By Mark Guarino
The only expectation someone could have of Bjork’s sold-out show at the Civic Opera House Sunday is that it would be unorthodox.
That’s what happens for a world tour touting an 11-member choir from Greenland, a harpist, a 52-piece orchestra and a cult electronic duo who could have simply sampled all of the above on a computer and saved on the catering budget.
But unorthodoxy is Bjork’s last name (actually, it’s Gudmundsdottir). The allure of the 36-year-old Icelandic pop singer is indeed her quirks in music, fashion and multi-media. Call her the hipster’s Madonna. Except, unlike Madonna’s in-your-face method of teasing, Bjork’s provocations come in miniature moments. In last year’s film “Dancer In the Dark,” she played a timid, bespectacled martyr mom who burst into lavish song and dance numbers in her dreams when no one was looking.
No wonder she was perfect for the role and said since that she wouldn’t act ever again. How could she top playing herself? Bjork onscreen and off is the queen of the squirrelly misfits. Her inner world is fragile, but happens to sound especially great on her five albums, souped up with heavy dance beats and swelling orchestration.
This tour kicks up her knack for extravagance to the rafters. And it was difficult not to be swept up in the eccentricity of it all. The grandly ornate opera hall typically books Puccini, not pop music, and the motley crowd of dour-looking hipsters looked wild-eyed and starved as a result of the venue’s no smoking rule.
Then there was Bjork herself, barefoot and fit into her now-infamous swan dress — feathers at the bottom and the sloping neck of a swan curling around her neck. Beside her sat Martin Schmidt and Andrew Daniel, the San Francisco duo Matmos, at a bank of computers resembling an air traffic control terminal. The choir stood in two rows behind and below, in the pit, the stirring of the orchestra. Despite the heavy number of people onstage, the show was often surprisingly rigid. The 90-minute show — divided into two set breaks — did not even entirely rely on the choir and orchestra. Although the extra personnel helped in hitting the emotional high points in a grandiose song like “Joga,” other times they felt unnecessary, swamping her delicate voice with an excessive amount of preciousness.
The point where this felt most uncomfortable was the song “I’ve Seen It All,” the duet she shares with Radiohead singer Thom Yorke. Singing both parts, Bjork led the conversation with herself as the orchestra overwhelmed the intimacy built on record. Although a cast of thousands is the recipe for classic funk music, for sensual love ballads, it is ripe for intrusion.
The show kicked in late in the game, after the choir left and the orchestra went quiet. Here, Bjork turned to her dance pop side she embraced with her previous group, the Sugarcubes.
As Matmos unleashed the electronic grind of “Army Of Me,” Bjork cracked a devilish smile for the first time that night. Dressed in her second costume — a ruby red dress with a hoop skirt of feathers — she zoomed across the stage like a kid playing airplane. The first set’s sense of austerity vanished with the brooding thump of “Human Behaviour” in which her voice shot high.
She saved the new song, “It’s in Our Hands,” to end with. Starting with a patty-cake rhythm clapped by the choir, it broke into a hyper dance beat. Bjork raced the stage like a boxer, swinging her hand in the air, as if trying to lasso the audience.
She got them, finally.
Matmos opened the show with a set of noise experiments. While visually intriguing — it featured floating balloons, map projections and a live video probe of one member’s skin — it was ultimately the same experience if you turned all your kitchen appliances on at the same time, stood there and listened.