There was a moment during Jónsi set at the Paramount while he was playing the (excellent) single "Go Do," in which 85 percent of the crowd had risen from their seats. That probably makes sense because Jónsi, whose real name involves a letter that looks like a cross between an upper-case P and a lower case b, was leading his Very European five piece through some serious, beating heart of Mother Nature euphoria shit.
And two rows back, there was a kid with a beard who probably does a lot of scoffing in an average day. But here he was, doing the praise band thing: Arms raised, head back, eyes closed, filled-with-the-holy-spirit smile. And the thing about Jónsi is that's a completely appropriate reaction.
He is well-documented for reducing hardened hipsters to jello-y disciples at shows with his band, Sigur Rós. But they're on indefinite hiatus at the moment, and Jónsi is doing just fine without them.
Let's be very clear: This is no shell of the band, living in the past attempt at strangling juice out of an empty musical well. Jónsi's debut full-length, Go, is an unqualified step forward for his music. Maybe it's not quite as bombastic or soundscapey as the Sigur Rós stuff, but ... suffice it to say there was room to come down in those departments.
That said, if you can call Jónsi's solo music restrained, it is only relative to what he did before. This is still soft-loud-soft symphonies of sustained notes and other-wordly falsetto.
Speaking of which, opening act Death Vessel is a dude with an acoustic guitar. It's important to note the dude part, because go listen to this, and tell me that sounds like something an adult man would be capable of.
Joel Thibodeau is no ordinary vocal talent, however, and there he was, playing his folk for those who found their seats early. His set was jaw-dropping, not just because of the cognitive dissonance. Think a less wispy Sufjan or a less confused early Rilo Kiley.
Thibodeau, though, had only a guitar and a microphone. Jónsi, meanwhile, came with what can only be described as a production. By way of description:
The fifth song of the set was "Tornado," which is a builder, a soft but dramatic opening rising to the sort of thing you'd want playing if you were riding a giant benevolent bald eagle off a mountaintop. The four opening songs that preceded it were subdued. Beautiful, but also frankly sort of boring live.
All is forgiven: Without the low established you can't get to the high, and oh was the payoff sweet. So there was a giant screen flecked with brown, and on either side of the stage what was maybe meant to look like old decrepit home furnishings - flat boxes and cabinets, all with screens on the front. And they were projecting nature and the like on everything, butterflies and the like.
At the beginning of "Tornado," when it's still soft, the projection showed an owl landing on a branch. The owl started flying around, and then it faded and there was a wolf, and both the wolf and the owl were pronounced sketches, bold outlines with wild scribbling filling them in.
And as the song was building there appeared a mouse, drawn in the same fashion. Just as the song hit its first peak, Jónsi nailing his first real screamer of the night, the owl swoops out of nowhere and snatches the mouse, a real nature's cruel justice moment. There's a crash and a blinding flash that floods the whole theatre.
The song continued huge and grandiose, and this was the only time during the show that I understood why so many people cry at Sigur Rós shows. The owl was flying around the projections, soaring over suggested vistas and then the wolf showed up again, chasing a deer.
As the wolf catches its prey, the song hit its climax, more lights everywhere, more epic gorgeous wailing, and in the commotion the screen quietly fell, exposing a floor-to-ceiling panel of ashen glass held together by steel girders.
It only went halfway across the stage, where the girders were broken and bent and the glass was gone. From behind the wreckage came a cloud of smoke.
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The little screens up front, the furniture screens, they were also broken down. Worn and faded, missing pieces. One looked like a giant rusty bite had been taken from it. The metaphor here is entropy - everything breaks down slowly (or quickly, if you're the mouse or the deer).
But this is the same process by which rebirth happens as well, something the projections hinted at as the set progressed - the loss of something makes room for the next thing. And the music, we are left to assume, represents the big whatever that connects it all.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I can't listen to any of this music every day. But when certain highs and certain lows hit, there's nothing more perfect. Random Detail: After "Go Do," someone yelled, "Play it again!" This was greeted with polite laughter from everyone else. Up to that point it had been rigid silence and respectful applause. By The Way: The Paramount is the perfect setting for Jónsi. The sound system is capable of delivering the quiet and the loud and catching all the random sounds, and sitting down makes everyone more patient.