Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sigur Rós + The Mountain Goats

A big gig week last week. Not so much in the Harmer/Kitson/Nicholas/DAAS sense of The Big Gig. Maybe that's more appropriate for this week, since it's Comedy Festival time and Lucy, Morgan, Jimeoin, Fleet, Lano & Woodley and Scared Weird Little Guys all have shows.

Tuesday night was Sigur Rós at the Palais. I dislike the Palais for rock gigs, mainly since Belle & Sebastian last year. It's cavernous and gives you the unpalatable choice of sitting up the top, with decent sound but a long way from the stage, or down the bottom, with questionable sound and possibly restricted view, though closer to the stage.

That said, it wasn't too bad for Sigur Rós. There's unlikely to be much dancing regardless, and my seat in the middle at the top was pretty good for sitting back and letting the music wash over you. Sound was fair though relatively quiet, and the light show was impressive from that distance, especially the opaque backlit curtain, which gave monstrous frantic silhouettes for a portion of the evening.

I like the band but am not their biggest fan; having loved Takk but not heard much before except bits of Ágætis Byrjun. I suspect I lacked enough context to really appreciate the intricate, deep and unconventional pieces, and those I did know were vaguely disappointing in the live setting. While pleased to hear my three highlights of the album, Glósóli, Hoppípolla and Sæglópur, they all seemed to lack a bit of power in the vast hall, with only (!) a string quartet backing the band. Yeah, I got goosebumps when the distortion hit in Glósóli, but they faded rapidly. And the backing string riff that carries Hoppípolla was thin without brass to garnish it. (Yeah, OK, maybe I did wish they were Broken Social Scene just for an instant.) And the big drums in Sæglópur seemed a pale imitation of the record.

So, yeah, they were good, but not wonderful. But that's for me. Sean at A Reminder gives a better review of the Sydney show (or two) from a true fan perspective. (Like him, I agree that the support were excellent.)

The other disappointing thing about Sigur Rós was the lack of audience connection. By Pat's reckoning, Jonsi spoke one word for the entire show - 'Takk' after the track of the same name. This always disappoints me. The Mountain Goats, at The Corner the next night, showed why.

I'm a bit of a Mountain Goats fan but, again, not a huge one. I've listened to The Sunset Tree and found it very good. I've listened to We Shall All be Healed and found it patchy. So while waiting through the always pleasant Mike Noga, and the manic, promising, yet ultimately unrefined Tucker Bs in support, I wasn't sure what to expect. Then the stage was cleared, leaving just two mikes. And for some reason I was prepared to be disappointed.

Design Your Own Container Garden (SAR?)
Dance Music (ST)
You or Your Memory (ST)
Ox Baker Triumphant (EP)
Alibi (EP)
Love Love Love (ST)
Tallahassee (T)
Up the Wolves (ST)
Jenny (AHWT)
Color in Your Cheeks (AHWT)
Dilaudid (ST) [guitar tacet]
I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone (S) (Billie Holiday) [a cappella, unamplified]
Song for Dennis Brown (ST)
Wait For You (EP)
Lion's Teeth (ST)
Shadow Song (CG)
This Year (ST)
See America Right (T)
Lonesome Surprise (NBP) [singalong]

I don't know that I've ever seen a musician so enthusiastic on stage as John Darnielle. With just him, on guitar and vocals, and Peter Hughes, on bass and backing vocals, there's a heap of stage to fill. He smiles infectiously and dances goofily and chats comfortably; despite the relative obscurity of the first track, the audience feel ready to go with him. Then, when the packed crowd choruses the opening line of Dance Music, his gobsmacked, heartfelt "you guys rock!" sucks us all in.

Stories, stories, stories. Ox Baker was an old-school US wrestler, Dennis Brown was the greatest reggae singer, Alibi is about a girl he once knew. Sure, he's told them a thousand times, but that just helps them work. The setlist is malleable - Up the Wolves comes from an audience request, and only after a minute or two working out the chords with Hughes (who actually seems to know the songs better than Darnielle). He mucks up Dilaudid a couple of times, then ignores the guitar and sings over Hughes' semi-improvised bass line. Then, having broken a string, we get a chat while Hughes changes it, then an unmiked a cappella version of the only song know to be written by Billie Holiday. Versatility.

Apparently we're the biggest audience he's ever played to, which I find kinda hard to believe since he's been around fifteen years. But certainly this was one of the most receptive crowds I've been in for a while. Well, OK, only since Broken Social Scene at the same venue; but it was a while before that. Good-natured and everyone seemed to leave the venue smiling. Yeah, they didn't play Pale Green Things, or anything from We Shall All be Healed (which probably required keys or drums), but everything we heard was excellent; almost spot on the record, but not mechanically so. And the all-in singalong in Lonesome Surprise was the cream on the cake.

I'd go to this gig again in a second, and will be chasing up some of the old albums I haven't heard. This was a real highlight.