Bjork: The Island at the End of Summer

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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

over.

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

the music.

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.

7 thoughts on “Bjork: The Island at the End of Summer”

  1. Postscript:

    A friend of mine has told me a story, perhaps apocryphal, of driving to Toronto from Michigan on a weeknight to see the Sugarcubes perform to a half empty bar in Chinatown, and leaving as soon as it was over to get back in time for high school home room. Now I can claim despite the fact I took awhile longer to get there, I have a story that rivals his. At least after a couple of pitchers of IPA

  2. “. . .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 began to wonder whether your long wait in line coupled with wheedling requests for beer caused a rage, at which point you started knocking down Torontonians with a dayglo plastic mallet, but then there’s that brand name. . .

    (Good piece.)

  3. I lost my job at JCPenny because I went to that show in China Town. (Funny how businesses fire people for skipping work three days in a row) The Sugarcubes were playing in a bar above a fish market. I was 17, and I think that their first LP was only recently available in the US.

    I left with two friends and $45 in my pocket. This was back with the Port Huron crossing consisted of a 45mph drivethough, and no one seemed to care that three teenagers with fake IDs were running the Northern boarders of the country.

    So we made it. And there I was, standing in a line on the sidewalk in China town, a long line of punks and other odd balls waiting to get into the tiny bar. The street stunk of fish from that morning’s market and the residue of the dirty gutter.

    None of that seemed to matter, though. Right after we got in line we found ourselves standing next to the entire band, who hung out on the street for over an hour, smoking cigs and speaking in that freaky weird Icelandic tongue.

    At one point I remember Bjork standing right next to me. Even with her Robert Smith hair style, I could see right over her. She must have been 4′ tall. She wore that outfit that I think I remember from the Birthday video. It was all that I could do not to tackle her to the ground and commit random acts of vulgarity.

    The show was cool. A hot night at the very end of summer. A band that few of my friends had yet discovered. I had not idea that she would go on to become a major Stadium act, nor that she would even be making music when I was 32.

  4. It is due only to the mellow tones of Bonnie Prince Billy that I didn’t go on a warm canadian beer fueled rampage. Who knows what would have happened had I gotten beer during Kid Koala’s set, which was apparently more manic and upbeat based on some of the other reviews I’ve read.

  5. i traveled all the way from monterrey, mexico to toronto for the concert ..as you know mexicans are shorter so everyone was so nice and i got very close to the stage.. the concert was amazing i will never forget the experience

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