Sunday, 23 July 2006

One night in Lisbon

Ah, if it were but a week a week ago. Enjoying a sunny Lisbon on a Sunday afternoon before watching Sigur Rós play live; drinking beer to cool down, then eating spicy food as an excuse for the next beer. Most weekends should be like that. The spectre of work is closing in on me, so before it fogs up my senses I’ll recall the concert of last Sunday.

[Start of context]
Vele vlieë met een klap
. That’s how I like to plan trips. It’s like if you really have to go to Stellenbosch, you might as well also… ok, bad example. Before we left on the European trip, I checked various gig listings and given our itinerary, I compiled a shortlist of Mono, Sigur Rós, Woven Hand and Gogol Bordello. It’s festival season in Europe, so most bands are touring and mixing up small gigs with large outdoor spectacles. The spectacle thing doesn’t really appeal to sneeudiere like us anymore, so the best fit turned out to be Gogol Bordello (as reported) and Sigur Rós. Or so we thought. The latter’s logistics proved to be slightly more challenging than anticipated as the only solo concert possible for us was in Lisbon at the time when we were in Berlin. Europe can seem small, but the driving distance from Berlin to Lisbon is 3165 km and there were no budget airlines offering a decent solution. Enter good ol’ Voyager miles, which I have been working hard on since the big cash-in of 2004. Minus 50,000 Voyager miles later, we had tickets on Lufthansa worth almost R30,000 via Frankfurt to Lisbon and back the next day. All for less than the price of a Latvian visa. And all because we decided to see Sigur Rós, dammit.
[End of context]

[Start of random observations]

On Sunday 16 July the 03:30AM U-bahn trains to the airport were full of people returning from (or going to) the Berlin Love Parade, the annual techno festival. Lufthansa is overrated, I found EasyJet better and more efficient. Lisbon was as hot as Berlin, but they are better prepared for it, with air conditioned city busses and metro trains. European buildings in general are poorly equipped to deal with heat. Lisbon old town virtually shuts down on Sundays, with a few tourists braving the sun and taking pictures. The reason is not that they are in church – all of Lisbon hangs out at the mall on Sundays, specifically the Vasco da Gama Centre near Oriente Station, part of a vast, newly developed stretch of shiny metal and glass offices and shops, complete with recorded seagull sounds. Why is it that coastline property is such a non-event in some cities and in others a sea view is everything? Sleeping 2 hours per night twice in a row only to get to a concert, while travelling in severe heat makes for stiff necks on a plane and lessens the urge to save money by eschewing random snacks and big beers.
[End of random observations]

The Sigur Rós concert was most excellent. In the last few years, although they have not switched to singing in English, as some in the music industry would want it (what a ridiculous premise), they have become very popular. The show wasn’t sold out, but a few thousand people made their way to the P
avilhão Atlântico, spread out over three levels. The set was opened by Amiina, an Icelandic female foursome who keep on bustling about on stage, swopping spaces and moving between instruments such as keyboards, violins, a saw (expertly wielded) and xylophones. They play an eclectic mix of music that complements the show very well and you will like if you listen to Múm, Colleen and Pagtas.

Sigur Rós on stage, playing live, is powerful. The music drifts between beautiful, slow melodies using Jónsi Birgisson’s voice to full effect, and loud cathartic moments of voice and instruments merging into a just as beautiful synchronised noise. This is not an evening of easy listening, thank god, this remains (post-)rock after all. The bulk of the set comprised songs from Takk… with one or two older songs thrown into the mix. Much has been made about Jónsi playing his guitar with a bow, and I thought it was hyped up like the “Hopelandic” lyrics issue, so I was pleasantly surprised to see he plays with the bow most of the time and it is crucial to what they are doing. It creates a unique sound, which is immediately recognisable as a Sigur Rós sound while providing a strange spectacle as he needs to slide to and fro it in the same way a violin player does, while playing chords with the other hand.

Jónsi always seemed very shy in interviews. On stage, the few times he spoke between songs, he proved himself to be the high priest of social awkwardness. Completely transformed when singing, he becomes fully immersed in the songs and his guitar playing. It seems a feature of the whole band, they get stuck in the music and only emerge for breath in-between songs. I was very interested beforehand to find out what the crowd is like at a Sigur Rós concert and whether they also start thrashing about when the music becomes heavier. I was amazed to find that everyone, including those in front of the stage, stand still and watch and listen throughout the show. When Popplagid was played as the encore and built up and built up and exploded into an incredible convergence of noise, with everyone on stage grinding down / bashing their instruments to within inches of their little anthropomorphosized lives, lights going crazy, the fans stood, heads raised, transfixed.

A band can go far with professional lighting. While the whole concert seemed very slick in terms of music, presentation and lighting it wasn’t in your face choreography. A thin curtain at the front of the stage with spotlights on stage shining against the backs of each band member projected their silhouettes against the veil during some songs. When this was combined with images project from the sound engineer’s booth on to the front of the curtain, and there was some synchronisation with the music, an amazing effect was created.

Another thing I liked was to position all four band members in a row on front of the stage, meaning that Orri Páll Dýrason was playing his drums on the right hand side, facing in. This has the effect of underscoring the importance of the drums’ contribution in their music, as you can watch him playing much better than having to look for a bouncing little head at the back. The back space was effectively taken up by Amiina playing strings and the brass band, as and when needed.

A few years ago a camera was still very much forbidden property in live venues. While they still are officially and it is printed so on the tickets, the ubiquity of cell phones and digital cameras means that dozens of little screens are continuously illuminated as people record snippets or take pictures, and this has become acceptable. I only taped the odd snippet as aiming, focusing, switching on and off (in the case of a video camera) becomes tedious and prevents you from becoming immersed in the concert.

So who’s next? Mono is high on my list, and it’s a pity they played too far away this time to combine with the others. Sigur Rós at least now has one tick against their name, but it won’t be the last one if I can help it.

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