As I mentioned before, I have a misguided tendency to avoid even the better classes of non-classical (or non-jazz) music. So it was no surprise when, upon arriving at the Jonsi live show at the Vic Theatre, I realized I haven't been to a purely rock show in upwards of five years. People were young and not dressed up! And some members of the crowd wore face paint and colorful feathers, in tribute to Jonsi's garb (see the Go Do video).
The entire evening was both a thrilling event and an intense display of craftsmanship, addressing just about every aspect of the live performance, creating a kind of art-pop Gesamtkunstwerk. I wouldn't be surprised if this thing were more in line with Wagner's vision of a unity of the arts rather than, say, Otto Schenk's drearily naturalistic Ring. Colorful, vibrant video projections not only added a visual narrative to the music, but brought out unexpected themes within the music itself. Running wolves, chirping birds, and soaring landscapes enhanced the constantly recurring motive of movement in Jonsi's lyrics and music, and drew the listener's attention to details in the music in the same way that Mark Morris's choreography does to Purcell or Mozart.
Each of the five musicians of the live show band was incredibly talented; everyone played a different instrument for nearly every song, creating intriguing juxtapositions of musical textures. Muhly's strings and winds were unfortunately not present, though mostly made up for by an array of keyboards. The only real problem of the show laid with the unrestrained drummer, Thorvaldur Thór Thorvaldsson, whose name says it all. He apparently thought that any important musical moment required massively loud drum fills, which seemed decidedly inappropriate given the frailty of Jónsi's voice. I understand that Jónsi was looking for more of a rock approach with his tour, and I respect that decision, but giving Thór free reign may have been a mistake. It overshadowed the impressive keyboard, guitar, bass, and other random instrument performances by the other band members (úlfur Hansson, Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, and Alex Somers), and occasionally eclipsed Jónsi as well.
I won't get into specifics, since I already talked about most of the songs performed on the album (there were a couple ones not on the album, but none particularly struck me), but each live recreation maintained the energy and excitement of the studio work, and often added new elements. The pop-ier tunes like Go Do and Boy Lilikoi were utterly fun, and slower songs like Kolnidur appeared even more elegiac and haunting than on the CD. Jónsi himself put on an impressive show, prancing around stage in his adorably weird outfit and playing his own share of instruments (guitar, ukelele, keyboards, percussion).
One of my favorite moments was the combination of the upbeat, vivacious Animal Arithmetic with intense visual projections. As Jónsi sang and threw himself around in a fit of joyful epilepsy, an infinite swarm of ants crawled across the backdrop behind him. It seems at first in the vein of the spontaneous innocence of the music: ants scurrying away from a picnic, perhaps. They began carrying objects; a gaggle made off with a coke can, others with a feather, bits of old documents, even musical manuscript paper on their backs. This playful imagery gradually became apocalyptic, as one realized that they hauling away the scraps of humanity: the picnic was human civilization , and they're making off with whatever's left.
What's remarkable about the Go experience is how many different but effective iterations that Jónsi has created of his music. I've encountered three full versions--the Go album, the live show, and Go Quiet, the acoustic DVD (not counting the four-song Jónsi and Muhly video)---and each somehow manages to create a cohesive narrative out of varying song orders and arrangements. Go Quiet purposefully strips away the electronic veneer of the studio album. Jónsi makes this clear from the beginning, which features faint echoes of the studio Animal Arithmetic eventually fading to silence, with shots of young people rapturously dancing. And then we are then at Jónsi's home, watching him perform Animal Arithmetic and accompanying himself on piano, with the occasional flashback to the dancers.
Where Go is public, wild, and joyfully overcrowded, Go Quiet is bare and private, a domestic re-imagining. We have just a man at home with his guitar (and piano, and organ, and celeste). Each song gains a loneliness not present in the album due to both the unadorned arrangements , and the excellent, intimate camerawork. Certain songs stand out, like the plinking celeste of Sinking Friendships, a kind of musical fairy dust. The organ in Heliglas creaks like an ancient house, old but comforting. And my heart breaks just a little bit every time I watch Jónsi sing the chorus to Grow Till Tall acapella, with close-up shots of dolls and dusty photographs.
Following the playful but portentous Animal Arithmetic, Jónsi performed one last song at the Vic. Grow Till Tall, with its pessimistic mantra ("They all, in the end, will fall") was a reminder of the seriousness of Jonsi's passion, that the facade of innocence is flecked with darker thoughts.
In its final moments, Jónsi repeated the mantra "You'll know" as the band maintained a tight, militaristic groove. Distortion crept into the sound, and the crowd began a low roar. Battered by electric noise, Jonsi convulsed on the stage in his colorful headdress. It was not clear whether he was writhing in ecstasy or pain. Was this a rain dance in a storm? Was he embracing the cleansing torrent, or agonizing in its painful deluge? The effect was ritualistic, that of a shaman possessed by forces of nature beyond his control. To suggest Wagner again, we are at the end of Götterdämmerung: the imagery cataclysmic but cathartic, the doom laden with promise for a better tomorrow. Despite, or perhaps through, the accrual of massive electronic forces, Jónsi tapped into a primal energy. That he can replicate this moment in concerts around the world shows that regardless of what that force may be, its source is driven by sheer artistry.