I barely need to write a review of the astonishing performance that took place Wednesday on Toronto’s Olympic Island. Even though it’s not yet a week behind me, I feel as if it must have happened decades ago, before I was born even, and I’m only recalling it through an apocryphal haze.
Like David Bowie’s concert in 1973 where he announced that Ziggy Stardust would never play again. Or the Dead Kennedys’ first show at Mabuhay Gardens in 1978, when a punk show could still cause rioting-think the Sex Pistols’ recent gig at the Molson Amphitheatre (where fans turned unruly when the band abruptly walked offstage less than halfway through their set), times 10.
Or maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about, which is fine, too. Because the Björk concert was really a different type of rock show altogether, now that I think about it. Instead of raw power, Björk’s was a perfectly planned, multi-layered performance. Like an opera, it incorporated aspects to engage both eye and ear. It was as theatrical as Kiss, but without the grossness.
The concert, her second since releasing the album Vespertine, included a six- (at least) piece string orchestra, a harpist, techno duo (and frequent collaborators) Matmos, lots of pyro, and fireworks. The songs in her set were the cream of her last two albums, with only two great older hits, “Isobel” and “Human Behaviour.” Homogenic’s big sound featured more than the more delicate and meditative Vespertine material.
The diminutive singer was dressed bizarrely as usual in a sequined black ballerina dress with green frills around her neck. Watching her skip around the stage or shyly ask the crowd if they could help her sing “Happy Birthday” to a musician, it was easy to forget she’s a mother in her thirties.
Starting the set off with “Hunter,” she sang the beautifully fairylike track “Pagan Poetry” from Vespertine before jets of flame shot from either side of the stage during a high point of the string-heavy “Joga.” The amazed crowd then went into shock as fireworks exploded during the song’s climax.
Though faltering a little in the first few songs, Björk’s powerful voice pierced through the wall of sound being created by Matmos’s computers. She ran through tinkling masterpieces like “It’s Not Up To You,” “All Is Full of Love,” “Joga,” “Hidden Place,” and “Bachelorette,” slowly increasing the tempo and volume, adding electroclash-y riffs where there were none. She sang the blistering “Pluto” near the end, its searing noise accompanied by a crescendo of fireworks and pyrotechnics.
Intriguing and puzzling digital projections accompanied several tracks in the show’s second half. Disembodied arms floated in a kind of amniotic fluid with jellyfish-like creatures and fetuses, and people in Inuit dress flashed by interspersed with wolves and crude drawings of genitalia.
Maybe it was because the day had been so gorgeous, the grass so soft, the crowd relatively intimate (astonishingly, the show did not sell out), but it felt like Björk and her opener Kid Koala had truly dispensed joy to the people. Kudos to its organizers for the clever idea of having it on the island, the only place I can think of where a set like this, equally secluded and explosive, could be put on.