With the swirling fog and twin spotlights bathing her in white light, Ólöf Arnalds seemed like a mythical forest creature manifesting springtime wherever she stands -- which was fitting because her whole persona was one of an innocence and playfulness. It takes a lot of confidence to get up with just acoustic instruments and your voice, and it was clear Arnalds had complete faith in her talent, and rightfully so. Her lilting voice and ease with plucking various stringed instruments with her fingers made for a set of delicate yet lively songs.
Before performing "Crazy Car," Arnalds told us she had traveled here from Salt Lake City and that she thought she was going to go crazy cooped up in the vehicle for the last five hours of the trip. Watching her face contorting with the force of emotion, you could tell Arnalds clearly felt every note she sang. Toward the end of the set after performing "Surrender," she closed with a song wherein she was able to get a large number of people in the audience to sing part of the melody while she sang the "string parts."
When Blonde Redhead took stage, Kazu Makino wore a mask that looked a bit like the skull of a bird with hair hanging down. On the back wall was an array of those umbrellas for a light kit and the overall lighting for the show was vibrantly dynamic yet moody. Opening with the wintery "Black Guitar," it was obvious from the beginning that this already remarkable band had stepped up its intensity and sonic execution.
Makino took off the mask and donned her hat for "Here Sometimes." The band's music has always been sensuous rather than lurid and Makino's sinuous dance and gestures enhanced this impression. Her melodious voice sounded stronger than ever and when she reached her hand forward, it felt like she was creating a channel of energy between herself and the audience.
"Love or Prison" was electrifying in its understated emotional intensity. The kind of performance for the kind of song that seems to embody a moment in time, a romantic notion complicated by mixed emotions so perfectly and powerfully, it was almost hard to take. Throughout the show, the band performed all but one track from Penny Sparkle -- "Oslo." And much of the rest of the set came from 23 and Misery is a Butterfly, but every song was performed like this quartet was rediscovering its own music while retaining a passion for its new material.
"In Particular" came as a nice surprise amid all the newer music, and at first, it wasn't recognizable, because the band mixed up the intro some, as it did with a few other numbers. Various people have commented unfavorably on the new album as compared with the previous three Redhead records, but seeing all of this music live should put those criticisms to rest, because the Penny songs were at least as sonically rich and robust as the group's older material. "Will There Be Stars," in particular, showcased well how Simone Pace has incorporated his organic percussion with the electronic variety for an atmospheric, layered rhythm.
The main set ended with the title track to Penny Sparkle, with Makino putting the bird skull mask back on. An encore was planned, but the crowd was so enthusiastic that any band would have wanted to come back. Starting out the encore with the haunting strains of "23," Redhead kept the excitement up by also performing "Equus." But what did come as another Certain Damaged Lemons surprise was the invigoratingly chaotic "Melody of Certain Three" and it's angular guitar work.
That would have been the end, but the crowd wasn't going away, and the quartet came back out and played "(I'm Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get My Rocks Off" from 1995's La Mia Vita Violenta. Going off the set list, the show ended with the buoyant and romantic "Silently."
At various points, Amadeo Pace and Makino faced each other mid-stage and the people in the band smiled at each other despite the toll the altitude might be taking on them, making it obvious they were having fun. It translated into the kind of performance that lingers with you long after the show and makes you marvel at how this melancholy music can be so stirring and how what seem to be introverted musicians can so successfully put their emotions on the line with such abandon.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Longtime fan of Blonde Redhead. Random Detail: Three members of the band used a Fender VI to get that lower than regular guitar and higher than bass tone. By the Way: Penny Sparkle is easily one of the band's best albums.
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