In an age when pop music fans pay upwards of $200 to watch Britney Spears lip-synch to four songs, it’s good to know there are a few true artists left to push the creative envelope. Bjork has staked her career on an ability to straddle the worlds of instantly digestible dance pop and truly challenging and experimental composition, and has won legions of fans from all walks of life because of it. Last night at Radio City Music Hall, she serenaded her fellow freaks with a sprinkling of new material from her forthcoming album Volta and a thoughtfully curated tour of her catalogue. True, she doesn’t have her own fashion collection or barbecue chain or edible make-up line, but based solely on the fact that her set was entirely different from the one she played at last weekend’s Coachella — and promises to change up for each stop on her current tour — the Icelandic powerhouse deserves the title of hardest working woman in showbiz.
The avante-gard art circus vibe got underway with tour openers Konono No. 1, a hypnotic Congolese percussion outfit that defied the limits of human stamina by playing a tireless, physically demanding set of rhythms — funneled through two old-timey gramophones to give it a crackly vintage sound — for a good forty-five minutes. Unless you were in a wheelchair, you couldn’t help but dance. And then the moment the packed house (which included Kanye West, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and SNL alum Fred Armisen) had been waiting for: Bjork traipsed onto the stage in a tomato red Pierot dress and golden gladiator boots and dove into her new single, “Earth Intruders,” a beat-drenched salute to her alien kinfolk featuring a strange Tarzan-yodel bridge. Accompanied by a ten-piece all female Icelandic horn section and by turns, a Chinese pipa player, harpsichordist, synth-and-image manipulator and some of the Konono peeps, the child-like 41-year old stalked the stage, punching the air, skipping and hopping like a punk-rock bunny rabbit.
From then on, it was mostly a run of Bjork’s previous sonic triumphs, including the much-beloved “Venus As a Boy” from Debut, a rib-cage shattering take on the astral-industrial Post number “Pluto” and the heart-rending swell of Homogenic‘s “Joga,” which inspired an exceptionally effeminate male fan to storm the stage and pirouette behind the singer before being tackled by a security guard. After each song, the spritely singer chirupped a gracious “Sssssenk you” (and once, just to switch it up, “Gracias”). British indie sensation Antony of Antony and the Johnsons (who collaborated with Bjork on two Volta tracks) made an appearance for a crushingly sweet odd-couple duet on the new cut “Dull Flame of Desire,” trading lines and gazing adoringly at the songstress before shuffling off stage.
The spine-tingling hour-plus show drew to a close with two encores. One was Volta‘s anarchic anthem “Declare Independence,” which despite great aspirations came off as a pedantic Libertarian rant (and the strange valley-girl lilt of the refrain “Don’t let them do that to you” didn’t help matters). The other was arguably the evening’s crowning jewel: the rarely-performed Debut cut “Anchor Song” — an earthy love song to Bjork’s hometown of Reykjavik featuring solely horns and vox — which the singer dedicated to a friend, singing an entire verse Icelandic. It was the cherry on top of an intensely satisfying evening for this longtime Bjork fan, who, upon hearing the familiar strains of the fog-horn intro, got a little misty-eyed underneath her fogged-up glasses.