Better than…a bowl full of hakari (rotten shark)
As the sun was setting along a hot and sticky stretch of Santa Monica Blvd, a line of excited picnickers snaked through the lush lawn in front of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Tickets for Sigur Ros had sold out in a matter of minutes, causing the ticket site to crash and scalpers to jack up the prices to exorbitant amounts. We even saw a few dudes climb the stone walls of the cemetery in broad daylight just to get in. They must have sacrificed a rooster at midnight to Lady Luck because we later caught sight of them swaying happily in the front.
The paying customers filed in gleefully with arms full of dinner, blankets, and wine. They were greeted by amplifiers placed strategically between the gravestones, blaring recordings of people remembering their loved ones, with bowls of incense burning every few yards. The amps were so close together that the voices blurred and you had to concentrate hard to listen to just one voice, which ended up feeling like evesdropping on the dead.
On the green, the crowd wedged themselves up against the mausoleums chatting happily. At the front of the stage was Julia Holter, a young woman in a lovely sparkly dress singing beautifully and playing the keyboard, backed by a drummer doing his best to sing back up and keep time, and a bespeckled cellist who was incredibly serious about his performance. They did their damnedest to bring arty and provocative music to the masses, but it dripped of pretension. We learned later that her 2011 album, Tragedy, was centered around an interpretation of Euripides' Hippolytus (You know, the one where Hippolytus is obsessed with purity and upsets Aphrodite? It does not end well.) Anyhow the set plodded along all doom and gloom and very few people looked up from their sandwiches to notice.
At 8:30 Sigur Ros took the stage and the audience shook off their food comas and welcomed the Icelanders. The band's success in the US is really remarkable: Can you imagine pitching them to a booking agent? “We don't sing in English, actually we sing in a nonsense language called Vonlenska, and there's absolutely no stage banter whatsoever.”
But there they stood, dressed sharply in military styled jackets with shiny buttons and tassles (except for the brass and string sections which, from what we could tell, wore whatever they liked). Like an invading army from the early 20th century, they proceeded to conquer the hearts and minds of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Sigur Ros are purveyors of imagination and raw emotion. They set about like a mini orchestra building crashing movements of abstract feeling, whether rage, despair, hope, bewilderment, or brilliant flashes of joy. You're forced to interpret their music for yourself. There are no lyrics to latch on to, the lights are set not to highlight the band but to illuminate their shadows on the wall, and their videos of the ocean or sparks or swimmers is vague. Each song is designed to provoke a visceral response, but they will not lead you there. Instead, like many classical concerts, the audience is lost in their own thoughts, whether it's what they had for breakfast or how their relationships are going or the arson they're planning later. It's a very private concert. Which is why it is no surprise that by midway through the show the dark field was covered with a blanket of pot smoke. People were so into their own experience that anyone who even giggled during the quiet moments were told to “Shut the fuck up!”
“We've never played in a cemetery before,” Jonsi announced. “It's pretty spectacular.” Armed with his trusty bow he captained the set with horrible/wonderful guitar solos that blistered the ears and stirred the gut while his angelic falsetto floated about the trees commanding attention. On either side of him, drummer Orri Dyrasen and bassist Georg Holm kept him anchored, while behind them the pianist
Kjartan Sveinsson dueled for attention with the bowed guitar solos. The xylophonist/guitarist ran around like a mad man picking up instruments and filling in when needed as the brass and string sections packed an emotional wallop to each song. It was lovely. After six albums Sigur Ros are still finding new ways to touch their audience.
The evening ended with an encore and a curtain call. All of the band members got on stage, applauded the cemetery, and took a bow with their arms wrapped around each other. Even as the lights were switched off, there was still a ring of fans near the pit hoping that they might come back.
Overheard in the crowd: “I hope they play the good stuff. You know, the good stuff.” “Dude, no more weed for you.”
Random Notebook Dump: While watching the sound tech tune the bows. “Bow tuning is weird. He's just rubbing it on his arm and whipping it around like he's Inigo Montoya.”
Set list below