with Siggi Armann
Barrymore Theatre, Madison, WI • November 11, 2002
By the time my brother and I get to the Barrymore, the joint is packed; it says that the capacity is less than 1000 but there were easily one million scenesters of all stripes there, waiting to see a miracle: Sigur Ros, one of the hippest bands in the world, is actually here, in our little out-of-the-way place, where the hippest and the coolest often skip. I see my buddies Bill and Carmela at the box office (they’re still laughing about how much of an ass I sounded when I said “I should be on the guest list”) and we all went in together, grabbed beers and/or hot tea, and got surprisingly good seats. This… is our story.
The lights go down; some smartass guy in front of us yells, “Atmospheric lighting RULES!” Opening act Siggi Armann ambles out. He’s known in Iceland as “the sensitive bodybuilder” — he works in a gym as a personal trainer, and he’s recorded one album of relentlessly simple pop songs. It’s just Siggi, his sweater, his guitar, and Sigur Ros keyboardist Kjartan. I wouldn’t exactly say his songs worked for our cynical tastes, but that doesn’t mean they were bad per se; he’s just kind of a big overly sincere guy singing songs that are way too simple and heartfelt for us in a really thick accent. It doesn’t help that he starts with an awful piece about how “Even big boys cry / when their friends die,” either. But once he gets going, songs like “One Little Cowboy” (very Jonathan Richman in ballad mode) and “The Black Rose” (not entirely successful homage to Tom Waits) show exactly why Sigur Ros is drawn to his music: Siggi sings straight from his big ol’ heart, with no real filtering or pretense whatsoever. Even when he’s got someone playing glockenspiel and Orri sawing on a cymbal with a bow, Siggi is just Siggi, wearing his emotions on his sweater. We don’t like him, necessarily, but he means what he says and you have to respect that.
And then he’s gone and we wait an actual hour. No one knows why; it’s not like they’re setting anything up or tearing anything down. Maybe it’s just drama-build, maybe it’s psych-time, it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of that hour, during which the roadies have to come out and re-light candles at least twice, the four guys in the band walk onstage, accompanied by the four women in the Anima string quartet. And that’s when my mind splits open. To wit:
begin with a whitenoise squall keyboardhammer guitarcrunch cymbalfill basspound stringscrape/ everything builds builds builds jonsi puts down his guitar and goes over to second keyboard station and everything stops stops stops/ he starts singing and we start again/ ever heard him sing? it sounds the same live, hits the same level in the inner ear the same frequency that makes you remember things from when you were young/ it’s beautiful so beautiful with the quartet sawing away madly prettily the drummer hits for the first time this noise cannot possibly be from earthlings/ evocative film images projected behind them usually kids just about always kids and stars what is it about children and this group the innocence?/ one of the new things off ( ) I haven’t listened to it yet wanted everything to be fresh it lasts for a long time/ drummer orri walks across stage to third keyboard, starts playing samples of jonsi’s voice and kjartan’s playing electric piano and jonsi is playing weird synth everyone’s huddled around the machines on stage right except georg still swaying playing his bass on the left/ piece moves into another piece white spotlights hit two glitterballs hanging from ceiling we gasp but we don’t know whether to clap or go blind/ jonsi’s crawling around the floor doing something with his guitar what’s he doing down there oh yeah feedback guitar solo OH YEAH it’s loud it’s good it rocks/ new song simple song orri’s hitting them drums awful hard/ then anima leaves and green lights start swirling around the place jonsi takes out his cello bow for the first time man he gets a lot of sound out of just drawing that thing across his strings/ buildup release buildup release i’m sensing a pattern here/ then first recognizable song for agaetis byrjun fans that “bamm bamm bamm” song which here is turned into a real pomp-prog-rock sort of jammy with wakeman keyboards and some of the most punishing drum sounds ever inflicted on human ears it’s barbaric the power they muster is scary/ when it’s over two anima members drift back and take up places on stage, one plays glock on a song the other’s just there listening but it’s too loud for her and she leaves/ new stuff really interesting in a weird way i guess pitchfork wasn’t lying when it said that everything is based on the same lyrical fragments but when jonsi sings them it somehow makes some kind of sense way down deep in the mammalian brain cortex or something/ how else could i know exactly what he means when he’s singing nonsense syllables in a high icelandic keen/ not sure about that gonna have to study that new album like a damned detective/ they play that first song off a.b. the one where they say “it’s you” or “itchy woo” or whatever the crowd roars/ that submarine noise thingy is really loud played on a contraption by kjartan every two bars and jonsi sings that one phrase over and over until he gets bored with the microphone and sings it into his guitar pickups instead/ oh just an update georg is still playing his bass/ my notes start to get a little more crazy here so i’ll just quote some of them without trying to pull them together: ‘tuning up’ ‘slow tempo’ ‘pizzicato cello’ ‘it kicks in like U2 if they kict ass’ ‘steel drum effect’ ‘pounding away’/ they do one more a.b. track but we’re all too exhausted to yell with recognition it’s all too much it’s all too/ they end with a piece that is one half sea shanty the other half atonal noise freakout this is where it all comes together for me, for us, for sigur ros they’re just four people with four other people playing strings but somehow they make music here that’s big enough to prove things smart enough to move things important enough to justify all the hype and i don’t care who you are they’re simply one of the most important bands in the world right now./ there are moments during this last piece where i am actually terrified: at the amount of angry rock hell they are unleashing on my poor eardrums; at the way the strings compliment and mock the slashings and the beatings; at the way everyone in the audience is just mesmer-fucking-ized at this stuff. i’m scared and i like it./
And then it ends. We keep clapping, North American custom, and they do all come out, but only to link arms and bow, twice, theatre-style, a curtain call but no way could they ever top what they just did as any kind of encore. (Well, maybe if they played “Sweet Home Alabama” or something.)
As we file out, the following pronouncements. Carmela: “Wow.” Bill: “That was the single greatest thing I have ever witnessed in my life.” My brother: “I wish that they had actually blown my eardrums out at the end so I could never hear anything less cool than that.”