Concert Review: Björk, Matmos (October 14, 2001, Chicago, IL)

Sparkling slivers fell like snow around Björk Gudmundsdottir as she stood in a single spotlight, performing her wizardry while perched on a stool, for the opening music box lullaby, “Frosti.” Then another instrumental filled the Civic Opera House, this time utilizing the 54-piece orchestra in the pit below. “Overture” — the classical musical strain from Dancer in the Dark, for which Björk was nominated for best actress — allowed the tuba and bellowing brass to rumble amid the transcending strings. The two songs set the tone for the first set of the show — an introverted perusal with backdrops of winter landscapes.

Then the 35-year-old Icelandic diva, decked out in the famous swan dress she wore to the Oscars, finally took the mic for “All Is Full of Love.” That, along with “Harm of Will” and “Unison,” seemed more restrained than the portraits of intimacy she captured so effortlessly in her latest release, Vespertine.

Björk especially strove for that intimacy during “Cocoon.” While one of the highlights, it didn’t quite reach the whispering subjective world of the recording. It was further distracted by the synthesizer duo Matmos, who were affectionate with one another — perhaps illustrating the song’s intent. “It’s Not Up To You” and “Joga” were more successful as Björk, the orchestra, and the 11-member female Inuit choir from Greenland belted out the songs, finding wonder and beauty in the combination. Despite the number of artists involved, it became apparent that Zeena Parkins was the most vital musician as she rotated between the harp, celeste, accordion, and harmonium. The Matmos electronica duo, which opened for Björk, provided the programming.

Björk opened her second set with “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” but in her Icelandic tongue. This time she wore a cherry snazzy top with a ball belle skirt made of faded red ostrich feathers, dipped in black at the ends. The ascending orchestral sounds wavered amid Björk’s voice. “Isobel” and “Pagan Poetry” best used all of the elements Björk could choose from, but they paled to the extroverted artillery of “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad” from Post. They found the yin as Björk’s more aggressive side, leaning heavily on Matmos’ beats. “Generous Palmstroke,” a B-side, flourished too, sounding like a Portuguese folk song with Björk singing along, accompanied only by Parkins’ harp-playing plucks.

For the encore, Björk sifted through two songs from “Debut.” She began gingerly with “Anchor Song,” with Parkins pumping the harmonium pedals. Barefoot, as she was throughout the whole concert, she skipped through the danceable “Human Behavior.” She ended the evening with a new song, “In Our Hands,” which began with hand-clapping and ended with Björk running to the corners of the stage, throwing punches in the air to the celebratory beat.

Matmos, the San Francisco duo of M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, opened the concert with a bizarre excursion of ambient sounds that spat and sputtered throughout their near-instrumental set. The video screen behind them showed maps of streets and cities, but mostly close-ups of the human body. During one song, one of the men took a buzzing probe instrument to the other’s skin, while a third person videotaped it for everyone to see. They closed the set exploring the percussion and hissing of balloons, which felt more like performance art than a concert.

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