Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros is probably my favorite live act. I’ve seen them 3 times and each time has been different and beautiful. My first experience was 10 years ago when they played the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. They were one tour following the release of their album “Takk…” and they brought along their string quartet partners Amiina. Following that tour, Amiina struck out on their own, ending their longstanding tour partnership with Sigur Ros.
That meant that the next time I saw the band, in 2008 at the Orpheum again, the songs were doctored to cover the absence of the string parts. This tour was in support of their 5th studio album “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust”, which had some “poppier” elements than their previous, pastoral work. As my review stated, they closed their main set with a bouncy rendition of “Gobbledigook” and a hurricane of confetti.
My 3rd experience was in 2013 and it was a sharp departure as longtime Sigur Ros member Kjartan left the band following the release of “Valtari” and their next tour included some of the crushing, industrial sounds of their album “Kveikur”. They played the Roy Wilkins Auditorium on that tour and showcased a magnificent video board show and backing musicians. It was a huge performance.
For the last couple of years, the band has rested a bit and regrouped. Now a trio, the band decided that they would tour again this year, but without any supporting musicians. For probably the first time, they would perform only as a three-piece ensemble. The band made it clear that this tour was something special:
the month long run is comprised primarily of theater shows, marking the band’s most intimate tour in a decade. in keeping with the scale of the venues, the group will be performing without the string and brass sections that have been characteristic of recent performances, opting instead to focus on the core unit of the band itself. the shows will give the group a chance to road test new music, the first time since the tour leading up to the acclaimed ( ) album in 2002 that the band has performed new material ahead of album recording sessions. alongside this experimentation played out in public, the band is also planning on attempting new interpretations of old songs that haven’t been played in a very long time.
though the scale of the venues and band will be reduced, the live production will be characteristically stunning, designed again by the team behind their previous knights of illumination award-winning tour
With the promise of intimacy and new songs, I couldn’t resist shelling out the dough for another chance to see these guys. Especially at the Orpheum, which I believe is the perfect Twin Cities venue for them.
A quick word about the current state of online ticket sales: it’s a complete disaster. The band offered a code for the presale of tickets. They also offered a number of tiers of prices, including a package that included orchestra pit seats and other goodies for over $100 a ticket. Still, all tickets sold out almost immediately during the presale. I selected the lowest price tier and got decent seats in the balcony and bought them. Just for kicked, I then tried searching for tickets in the next highest price range to see what would happen. All tickets were gone. Of course, scalper tickets appeared online almost instantaneously after the presale. Ticketmaster needs to get their act together on this or bands need to find alternate channels for fans to get to their shows without getting scammed.
It was a gorgeous autumn evening when we ventured downtown for the show. The Orpheum was lit up as usual and fans were lingering outside, taking selfies with the marquee and smoking. There were little postings throughout the lobby stating that the show would begin promptly at 8:30pm, a subtle urging for people to find their seats before showtime. After scoping out the merch table, we went upstairs and located our seats in the balcony. The views in the Orpheum are great from almost every seat and we were pleased with our vantage point.
With no opening act, the stage was empty and ambient music was playing overhead. The stage was dressed with semi-transparent curtains on all four sides, including the front of the stage. What looked like black PVC pipe constructions formed a sort of lattice around the edges telescoping to the back and creating a tunnel-like illusion from head on.
Soon the ambient music surged a bit and the anticipatory energy in the room surged with it. Still, there empty seats around us. Then the lights went down and the show began. Throughout the first few songs, people were still being ushered to their seats and talking as they got settled. “See, he plays his guitar with a bow!” shouted one person nearby as the band played. *sigh* Moving on.
The band opened their set with their newest, unreleased song simply entitled “Á“. It was a quiet number that wouldn’t feel out of place on Valtari. It was a somber start to the show, especially when followed by two more sedate numbers. Most of the crowd was rapt with attention, pulled into the sonic textures and mesmerized by the amazing light show set to each of the songs. Jonsi did have one vocal flub as he plucked a wrong note on this guitar and his voice went with the sour note. He’s human, after all. Soon the band took the energy up with some of their well-known loud numbers (Daudalagid and Glosoli) before closing the first set with a lesser known B-side from years ago called “Smaskifa”. It was a calculated bell curve of a set.
As I took a breath, I thought about how different this show really was than the others I’d seen. The 4th member of the band here was the light rig, which really added to the songs in a very tangible way. I also realized that the absence of Kjartan left a bit of an instrumental void that was mostly filled by Orri, the drummer. Jonsi and Georg stayed in their lanes for the most part and it was Orri who was tasked with frantic drumming and also pensive keys – sometimes on the same song. But it was working! Three guys, with some backing track help, were making a lot of noise!
It was in the beginning of the 2nd set that the missing member was acutely felt, however. Returning to the slightly redressed stage, the trio took up positions bunched together towards the back of the stage. They were surrounded on all sides by these transparent curtains and projections danced all around them. This gave the appearance that they were very tall and almost swimming in the projected smoke and cloud images. They played another new song “Ovedur” from this position as Orri drummed on an electric pad. Then they went into a crowd favorite from their catalog: “Staralfur”, made semi-famous for its inclusion in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The album version of this song features a gorgeous string arrangement as its sonic backbone, which they didn’t have. They did have Orri playing the shimmering piano part under Jonsi’s bowed guitar and Georg’s rhythm acoustic. Still, it didn’t feel quite the same and actually felt a little rhythmically off-kilter at one moment. Then as they were fading the song to a quiet finish, an abrupt accidental piano “plink” rang out. Oops.
After this interstitial arrangement, the band again took their original places and proceeded to bring down the house with the next two incredible songs. As the musicians hammered away at their instruments, the screens danced with color and light and strobe lights accented the snare and tom hits, blinding and thrilling the audience. This 1-2 punch of Saeglopur and Ny Batteri was an epic highlight of the night. The set oscillated again from there, taking a breather for a couple of quiet songs and cleansing the audience’s auditory palette. The final 3 songs brought the night to a triumphant close with the traditional closer Popplagid as the band frantically played and the light rigs really let loose (Orri even had to remove his shirt between songs). As the Jonsi and Georg threw their guitars to the ground and walked off stage with Orri, feedback and reverb still throbbing, the crowd leapt to its feet in euphoria. The boys returned to the stage twice for bows and “takk”s before venturing back into the darkness and the netherworld we all assume they reside in.
Much has been said about the music of Sigur Ros. Many, including the band themselves, talk about how the music is inextricably linked to their home country of Iceland. Iceland is a unique place with desolate, beautiful landscapes and rich, almost mythical local legends. There’s a mystique to it and a sense of magical unknown. The language is a beautiful nordic volley of consonants. And all of these descriptors can easily be applied to the music of Sigur Ros. Most of their songs are sung in Icelandic, with a healthy number sung in the proprietary invented language of “Hopelandic”, so 99% of the audience probably has no idea what the words are to these songs. But it doesn’t matter. The music is arresting and beautiful and the intensity with which it is delivered seals you in.
During intermission, a middle-aged man behind me commented, “This music, like, destroys my soul. And then recreates it.” And I think this gets at another thing that draws people into the music of Sigur Ros – it has a spiritual quality. That otherworldly nature of the sounds reminds us of heaven. It stirs up souls and elicits the kind of emotion that a good worship song might do in church. That’s another reason why the Orpheum suits this band far better than “The Roy”. It feels like an ancient, ornate church sanctuary.
Sigur Ros is, without a doubt, the best live band I’ve ever seen. Personnel and show design may change, but these guys and these songs are something special. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Were you there too? Have you seen Sigur Ros elsewhere? Share your thoughts!