As the rain started to fall halfway through the single song encore of “Popplagið” — a rain seemingly brought on by the magisterial howling of the music — it became clear this was going to be hands-down the single most joyous and surreal rock ‘n roll moment I ( and no doubt the rest of the 8500 soaked fans at the sold-out Greek Theatre) would ever witness. Had it been a Guns n’ Roses video it would have seemed like contrived, cliché bombast. But as it was, this timely meteorological phenomena — masquerading as rock show gimmickry — was the perfect finale to an inspired 100 plus minute set of Icelandic musical sorcery.
But truthfully, the moment wouldn’t have had nearly the impact had it not followed what came minutes before it. After a set of noisy, soaring, melodious anthems and floaty ballads, the band closed things out with arguably the poppiest, most radio friendly song they’ve written, “Gobbledigook” (off their new album, með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust), and took it to a place I don’t think anyone was expecting.
Pleasant enough on the album, the song live — with four extra drummers (members of the warm-up band Parachutes), the big, engulfing sound of the Greek, furious acoustic guitar playing, an amphitheater full of of bouncing, clapping fans and more confetti than could ever be found in a small child’s wildest dreams — became a celebratory piece of pop expression.
Singing mostly in Icelandic and occasionally in Vonlenska (a gibberish language), lead singer and guitarist Jón þór “Jónsi” Birgisson’s angelic falsetto and bowed guitar playing, were the perfect Pied Pipers for this strange and wonderful journey of a show. Not being able to understand what was being sung gave the music a unique kind of authority that wouldn’t have been present otherwise. Lyrics, weighing no more than any other part of the music, allowed vocal melodies to weave anonymously throughout the songs without the burden of intention.
But saying one couldn’t understand what was being sung is a bit of a misstatement, because at the deepest level, inside where it counts, the band’s songs are easily understood, and for me at least, triggered a number of different emotions. Looking around at the audience’s faces, and hearing them phonetically singing along to their favorite songs, one gets the power of this mystifying music.
Look, it’s a beautiful thing when decades into your life, you experience something that transcends everything similar before it. And it’s even more beautiful is when that something transcends heights you never would have imagined could be topped. Last night, October 3rd, at the Sigur Rós show here in Berkeley, was one of those moments.
Go ahead and forget the fact that my friends and I bought the sold-out tickets off craigslist just hours before the show. Or that it was a rare warm summer night in Berkeley (a meteorological phenomenon in its own right), and that it was supposed to rain all evening (the forecast called for an 80% chance) but didn’t (at least not until the most dramatic moment possible). Or that, despite being a fan, this was my first time seeing the band live. Forget all that and you still have a night that was so perfect, so authentic feeling, so mesmerizing, so emotionally lifting, that I’m reeling from it still.
In fact, the last time I experienced something like this was about 10 years ago when I witnessed a sunset that was — and still is — the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen. Of course, by definition all sunsets are uniquely spectacular and so qualifying them in this way almost seems sacrilegious, but sometimes something is so special — so off the hook — you’ve got no choice but to recognize and celebrate its audacious efforts.
Anyway, I go off on this tangent in the hope that it’s able to bring further perspective and gravity to what I witnessed last night; something that while inseparable from everything before it, has managed to separate itself completely.
Now, I know for some this may seem like ridiculous hyperbole (to compare sunsets and rock shows), but given what music means to me, and the power I believe it possesses to change the world, it’s what I’m left with.
Sigur Rós is dynamic on record to be sure, but live they are something else entirely. Was it a religious experience experience? Maybe. You tell me. Does singing in Vonlenska count as Glossolalia?