Show Review: Jónsi with Mountain Man at The Fox Oakland, 10/19/2010

by Jonathan Pirro on October 20, 2010


Go scream, do shout // Make an earthquake

Go scream, do shout // Make an earthquake (photo by Paige K. Parsons)

The Icelandic quartet known as Sigur Rós has offered its fans, and concertgoers everywhere, some of the most emotionally-gripping, beautifully destructive, and downright astonishing shows that they will ever experience in their lives. I personally cannot think of a single show that I have seen that came close to the breath-catching feet-out-from-under-me sensation that overwhelmed me the first time I watched the band perform, at a 2,000-seat theater in Marin — possibly the most intimate setting they have allowed themselves to be contained within on this side of the Atlantic. It is only natural, therefore, to expect a show of similar caliber from the solo career of Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson, the ethereal and mesmerizing vocalist of Sigur Rós.

Only for the Magnetic Fields back in February has the Fox Theater had a more quiet audience; tonight’s opening act, Mountain Man, were definitely a group that benefitted greatly from the near-silent setting. An all-female a capella trio, the girls of Mountain Man sang with beautiful energy that seemed to fill all the corners of the theater with a natural shine. For a few songs, a guitar was passed amongst the three, and one of the girls added percussion to one number in the form of stomping her feet. The crowd was polite and quiet, letting all of their notes ring out and the echoes fade completely before bursting out with pleasant applause and enthusiastic cheers after each of their songs.

While a great explosion of cheers went up when Jónsi finally arrive onstage, ”quiet” was far from enough of a fitting description for the total absence of sound that followed this initial upheaval. Bearing only his otherworldly, heavenly voice, and his scratchy-yet-vibrant acoustic guitar, Jónsi opened his performance with a gentle but enthralling performance of “Stars In Still Water”, while the nearly 3,000 people within the Fox Theater gazed at the stage with utterly rapt attention, in such silence that one could hear a feather fall. The lights and fog (key visual elements of any Sigur Rós show) slowly began to creep in during “Hengilás”, the second number of the night. In addition, the entire back wall of the stage shimmered into being as large, intricate animations of forest scenes, animals moving, and leaves falling played out behind the band, matching up with the subtle movements of lights onstage and the gentle nuances of each piece.

Though not perhaps reaching the same bar of emotional rapture that the rest of his regular band’s shows have set in years past, Jónsi’s set was nonetheless stunning to watch unfold onstage. Many of the more upbeat and energetic songs saw Jónsi running back and forth across the stage, shouting into a second microphone that distorted his voice and added to the sonic complexity of the massive performances onstage. The band themselves were rather static in their appearance and movement, but found a few occasions to also swing about with almost the same energy that their frontman exhibited. The lights and projections helped to give even more life to each song, taking the gorgeous compositions and adding a visual element that gave the show the appearance of an epic tale, each piece a new chapter in the story.

The show ran the full gamut from loud, chaotic, bright, and wildly animated moments to dark (even nearly pitch black near the end of the set), soft, subtle, and fragile ones. The audience was nearly always silent for the latter pieces, with the occasional catcalls from those unsure of when the actual ends of the songs had been reached, and the former saw nearly everyone on the floor dancing and clapping in sheer joy. Jónsi’s one moment of quiet conversation, expressing a gladness to be back and excitement to be showing his songs to the audience in attendance, seemed to be met with as much enthusiasm as his entrance at the beginning of the set.

The final piece of the night, “Grow Till Tall”, however, was the defining moment that brought out the believers in those who had never seen Jónsi or Sigur Rós before, but had heard tell of the magnificence of their performances. As with many of their more enthralling compositions, the piece was a gentle, subtle crescendo, beginning from a haze of ambience and delicate notes and eventually growing to a thunderous, raging storm of violent drum blasts, soaring keys, roaring guitars, and above all the shrill, haunting siren calls that Jónsi bellowed into his microphone. The animation behind the band followed suit, going from a gentle breeze and lake to a small rainfall, and ascending into a monsoon-like storm as the strobes and stage lights exploded in time with the music. Only the band’s departure from the stage, followed by Jónsi hurling his microphone to the floor at the end of his insane thrashings around the stage, was the moment when the crowd realized that it was finally over, and the band’s reappearance for a final bow was greeted with an ecstasy of cheering that nearly matched the volume of their final notes.

As one who has experienced the majesty of a Sigur Rós performance and known the depth and beauty that accompanies their shows, I was in vast anticipation of tonight’s performance, and while it was not quite the same as a Sigur Rós concert, Jónsi’s show brings many of the same elements that gives a life and wonder to his music that is rarely seen in other acts that exist today. Of the hundred or so shows that the Fox Theater has seen in its nearly two years of being open, this was easily one of the most magnificent performances yet. I am even more sorry to have missed seeing Jónsi in April, and wait eagerly for him to come back, while the Fox Theater remains dormant for a few weeks and the last echoes of Jónsi’s voice fade from within its walls.

Setlist:

  1. Stars In Still Water
  2. Hengilás
  3. Icicle Sleeves
  4. Kolniður
  5. Vibraphone Song
  6. Tornado
  7. Sinking Friendships
  8. Saint Naïve
  9. Go Do
  10. Boy Lilikoi
  11. Animal Arithmetic
  12. New Piano Song
  13. Around Us

ENCORE

  1. Sticks & Stones
  2. Grow Till Tall

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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