Sigur Rós were the headline band on the third and final day of A Perfect Day festival in the picturesque setting of Castello Scaligero, in Villafranca on the outskirts of Verona.
The forecast was for rain and possible thunderstorms but, miraculously, it stayed dry for us punters packed inside a fortress where a full moon seemed to have been specially ordered to add to the atmosphere.
It was the first time I’d seen the band live, although from twenty years of consuming recordings + DVDs and ,after seeing Jónsi during his solo tour, I felt I had a fair idea of what to expect.
It was good to be among an audience to pay collective tribute to this unique group who have produced some of the most astounding and moving music over the past two decades. There’s no substitute for being at a concert and sharing the experience with other fans even if, nowadays, this means having to peer past a veritable sea of mobile phones and cameras held aloft as an obsessive digital-capture ritual.
As the show was billed as part of the ‘Valtari tour’, I was, not unreasonably, expecting to hear them play a lot of material from their latest album. I was curious to see how they would perform such quiet, minimalist material to a large audience baying for the old favourites whose power and popularity has been well established.
I was surprised and , I have to say, disappointed that, of the fourteen songs played, only two (Ekki Múkk and Varúð) came from the new record. In contrast there were four tracks from their 1999 breakthrough album Ágætis Byrjun.
The set list actually had a lot of similarities with their live album/film ‘Inni’ right down the moment where Jónsi holds a single note during the song, Festival (although he couldn’t quite manage the full 48 seconds this time).
This is odd because this lavish audio-visual recording of the band’s shows at Alexandra Palace seemed designed to mark the end of a phase in the band’s career. Kjarri of the band, said of these London shows: “It was kind of the end of an era” with the strong implication that this was the last time many of these songs would be played live. There was a lot of talk of finding a new direction and some speculation that the band were about to call it a day.
After a four-year hiatus, Valtari had a painful gestation period but eventually presented the Icelanders in a more reflective ambient mood where the piano and choir largely supersede Jónsi’s epic bowed guitar sound.
It was not such a radical departure, but who really expected them to get into disco or rap? This was simply a subtle change of pace and I had high hopes that this new material could be transformed into a transcendental live experience.
Part of reason for their dependency on a tried and tested set list can be gleaned from a recent interview in the Reykjavík’s Grapevine magazine. Here, Jónsi commented that “festivals are a kind of circus” implying that they are events where consolidation of a band’s reputation is more the order of the day. Georg ‘Goggi’ Holm added that these shows were deemed to be the wrong environment for playing the understated tunes we find on Valtari.
The other reason for the safety first approach was almost certainly down to the absence of founder member and multi-instrumentalist Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson who has decided that his days of energy sapping world tours are over. His place was taken by Ólafur Björn Ólafsson on keyboards and oboe, and Kjartan Dagur Hólm, younger brother of Georg. They proved efficient but uninspiring substitutes. At first, the sound was not quite right, with slight feedback and a rumbling bass sound, and the piano all the way through sounded a little clunky to my ears.
Perhaps because I’ve listened to and loved so much of their inspiring music over the past twenty years or so, I came to this concert with impossibly high expectations. I expected ninety minutes of shedding tears and/or feeling goosebumps but in the event I felt quite overwhelmed yet detached, with only the climactic section of Popplagið (the final song) really hitting home.
It was an experience not to be missed all the same and the enthusiastic fan feedback about this show on the band’s website indicates that most customers went home well satisfied with the evening’s entertainment.