With Julianna Barwick
Klipsch Amphitheater at Bayfront Park, Miami
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
We arrived at around 7:30 p.m. to a barely audible Julianna Barwick crooning to ambient drones and hums provided by a guitarist and her occasional piano strokes. A circular screen above Barwick played images featuring a girl in a dress floating underwater. Up close, her minimalist music, featuring a sighing, cooing voice that worked as a wordless instrument in the drone, sounded fuller. But those on the lawn probably didn't even know she was on.
We feared this meant the show may be a quiet one. Little did we know. Only 10 minutes after 8 p.m., the floodlights turned down, and Sigur Rós began with a quiet hum to kick off a sonic journey for the ages.
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The Icelandic trio of guitarist/vocalist Jon "Jónsi" Thor Birgisson, bassist Georg Hólm, and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason arrived at the Klipsch Amphitheater with three horn players, a trio of string players, and two multi-instrumentals who played everything from percussion and vibraphones to keyboards and guitars.
Everyone contributed to the beautiful din. Even during the quiet buildup of the opening number, "Yfirborð," horns hummed, guitars quivered, and percussion shimmered. Jónsi hunched over his electric guitar with a bow, sawed away at his instrument and sang hushedly. Dýrason picked up the tempo. Jónsi took it up a notch hitting higher notes and ending each line in an extended coo.
The song rolled to a crescendo, and Dýrason ended the buildup with a "whack!" accented with a throb like a giant bubble had just imploded. Everyone on stage turned back down to near-quiet levels. And once again, the band regrouped to push the sonic boulder up the hill.
The pattern was repeated three times, until the true percussive assault began with "Brennisteinn." Percussion stands with a range of clanging cymbals were put to use while Jónsi bowed his guitar and strings soared to create a dense din. Musicians switched off instruments during three distinct passages of various shades of sonic roar. It ended with a solemn, distant horn melody as waves of electric rumbles washed over the stage, which was often clouded with smoke, but always lighted clearly enough to see everyone at work.
There may have been close to 40 incandescent bulbs on poles, attached to microphone stands scattered across the stage -- glowing, flickering, pulsing along to the music. A giant LED screen played montages of images familiar to those who have seen Sigur Rós' music videos. But there were also atmospheric images like twinkling fields of stars, gray waves crashing on the shore, and a slow motion clip of embers floating off a burning forest. Between the activity on the stage and the complexity of the music, there was so much going on, time seemed to stop.
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Though it happened maybe only about three times, the band did fall out of synch, as they ventured into the depth of dynamics. They were clearly on a sonic journey. Jónsi and Dýrason had some particularly primal exchanges, eyes locked and faces sneering to the music. Dýrason sometimes seemed to be yelling at the singer in ecstasy. Jónsi was for the most part reserved, preferring to stay bent over his instrument and often sang with eyes squeezed shut. He sometimes went to a small keyboard facing the corner of the drum kit, rocking the instrument as he played.
Toward the end of the show, just before the band's final song, he finally offered the audience a sentence, "Thank you very much. This is our last show in the U.S., so that's good" and laughed. Then it was off to the meandering, quiet opening of the epic "Popplagið."
Close to the end of the 15-minute-plus song, he stalked to the edge of the stage and knocked over two bulb stands and his microphone stand. Lit from below, he yelled out at the crowd, who, for the most part, stayed seated. His lazy eye and his snarl made him look possessed. He might have said "fuck you."
It was a long time coming, but Iceland's Sigur Rós finally made it to Miami to play its slow-burning, intricate music. Not many musicians as popular as this group understand subtlety as well. Sigur Rós danced with sonic fire, at times maintaining a safe, cozy distance. But at others, the band immersing itself in the violent destructiveness of the flame. None of it arrived unearned. It's all about patient dynamics. Therefore, the payoff for the music of Sigur Rós arrives when one pays attention. Wednesday night, at the Klipsch Amphitheater, I wept at a concert like I never have before.
Most who attended the show would be surprised with such a confession. Many there could not seem to sit still enough in order to allow the moment to reach them. The lawn was half empty and those up close took turns creeping out of their seats to shoot a few seconds of video from the front of the stage until a security guard shambled over to shoo them away.
In the meantime, the 11-piece band patiently surged, from utterly hushed to a rumbling racket, until one could feel the music in the chest. It was toward the end of the fourth number, "Glósóli," during Jonsi's persistent howls, when the revelation arrived. I could cry. So I let my eyes do their thing. Then my wife asked, "What did you do with the Breeders tickets?" I could not keep my voice from cracking. "I threw them out," I choked, while smiling.
Personal Bias: I've been waiting more than ten years to see Sigur Rós live in my hometown.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.
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