11 April 2008, Manchester Apollo
(Don't read this if you're after a proper review. I'm no expert on Björk and what follows is only a set of reflections and impressions. Definitely no pictures, of any quality - you should have seen the orange shirted security guys, they even went after the mobile phone brigade, shining pencil torches in their faces...)
The answer to the question was 42, but the the actual question was troublesome. It was, what would I have to pay to see Björk? 42 quid. I really can't remember ever paying anything like that to see any band. Partly a matter of taste, of course, I'm not normally interested in seeing the really big acts, and I much prefer the intimacy of seeing bands in smaller venues. That question... it seems to me that the point is, is Björk or any act worth a whopping 42 quid?
Here I was at the Manchester Apollo theatre only a week after another visit, for a very different band. With a different set of friends I hadn't seen for a while. A nice meal beforehand...I'm telling you that to try and give some context to the acceptance of the 42 quid. This was a sit down show. Our seats were in the centre in the gallery, high up though not at the top. The view was okay; the seats immediately in front of me were empty. One thing which bugged me was the amount of walking about people were doing. Very aware of it because the main crossways passage was a couple of rows in front. I suppose paying 42 pounds makes some people feel they can do what they like.
We went in and sat down around half eight. Maybe. Me and Iain were back out a quarter of an hour later and the other two probably would have liked to if they'd had the energy. We didn't go to the bar; we simply couldn't take the support any longer. This act consisted of a solo female dj mixing and scratching. The sound seemed pitched higher than the main act's; and it wasn't good. I could have coped, almost, if only she'd left some of the original records' musicality in the mix, but her main aim in life was apparently to remove it. I can tell you that I spotted David Bowie's Fashion at one point. It didn't help. Sorry, but that was a stress inducer.
And in due course, the main act: first the guys came on, various electronica bods over on the left, and on the right a keyboardist, extrovert despite his brown jacket and tie. Random garb... whereas the women were extraordinary. They trooped on, rainbow coloured and with flags rising up behind them, something like a Himalayan procession; and Björk herself, a profusion of candy colour swirling above bare feet and below gorgeous black hair. A very different kind of feminist isn't she. I mean, she paid ample respect for what they do, but the men are kind of irrelevant in what the show's all about. So is sexuality. Um.. it just struck me that for whatever reason, like the decline of religion, our culture particularly pop culture has become increasingly predicated on sexuality and so much of the discourse on feminism is to do with sexuality; you might say, of course it is, but here's an artist who while she embodies a healthy of amount of sexuality herself is actually more interested in wider things; things of the spirit and of the imagination. So, it's the women who are wildly and extravagantly on show here. The trooping team turned out to be the Wonder Brass(?), collected from Iceland and travelling along to deliver the key sounds of brass, and to jump and dance and party.
The spectacle was spectacular. And the show was as vibrant and restless as most of the new album Volta. To the extent that one intimate quiet song she did, crouching down by the end of the keyboard over on the right, didn't really work, because of the noises of the audience; I could understand that they couldn't adjust that quickly. Movement all the time, especially by Björk herself, using the whole stage front. What a sense of theatre, like the simple gesture during The Hunter of releasing a streamer behind her as she whipped across the stage, trailing horizontal threads hanging in the air; it might not sound like much, but things like that seemed like magic at the time. And then there were the lasers, green diagonals criss crossing the whole auditorium from a point right in front of me. Extraordinary that was, the first time. Maybe the effect lessened by the fourth or fifth song they were used for; three songs max would have been right, I think.
Did I like the actual music? I guess I did. The sound was pretty relentless, though in fact the album isn't all like that. I made a point of going to YouTube to check out all the tracks and there were eg. a couple of duets with Anthony Hegarty. Tonight Björk gave full rein to all the loud stuff, starting with the dynamic Earth Invaders; later on pleasing me mightily with Wanderlust; and finishing off with the insistent Declare Independence. No dedication here - we were curious to see if there would be one, and to whom she might make it, in the UK - so, with the way they were dressed, I guess Tibet was the unspoken word hanging in the air. Just like the Tibetan Tree of Life(?) which hung in the air over the stage on one banner. By the way, for all that you might have become used to extraordinary videos by Björk, you should try and see the video for Wanderlust at its best, not on YouTube but in higher resolution; one way is to follow the links on the website. The original is in 3D and I wish I could see that. It's mesmerising.
I found a review of this very show in the Daily Telegraph of all places. Helen Brown seems to have been downstairs, and to be more receptive to Björk's particular musical style (you end up talking about notes and beats and effects and ideas, but not much about tunes and melodies). She rates the show highly, but my guess is that she didn't pay forty two whole pounds to come and see it. No mention of that painful support act. She reckons that 'We' drifted out into the night as amoebas: single cells of simple joy. I know, I know... I don't think some of us were part of that 'We'. I do have some good memories of it. Those songs I mentioned. The dazzling display. And that gang of Icelandic women, Björk at its heart, gathered together at the end.
And what was my conclusion about the spending of 42 of my English pounds? I'm afraid in retrospect I might have been better off bailing out of this one, in cold practical terms. Simply because I've been shelling out quite a bit this month, partly because of some annual bills, and partly because of some imminent Finnish trips. I enjoyed my evening out with my mates, and I enjoyed a lot of the spectacle. I'm sort of glad I can say I saw Björk. But without being a fan... well, maybe 42 quid was the market price, but for the seats we had, for the poor 'support', for the limitations on what she can do in this kind of show, a show of no more than average length... no, 42 quid was a bit steep.
This (left) is actually the logo for the dedicated Volta site, though I've used it to link to the whole Björk site. Which oddly doesn't have a single clear banner or logo or whathaveyou. It's enormous. Sure, she's a huge global act, but even if I was a fan, I can't imagine wanting all this. The discography is astonishing. Nothing is left out. It's not so much that she's made a lot of records - which she has - but that you'll find listed every release in every single country and every variation and special edition thereof. It's an eye opening picture of how the global record industry works. While I certainly would want to appreciate Björk as an artist, one does have to understand that all of what she does is also product.