Live Music + Gig Reviews

Björk @ Hammersmith Apollo, London

14 April 2008

She’d irked and ired the governments of China and Serbia before arriving for the London leg of her Volta tour, dedicating Declare Independence to the peoples of Tibet and Kosovo.

But even without that international news agenda item, tickets for dates on Björk’s first UK tour in four years, in support of 2007 album Volta, were hotter than a geothermally heated mud bath in Reykjavik.

After a couple of albums of womb-like earth-mother material, Björk would like to play at dancing. Her musical director has brought with him a mind-boggling device called a “react-table” – a pool of green light onto which blobs of what might be kryptonite are placed, turned and moved. These, somehow, make great big noises, especially when he draws lines between them with his fingers.

Taking to the stage alongside the alienesque technology, a troupe of female horn players are dressed seemingly in the garb of medieval warriors from a fairytale. Their costumes are topped off with flags. Björk helpfully introduces them as ‘The Wonder Brass’.

Straddling these two universes, a besuited, bespectacled gentleman sits stage left, ready to render a celeste and a harpsichord useful.

Björk, of course, is the only force on Earth capable of uniting such disparate elements of orga and mecha, of past and future, of outlandish and practical. As if to say so, she’s dressed in a foil-like outfit of equal parts pink and silver. Atop her head is a confection of brightly coloured pom-poms. Tribal beats begin. “We are the Earth Intruders,” she informs the denizens of Hammersmith.

As she hop-skips across the stage, her tiny frame instantly owning it, streamers burst from her hands to add yet another visual element to the already richly decorated set. TV screens allow sight of the band’s electronic wizardry in action, while around the horn section shifting light colours, smoke and ensigns mix, match and fade.

Toumani Diabate, widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest living kora player, limps onto the stage in flowing African robes, sits centre stage and plays Hope as charmer to Björk’s dancing snake with the beauifully crafted instrument. Each performer is in their element – Björk dancing her own inimitable rhythm, Diabate’s fingers flying as though operating independently of his body.

Volta contains two duets with Antony Hegarty; tonight we’re given The Dull Flame Of Desire as Hegarty takes to the stage to delighted gasps from the audience, his huge frame dwarfing his host and his supernaturally unique voice contrasting with hers. As with Diabate’s appearance, Björk simultaneously performs with her guest and on her own – but given the song’s theme of people moving in different directions, this rendering seems entirely in keeping. For nearly all the performance, Hegarty focuses on her, as if bewitched.

She follows this encounter with Homogenic track Joga, rendered a mix of old world instruments and jarring, spacious beats. Following on from this context, Vertebre By Vertebre’s menacing horns seemed more menacing live than on record.

Vökuro reminded the world that Björk can do yearning, epic numbers too. The Medlla number, sung in Icelandic, was a notable and unexpected change of pace and atmosphere, her horn section downing tools and her besuited harpsichordist providing a memorable backing to that unique voicebox.

But she didn’t get all neoned up for nothing. Hints of what was to come were let out of the bag with Army Of Me’s floor-shaking, all-encompassing bassline, and recent single Wanderlust ramped the beats-per-minute a little more in the direction of a drum’n’bass rave. Hyperballad ratcheted energy levels up still further. But all of these served merely as hors d’oeuvres for the sensational, speaker-exploding Pluto which, despite a rather swampy sound mix that emphasised bass and reverb more than it should have, was a treat.

Wild applause pleaded for more and was obliged with the reappearance of the horn section at the front of the stage for The Anchor Song, the only track from Björk’s first solo album Debut to be aired. Declare Independence was next, last and spectacular, the audience encouraged to go “higher, higher!”, and delivered without dedication to province or fledgling nation.

After such an extravagant, innovative and entertaining performance, Björk’s audience left Hammersmith beaming from ear to ear and hoping she wouldn’t take another four years to return from her spaceship.


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