I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday afternoon and asked him if he was going to Sigur Rós last night. “I don’t know. What do they sound like?” he asked. We’ll, they’re from Iceland, they don’t sing in English. I guess they’re kind of like a wimpy version of God Speed mixed with Bjork. “I’m gonna have to pass. I got some stuff to get done tonight.”
I already had my tickets. Caught up in the hype, I bought a pair the day the show went on sale. Omaha was one of only five cities to get Sigur Rós on this tour. They’d never been here before and likely won’t be back. And it was at The Orpheum, probably my favorite “large” venue in the city.
Over the last few weeks, the band’s publicist had sent me both the most recent Sigur Rós album as well as digital services for the yet-to-be released record, which some have called a “departure” for a band known for its ethereal, ambient drone-tones.
But as 8 p.m. rolled around, the only tones that I’d been hearing for the past 40 minutes was the civil defense blare of the unending tornado warnings that began at around 7. Channel 7 made it sound like the world was about to end. A glance at the radar showed a line of storms that stretched to the Kansas border. The sirens were going to blast all night, and there was no way I was going to drive downtown during a tornado warning, even if the tornado was located way out in Elkhorn. I thought my $60 bucks was headed right down the storm drain.
Then I got a call from someone standing beneath the marquee of the Orpheum. Show goers had been told that they could either stand outside or go down into the Orpheum basement until the all-clear. By 9:15, the warnings began to expire and my caller told me they just started seating people. So I drove downtown (alone), figuring I could at least catch part of the show. I was seated at 9:55; Sigur Rós came on at 10. Perfect timing.
I thought my tickets were in the loge. Instead, I was sitting four rows from the stage. Standing up there beneath a curtain of choreographed laser lights were eight musicians — a small string section, keyboards, bass, drums and famous yodeling frontman, Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson, playing guitar with a violin bow.
The first song was a typical Sigur Rós droner, then came the submarine-radar tone that heralds the opening of maybe their most famous song, “Svefn-G-Englar.” The Slowdown-styled crowd went wild. That was followed by my favorite song of the evening — halfway through, a tuba could be heard from somewhere. I thought it was a sample, until a five-piece brass section marched onto the stage dressed in sparkling white band uniforms, adding polka swing to the waltz-metered portion of the song.
Next, Jónsi announced that they were going to play some new songs, and that’s where the show began to head south. The upbeat numbers (specifically those that used the brass section) bordered on Polyphonic Spree material. One song featured Jónsi on acoustic guitar for what sounded like an Icelandic/American folk hybrid — a misstep into mediocrity. Sigur Rós is at its best when its doing its Music from the Hearts of Space shtick — quiet then creepy than bold then quiet. Jónsi’s voice really is just another instrument, and an amazing one at that. Since he’s singing either in Icelandic or gibberish, there’s nothing for him to communicate lyrically with his falsetto yelp, which at times sounded like coyotes baying at the moon, forlorn and lonely.
I’m curious if this was their standard performance of if they were having an off night. From my place in the fourth row, there were a lot of miscues and missteps — whether it was Jónsi stopping mid-phrase to clear his throat, a slipped piano chord or a miscued sample — and judging by their reaction, the band recognized every goof. I suppose that’s the danger of performing this style of atmospheric, tension-filled music — it has to be perfect; people will notice the boo-boo’s.
They band left the stage after an hour, then came back and did a 30-minute encore followed by a curtain call. Walking back to my car, I called the guy who had called earlier in the evening from beneath the marquee. He’s obviously a huge Sigur Rós fan, at least compared to me — someone who respects what they do but would never casually listen to their music. I told him that, to me, Sigur Rós is this generation’s New Age music. Really, other than the bombasts and the samples and the gibberish language, how far was it removed from, say, Enya? He said the statement couldn’t be further off base, implied that I was an idiot (something that has been determined long ago) while at the same time saying that the concert was the most moving stage experience of his life. I told him that portions of the concert moved me, too — to the edge of snoring. I wasn’t alone. While trying to block a stage flood light from burning my retinas to ashes, I glanced down my row and notice that everyone was mimicking my stance — right elbow on their armrest, chin resting on palm.
* * *
Tonight at The Waiting Room, Lincoln band Columbia Vs. Challenger is opening for a show that also includes Thunder Power!!! and touring band The Broken Letters. I’ve been wanting to see CVC for months, but am probably going to miss them again as I’ve got a previous engagement that won’t be completed until well after they’re off stage (assuming that they’re the first band). TP!!! says this probably will be their last show in Omaha until their Aug. 15 CD release show. 9 p.m., $7.
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