Some concert halls feel like chapels. Hallowed walls vibrate a warm room tone; the masterful lights transport the listener to another realm where music has color and pulse.
Attend enough shows at the same spot and the venue starts to feel like a friend. Any more than that and it’s a music family dwelling, or a church. To San Francisco concertgoers of a certain era, the Warfield felt like one of those places. Twenty years ago this week, for my nightlife column “Dilettante,” I saw Björk there.
Sometimes there’s an artist whose contributions and collaborations are so ground-breaking and iconoclastic, the only way to find the words to express it is to repost an hour-long documentary about it, featuring scores of very accomplished legacy musicians articulating the nuances of her genius:
In her thirty-plus year career, Björk has composed and facilitated some of the most complicated, clean, angular neo-classical dub space opera (along with corresponding fashions and collaborations) a woman has ever produced.
Her music, timeless and quite inexplicable, empowered grrrls to riot, even quietly in their own arctic spaces — and on this night in 1998 Björk filled the Warfield with other women who wouldn’t fit in, and we howled along to her oddities like she was the coyote mom.
Twenty years later, I don’t think it’s too far off to say she’s one of Western culture’s greatest living artists, now that Bowie and Prince have died. (Notice I did not say she was human because what if she’s actually a selkie.)
A spoon full of Sugarcubes – Björk holds court at the Warfield
by Summer Burkes, 05.26.1998
Market research in this decade has presumably decreed that female pop stars should be either transparent, midriff-bearing, photo-ready Barbies or simpering, doe-eyed, acoustic guitartoting, greasy-haired squeakers. Gone are the strong, mountain-moving voices of Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Melanie, and Helen Reddy; gone are the delicate, intricate compositions of Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones.
Aside from a few obvious exceptions, if women choose to be the slightest bit off-center or outspoken in pop music today, they’d better do it either for agenda-wielding Lillithians only, or self-consciously and in shrunken clothing. And if female pop stars are going to strive for sheer artistry, they’d better abandon hopes of stardom and resign themselves to a life of small clubs and broken-down tour vans.
That’s only half the reason Björk (née Björk Gudmundsdottir, born of hippie Icelandic parents, former Sugarcubes singer, consistent “Breakthrough Video” winner, frequent nose-picker during interviews) is so refreshing.
Not only is Björk an opinionated, attractive-yet-androgynous artist in a scene that largely misrepresents women, she’s also a rare talent who meshes elements of high art with modern technology to create an elegantly destructive sound all her own.
When she sings in English, she’s a soaring, growling, halting soprano pixie. When she sings in Icelandic, she’s a force of nature. Live, she’s exuberant, exotic, accurate, and thoroughly charming.
Desperate, ticketless people converge in front of the Warfield Friday night to try their luck getting into the Björk show; pairs of tickets are going for up to $250. Inside the ornate concert hall, people are lining up to buy tour shirts that say “Björk” on the front and “sod off” on the back.
Musique, a lone DJ, twiddles knobs and creates enjoyable, undanceable one-man drum’n’bass noisefests that sound like a symphonic recording, a broken drum machine, and a New-Age CD all playing simultaneously.
My companion and I decided before the show that we’d entertain ourselves during lulls by counting the number of women in the audience with knobby, raver-kid hairstyles á la Björk 5 years ago, but we only spot about 20 or 30 all night. Suited corporate types, punks, techno kids, and Gap shoppers of all ages are milling around together. Everybody loves Björk.
Björk’s accompaniment files onto the stage, looking frighteningly minimal: only one DJ and the Icelandic String Octet. Björk then appears in typically avant-garde attire: her white mini-dress has pleated, diaphanous “wings” that attach along her sides and up her arms, and she’s painted her forehead and nose a stark white. After dedicating the first song to the specialness of compilation tapes in uncertain English, she launches into “Headphones.”
As she sings, she flits like a little imp, waving her arms in front of her and skanking Rastafari-style to make her white wings fly. The backdrop to the stage, what appeared before the show to be a striated, multicolored 20-foot shower curtain, now looks (depending on the lighting) like a giant womb, an undersea space station, or the inside of a nuclear anemone.
Throughout the show, the musicianship doesn’t falter once. The orchestration sounds consistently full. At times the fusion of classical strings, clattery techno beats, and Björk’s taut soprano seems to be almost too much noise for the ears to take.
Her musical style has always been implemented with nods to electronic music, and live, she validates her methods: bleeps, ticks, thuds, and conversational lyrics can sound majestic if done right, and two diverging music genres (one seen as crude or too repetitive, the other seen as stuffy and boring) can be tweaked and manipulated to become sublime.
And ah that voice. She sings in English and Icelandic. She crouches down and sustains a note for a good 30 seconds. She runs back and forth onstage for most of the show and still has the breath to shout, snarl, whisper, and coo.
“Venus as a Boy” sounds like a precocious child’s composition; “Bachelorette” could be the accompaniment to a remake of a desert-movie classic like Cleopatra, and “Violently Happy” starts out sounding just like the “Macarena” (no lie) and ends like a scary, sternum-vibrating, red-lights-flashing, trouble-on-the-submarine tribal incantation.
There might be hope for house music yet. One enthusiastic fan waits for a rare moment of quiet to cup his hands and holler, “I LOOOOVE YOOOOU!!!” Björk the lovely.
During the encore, she takes a minute to meekly introduce her single “Jóga”: “I’m gonna be big-headed … and ask for … for … permission to dedicate this song to … cuz I know they’re here, you see … to … METALLICA!!”
“Jóga” sounds perfect, she plays a song nobody seems to recognize, and then she’s done. “Thank you. I hope you sleep. Go to sleep tonight.” No mawkish sentimentality, no half-baked ideology, and no midriffs: just strings, beeps, blips, and a voice as polished as ice.
This is the 10th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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