song boomed into its full force. "Saeglopur" is... big, for lack of a better term. Well, "bombastic" might be better. The way the strength of the instruments simultaneously supports and battles with the fragility of Jonsi Birgisson's voice is something extraordinarily special. It's like... crystal and thunder. And it's gorgeous.

It's not all that often that I'm moved to tears by something that isn't a) Spock dying at the end of Wrath of Khan, b) Sam Seaborn talking about America being "a beacon that has lit the world for two centuries," or c) remembering what it was like seeing my grandparents waste away, but that song has some incredible power over me. I don't quite know what it is, but I certainly don't mind it. It feels good, like being alive.


"Saeglopur" was followed by "Hafsol," a track from the double EP they released last year, Hvarf-Heim, a collection of B-sides and live tracks. It builds to its stellar, otherworldly ending almost better than "Saeglopur" does (and for that, I suppose I can forgive Vanessa for liking it better than my favorite song). I certainly wasn't expecting to hear it that night (hoping, perhaps, but not expecting), and delivering the two of them, back-to-back, made for an improbably phenomenal climax to what had already been a great night of music.

To circle back to the beginning, "Gobbledigook," which closed the performance proper (with the exception of an encore that lasted two songs), is now a song that I can well and truly appreciate. The members of Parachutes took the stage with their friends for this song, all wearing drums that they banged on madly for the bulk of the song. If ever there has been/will be a cathartic Sigur Ros song, this would probably be the one. The elation that had so permeated me and my fellow audience members had most certainly made its way to the stage; you could see it in the way the band members moved, and played, and jumped around (and the way they had the audience sing along).

I'm going to end this now by saying that I feel it was a fantastic experience, worth significantly more time and money than that which I put into it. Beautiful, charming, elegant, glorious... I don't know if I can say enough positive things.

The full set list, for what it's worth (thanks go right here):
heysátan
fljótavík
all alright

njósnavélin
ný batterí
við spilum endalaust
hoppípolla

með blóðnasir

inní mér syngur vitleysingur

festival

dauðalagið
sæglópur

hafsól

gobbledigook

--(short encore break)--
illgresi

popplagið

(Oh, and the enclosed photographs were taken by Vanessa Luna and Phil Wrede).

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