Arts: Ice queen without equal


Phil Johnson
Tuesday 08 December 1998 00:02 GMT

TO CELEBRATE the end of their two-year residency at St George's, a beautiful Waterloo church, whose spacious acoustic has made it one of the best recording venues in Europe, the Brodskys invited a very special guest. The news that the guest was to be Bjork made this the musical event of the year for Bristol, and the 500 seats could have been sold 10 times over. An opportunity to see arguably the most interesting pop artist of the age in an intimate hall, where the sound and the setting promised to flatter rather than degrade her gifts, was a chance in a million.

That it would become a performance that most of the audience will probably count as the best they have ever experienced was something no-one could have predicted. For Bjork with the Brodskys - who had previously opened for her on the Post tour - wasn't just great: her artistry was so complete, so deep and profound, that by the end you felt less like a punter at a gig than the witness to some rare natural wonder, such as a solar eclipse.

The string quartet opened brilliantly with a composition by Peter Sculthorpe in which the strings' twittering glissandos echoed the calls of Australian birds. Then Bjork appeared, dressed in a white cardie over a long oriental dress. If an opening Icelandic poem seemed pitched at a rather lofty aesthetic distance, the series of emotional open wounds that followed - songs taken mainly from the Homogenic album - were viscerally direct, with the lyrics' unflinching autopsy of failed relationships given an even rawer edge by the sawing strings of the quartet.

Though clearly nervous and reticent at the beginning - she had only encountered the Brodskys' arrangements that afternoon - Bjork quickly began to unwind. Both her voice, with the hard-won expressionist effects benefiting from the minimal amplification, and her movements grew steadily more adventurous. Soon she was perched on the prow of the stage with her toes curling over the edge, as if to peer into the abyss her most personal songs so bravely address. From the front row, so close that the fibres of her cardie drifted down into your lap, the emotional heat was almost unbearable.

The second half was, if possible, even more intense than the first, with "Anyone Who Had A Heart", a grandstanding "It's Oh So Quiet", and another Icelandic poem. The fact that Bjork has been touring with strings as well as a programmer concert (and the amplification was so minimal that she sang off mike with no evident weakening), suggested that she may not quite have found her sympathetic context yet.

Whatever the future may hold, at 32, Bjork could easily become, if she wished, one of the world's leading "straight" concert attractions, for her poise, balance, and the poetry of her lyrics, are without equal. This concert was recorded, and will hopefully surface soon. It needs to, for even those of us who were there - and the audience included Roni Size, Krust, and a couple of Portisheads - can't quite believe it.

Phil Johnson

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