Sigur Rós Gave An Emotional And Puzzling Performance at Orpheum Theatre

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When the lights went up inside the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix after an emotional performance by Icelandic dream rockers Sigur Rós, my eyes were, for lack of a better word, moist.

I was moved and I did not know why. As the crowd emptied, I attempted to keep my ears open for someone to explain what we just witnessed. Most walked out silently or asked their friends where they would go to get their post-concert drink. I attempted to draw out an interpretation by talking to myself on the long walk to my car. Frustratingly, I came up empty.

When Sigur Rós announced their North American tour, they had only released one single (“Óveður”) with the hint of more on the way. There was not a new album for the band to promote. They simply requested that audiences “trust them on this one” as they promised to perform familiar and unreleased songs as they adventurously brought their new art out into the world. 

The band, who became a trio several years ago, did not have an opening act. They did not engage in the usual meaningless chit-chat touring musicians rely on in-between songs. The house lights blinked when the performance was about to begin, much as they would when seeing a live Broadway musical. There was even a 15-minute intermission halfway through the show, so it stood to reason vocalist and guitarist “Jónsi" Birgisson, bassist Georg Hólm, and percussionist Orri Páll Dyrason were trying to tell a story, but who the characters were and what the plot was were shrouded in mystery.

The story began with Dyrason rhythmically pounding his mallets as a computer-generated thunderstorm played on the screens in the background. Birgisson picked up his guitar and cello bow and launched into “Á.” As the ribbon moved across the guitar strings to create the achingly beautiful sounds that Sigur Rós is known for, a collective chill ran down the spines of the audience acclimated to desert temperatures. The music felt like a march through the alpine tundras of Iceland, heightened by Birgisson’s falsetto singing a combination of his native tongue and the non-literal language known as Hopelandic.

As images of nature were projected behind the band and against the wall of the historic theater, I initially wondered if they were trying to capture the feeling of a nature documentary. One striking visual showed a graphic of a bird flying in the background as solemn notes played on a keyboard. Audience members used the opportunity to remove themselves from the moment and take pictures with their cell phones.

Other times, the experience became visceral as strobe lights cut through corneas, making health warnings about the light display no joke. Hólm’s bass shook my seat as deep red graphics filled my entire line of sight.  Birgisson’s once calming falsetto had become dark and angry. As he sang loudly into his microphone, Birgisson took on the look of a heavy metal singer instead of the calming presence he began the show with. The show ended with a visual-effects display that resembled the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, bringing the crowd to their feet as Sigur Rós took in the well-deserved applause.

Like any great piece of art, you continue to figure out how you relate to it long after it has been experienced. I recently spoke with a musician who said he likes that music is not logical. Songs hit you in the right way at the right time and you can’t explain why. As I wiped the tears from my eyes, those words stuck with me and I realized it might be pointless to look for deeper meaning behind Sigur Rós’ performance. 

Maybe I wasn't supposed to interpret a message, but rather leave that night inspired by the band's indescribable passion.

Critic's Notebook

Saturday Night: Sigur Rós North American Tour at the Orpheum Theater

The Crowd: Man buns and their dates. There was also a camera crew filming for an upcoming documentary.

Overheard In The Crowd: One gentleman prematurely shouted “Woo” at what he thought was the end of a song. He did not realize Sigur Rós songs can be long, drawn-out affairs.

Personal Bias: I went in thinking Sigur Rós’ music, which can relax me or fill my heart with unbridled joy, would not work well live. Many think it is the equivalent of a white noise machine. Obviously, I was mistaken.

Set list (according to setlist.fm)

Set 1:
Ekki Múkk 

Set 2:
Ný Batterí 

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