Olympic Island, Toronto, September 3, 2003
I was told to pick up my ticket at the ferry docks at the corner of Younge
and Front streets, the very beating heart of Toronto’s downtown waterfront. I
was familiar with the neighborhood and I’d even ridden the Staten Island
ferry once or twice, so I figured that was enough to go on. As I crossed
Front street, I fell in with a crowd of very young and enthusiastic concertgoers
who crowded together as they passed through the gates, waving their dayglo
plastic mallets in the air, the kind you usually see filled with candy. As
they broke into a chant (“One! Two! She’s Great!”) I thought that Bjork’s
audience demographic skewed younger and more enthusiastic than
I expected. It only gradually occured to me that this wasn’t a crowd of concertgoers but was instead a high school field trip.
After finally finding the will call window, I crammed in at the rail between other concertgoers of the ferry to Olympic Island, watching the sails
of pleasure craft that dotted the harbor under the skyscrapers of Toronto,
the brilliant blue of the sky beginning to cool as the sun approached the
horizon. I knew that I was on my way to see Bjork in concert on one of the
islands in Lake Ontario that roughly define the extents of the harbor (my
guidebook map had indicated that much) but didn’t have much more information
to go on. I did however reflect on the strangeness of being stuck on a boat
with what seemed like the whole crowd for the concert, listening in on conversations,
and waiting for the last show of the summer to begin.
The gnats were dancing in the slanting light of the sunset as we disembarked
and were herded onto a path past what looked like an old style amusement
park. As I shuffled along I saw a guy jump the metal sectional fence and
bury a gutting knife blade first in the flowered verge. A sound somewhere
between an air raid siren and a theramin echoed through the trees. Over a
footbridge and past the security and I was inside the venue, where plenty
of people had already arrived, having laid out picnic blankets and relaxing
on the broad lawn in front of the stage that the gaffers were still clambering
I managed to spend most of Bonnie Prince Billy’s opening set in the line
at the beer tent, and while it was difficult to hear much of what he was
singing, my general impression of his acoustic guitar arrangements was pleasant
enough to make the wait tolerable, even when someone asked me the “super
huge favor” of buying her beer once I’d reached the front of the line (no).
After downing a couple (Molson) Canadians, I pressed forward towards the
stage along with everyone else as the technicians began to test
the lights and video projection with a test pattern filling the screen behind
the stage. This crowd was about as well-mannered and polite as any I’d ever
seen, no one jostling or cutting as it moved forward, although I did end
up standing on somebody’s picnic blanket the whole show. Some one cued
up what sounded like the Scandinavian version of Hooked on Phonics and
began noodling on a synthesizer, and the sweet smelling skunk smoke floated
past on the breeze. This lasted for quite awhile, and the crowd began to
talk loudly over the music.
It was to rapturous applause then that Bjork arrived, her backing group
filing behind the Icelandic String Octet, multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins
(harp, accordion and celesta) and two guys manning a large bank of synthesizers
and computer monitors. She was dressed in a mini-dress and tights accented
by puffy green crepe flamenco sleeves, her hair cut into an asymmetrical
bob that accentuated the large disc of textured green makeup over her eyes, reminding me of nothing but a comic book super villainess (the kind
the hero ends up falling for, of course).
From the moment that she began to sing, she owned the audience.
Her voice commands a tremendous range, and her mannerisms on stage are the
perfect composition of a performer’s commanding poise and the absolute openness
of a child fully open to the moment. The arrangement of the music was also
a captivating dialectic, the electronic beats from the boys at the boards
conjoined and counterpoised with the organic flow of the string section and
accordion. “Pagan Poetry” began with the tinny sound of a toy piano
and spiraled organically into a lustrous celesta solo.
The most surprising moment of the performance had nothing
to do with the music. As Bjork raised her voice to the chorus of “Joga,”
haunting enough in words alone, HUGE jets of flame burst from the edge of
the stage, ten feet tall if they were an inch, instantly lighting
the faces of the crowd in a surreal orange glow. (As Bjork leaned forward overcome
with emotion, I silently prayed to not see this on a Behind the Music).
Another surprising but wonderful moment was when she asked for the crowd’s
assistance. “Can you help me” she asked, “to sing happy birthday?” for one
of the cellists in the Icelandic String Octet. These human touches were present
throughout; on “Aurora,” which begins with the sound of footsteps on snow,
what I would surely have assumed was a prerecorded Foley effect, one of the
boys from the boards stepped out to tread upon a footpad of rock salt to
create that strange crunching rhythm.
As the encore of “Human Behavior” built to its pounding conclusion
Bjork urged the crowd into a waving, dancing frenzy. I noticed yellow tongues
of sparks beginning to rise gradually into the sky behind the stage until
the air was completely full of golden tracers and yellow starbursts, all
the normal bangs and crackles of that combustion completely overwhelmed by
I had about a two-hour wait for the ferry ride back to the mainland. From
the water’s edge I watched the Toronto skyline’s reflection in the water and
listened to the waves quietly lap the shore. The moon was full. Summer had turned to autumn with the twilight but the season still echoed within me, like her music.
Bjork can be discovered further on
her excellent website with complete gig information including
pictures, set lists and links to reviews. While I was at the Beguiling,
I overheard someone say that Kid
Koala (who also opened this show, but who I completely missed) had been
giving away copies of his graphic
novel on stage.