Whenever and wherever they play, Iceland's Sigur Ros bring with them long, deep tracts of space: the endless-ocean reverb that surrounds Jon Por Birgisson's groaning, bowed guitar; the dramatic waiting in the opening measures of songs like "Svefn-G-Englar" andf "Ny Batteri" from the band's 1999 album, Ãgaetis Byrjun; the extended afterglow of Birgisson's falsetto vocals. But last night at New York's United Palace Theater, the opening date of their current U.S. tour, Birgisson, bassist Georg HÃ³lm, keyboardist-guitarist Kjartan Sveinsson and drummer Orri Dyrason brought along even more space than usual, leaving the extra strings and occasional horns at home. For the first time since their debut U.S. tour in the spring of 2001, Sigur Ros are performing live here solely as an electric quartet.
The effect was a modern arctic spin on the classic, galactic rock of the early Seventies Pink Floyd: simple, powerful notes, chords and flourishes that gathered weight and force as they boomed through the room. Imagine a whole night of "Echoes" from the Floyd's Meddle — with even more room for echo. The grandeur was typically glacial for much of Sigur Ros' two-hour show but also faster and harder in the closing, climbing rapture of "Hoppopolla," the drummed-bass-string march "Hafsol" and the eccentric-boogie glee of "Gobbledigook." The return to basics may be a combined side product of the majestic, mostly outdoor shows featured in the recent concert documentary Hlemmur and the quick, mostly live sessions for the group's latest studio album, Med sud Ã eyrum vid spilum ednalaust. "We feel freer, more open up there," Holm admitted backstage, after the concert. The big smile on Birgisson's face as he strummed hard on his acoustic guitar in "Gobbledigook" was cheerful proof.
It was a first-night show, and there were a couple of rough spots. Birgisson had a minor amp crisis at one point, holding up a song, and when he asked members of the opening Icelandic band Parachutes to help fatten the beat on "Gobbledigook," they came out with drum sticks but no drums. (He sent them back.) But the big music ended with a fitting big finish: Birgisson's feedback-like singing and Dyrason's heavy, racing heartbeat at the end of "Popplagid." That nightly climax is one of the reasons I keep going back to see this band live, and I never tire of it. The best part about tonight: The whole show was just as loud, bright and beautiful.