This week the 9:30 Club was completely transformed by the will, voice, and performance of Jonsi for two nights in a row. This tall, elf-like, painfully shy vocalist stood center-stage surrounded by a four-piece band of multi-instrumentalists whose unusual instruments filled the stage. Behind them and flanking the stage, beautifully produced video elements were projected onto screens in concert with an expertly staged light show to re-invent the club’s space in a way I have rarely seen before. The combination of the show’s next-level theatrical production values and the truly beautiful yet bizarre music made for two of the most audience enveloping, emotional performances I have seen at the 9:30 Club in 15 years.
If you are at all familiar with Jonsi’s original band Sigur Ros, you probably have an idea of how BIG he thinks when it comes to his music and extravagant live performances. Jonsi debuted his solo album earlier this year and has been performing various manifestations of this show with his incredible backing band at outdoor festivals, proper theaters, and large nightclubs. His show adapts well to whatever environment it finds itself in. I saw Jonsi perform at the Coachella Music Festival this past Spring and his performance there was so powerfully unique that I described it as “so other-worldly that I don’t even know if it took place in the same time-space continuum as the rest of the festival.” Allow me to expand on that idea when I describe the two shows at the 9:30 Club earlier this week. Jonsi’s musical alchemy somehow managed to transport the entire club and everyone in it into some sort of shamanistic pocket universe for an hour and a half each night. Both the performance and the performance space became enchanted by Jonsi and his band until they returned the club safely to its perch at 815 V St. promptly at 10:30 each night.*
The differences between Jonsi’s set at Coachella and the two at the 9:30 Club this week are obvious and affected the impact each made on the listener. At Coachella there was no stage production other than this band of freakishly talented men lead by Jonsi. The natural beauty of the southern California desert at sunset substituted for 59 Productions’ video and light show. In a way being outdoors made the performance feel more animalistic and Jonsi’s voice seemed strong and loud enough to stretch out across the desert forever. There was no ceiling to hold this voice in. The set list was ordered differently at Coachella too, focused more on high-energy with occasional somber interludes. The shows this week featured a carefully controlled, indoor environment and a setlist that moved masterfully from somber songs to exuberant jubilation until its apocalyptic finale.
At the 9:30 Club, the stage was decorated with a large screen covered by images of bare tree branches. Two smaller screens were on either side of the stage. During the course of each concert, pre-produced video segments ran in-time with the music and lighting. Each video was breath-taking. The animation and production styles varied with each, even as the concert’s thematic thread ran through them. At one point we had the point-of-view of an Owl swooping through a forest, then we were looking through windows as flood waters rose against them, finally we were sitting safely inside the eye of a tornado as it raged around us destroying everything in its path. The themes of the show presented nature as a violent conflict and yet capable of captivating beauty.
The video segments were made even more powerful by the best fog and light show I have seen since Boris and Sunn O))) performed Altar at All Tomorrow’s Parties earlier this year. It was incredible how the lights dramatically accentuated the musical performance and radically affected the mood and appearance of the stage from song to song. Band members would literally reposition behind clouds of darkness and fog while others drew the audiences’ eye with solos. It was a musical chairs, magic act of lighting tech and I was amazed by it. My favorite moment of lighting was early in the show when Jonsi’s insanely powerful and talented drummer was working a kick-drum (or timpani?) transition between two songs. The entire club and stage went dark and a powerful white spotlight backlit the drum-kit each time he delivered a powerful solitary blow. This went on for four or five drum strikes and was one of the coolest light tricks I have seen.
Jonsi’s band is incredible. I watched the show from the floor on night one: to fully experience the audio-visual beast from inside its belly. On night two I watched the show from the upstairs: taking advantage of the bird’s-eye view to really watch these masterfully players at work. Jonsi’s music is very keyboard/organ and percussion heavy. There were several different keyed instruments on-stage, including a glockenspiel and one of those crazy, super-bass heavy organs in a suitcase.** Everyone took turns on the keys at some point; it was especially amazing to see their fingers flying over the keyboards during Jonsi’s faster songs like ‘Go Do’ or ‘Animal Arithmetic’. The drummer had a massive traditional drum-kit on one end of the stage and more Einsturzende Neubauten flavored one (made out of dented bowls and a suitcase) at the other. It was thrilling to watch the percussionist at work on either kit. Even during the seemingly slower somber songs the drummer was working like a madman making quiet percussive noises and keeping a bass drum beat that felt like the heartbeat of the earth itself.
Some comments must be made about the sound at these two shows. I know I often go off on tangents about how great the sound system at 9:30 Club can be when used right, so I will try to get right to the point. Jonsi joins the list with Kraftwerk, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Isis (the first time), Einsturznde Neubauten, and Mogwai as one of the very best sound-engineered shows that I have heard at the club. You could hear every minor instrumental movement made on stage. Not only that, you could isolate exactly where the sound came from. They had that stage micro-phoned so brilliantly that I could hardly believe my senses. “Nothing sounds this good, it must be some kind of trick!” And yet there I was on both nights in utter awe at some of the best live sound production I have ever heard.
That gets me to the main attraction of the night. Jonsi’s voice! Already famous for his angelic, alien vocals with Sigur Ros; Jonsi brought the full gamut of his vocal talent to both shows. It is not just that Jonsi has a big voice or that he can hit those high register notes like few can. I mean he can do those vocal acrobatics, tear-jerking frequencies, and glacial wind howls unlike any male singer I have witnessed. It was also his precise control of his voice that amazed me. There were quiet moments when it was just Jonsi singing, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a xylophone, that found the entire audience holding its breath as we listened to his faintest vocal note fade out long after the instruments had. During some of these moments one could easily have mistaken his bizarre vocal techniques as a keyboard tone, but thanks to the amazing sound design of these shows, it was obvious that we were listening to one very rare human voice.
* Yeah I read a lot of Alpha Flight as a teen.
**Does anyone know what that instrument is called? If so please comment.
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great write-up of a great show. yes, it really was that good.
“organs in a suitcase” – i didn’t see them, but if it’s relatively small (~2.5-octave keyboard, something you could carry on a plane) then they are called harmophones. they have little pumps that blow air through them. koestler is the brand i’ve heard of most often. they’re old, haven’t been manufactured for decades… would be fitting that jonsi used one.
Yes, I think you’re talking about a reed or pump organ. They sound sort of like an accordion or an overgrown melodica, because that’s basically what they are.
Jónsi’s band usually involves a harmonium. Also, he starts out writing songs on a combination of harmonium, ukulele, accordion – oh and guitar and piano.
Iceland is the most charming ever.
Thanks for all the ideas. From googling pics of both Harmoniums and Harmophones to compare, it looks like they may have had both on stage.
The Harmophone was on the floor in a case with a lid and someone sat on the ground to play it. I think they may have had a Harmonium on riser.
Either way, an impressive set-up of organs on stage.