Sigur Ros at the United Palace Theatre
photos by Rebecca Smeyne
United Palace Theatre
Wednesday, September 17
I'm convinced that Sigur Ros exist as one of the more weirder (American) success stories of the decade. They don't use English, or even a need to confine themselves within their native tongue, Icelandic. And if you try to pay attention to them live, like you would a regular band who uses words as vehicles for meaning, you might get lost--muddled up in sounds that could be choruses, or possibly not. Any band that continues to use a bow as a guitar pick, sings nonsense, and still remains popular enough to book two nights way up in Washington Heights, during the middle of a week, and have 1000s of people show up has done something right. What is it?
One way to look at their appeal is to stretch back to where they're from. Iceland is a cold, rather remote place, and onstage, all four dudes are just as distant from one another. For the last several years, they've been touring with a brass and string section, and this tour is being billed as a return to the original four piece. But even now with this more intimate line-up, rarely, if ever, do they communicate (verbally) with one another. Maybe there were some subtle eye contacts (I was rather far away), but it looks like four guys, isolated from one another, creating some of the most melodic, drifting sounds you can hear from a "rock" band this decade. It's in these sounds that they bring you to a rather solitary space, especially with how Birgisson's falsetto suggests a sad, but optimistic hope that perfectly complements somber, bleak songs like the sweeping opener "Svefn g englar" from 1999's Ageatis Byrjum. But when Birgisson's turned down in the mix, like during the bass boomy "Glosoli," that shared distance becomes lost. Luckily, and ironically, that was another isolated instance.
Their were two moments, though, where Sigur Rós seemed less detached. First, among themselves, during the piano-poundy "Saeglopur" off of 2005's Takk..., they sat huddled around their instruments, surrounded by soft golden light bulbs that lit up at corresponding moments, casting the band in a warm, unified light. Then closer "Gobbledigook" brought the crowd to their feet and, at Birgisson's request, clapping along to a chaotic beat. That gave way to a momentary collective feeling, that experience many cite as unique and pivotal part of any live setting, but totally unnecessary for a Sigur Rós performance--a Sigur Rós show is a very personal experience.
The encore quickly retreated back to the brooding "Popplagio," which literally brought one fan to his knees in the aisle. Another very private moment felt very publicly. Maybe he's fluent in Icelandic, but somehow, I doubt it. --Michael D. Ayers