It seems that New York’s icy facade may have been cracked along with the World Trade Center’s foundation. In the days following September 11th, the muted chaos was alluring and the silence was surreal. The game of taxi-versus-pedestrian had been suspended; the streets were empty yet people kept loyally to sidewalks, treading their familiar paths to work and school. It became clear that New Yorkers do not run away and this truth was further evident during Björk’s opening night at Radio City Music Hall on October 4th, 2001. The kinky singer, who gushingly thanks her “gorgeous Manhattaners” on her latest album, Vespertine, plainly enunciated the final lyrics of “The Anchor Song” for the wounded crowd: “This is where I’m staying/This is my home.” Her fans’ piercing cheers resounded with recognition.
Though she was later armed with a small choir (11 Inuit girls courtesy of Greenland), a 40-piece orchestra, and experimental electronic duo Matmos, Björk initially took the stage rather unceremoniously in her now-infamous Swan Dress (which, by the way, has seen its 15 minutes) for the instrumental music box number, “Frosti.” Aside from the sonically-apt “All Is Full of Love” and “Unravel,” the show’s first half was largely culled from Vespertine and last year’s Selmasongs. Björk was decidedly reserved, forsaking the expected spectacle for a minimalist backdrop of changing arctic images which accompanied mostly downtempo tracks like the stunning “Cocoon” and the Academy Award-nominated “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark. A more intimate setting, though, may have done the first set due justice as several modest performances were nearly swallowed by the theater’s size. By-the-numbers renditions of Vespertine’s homegrown lullabies attest to the album’s domestic sensibility and affirm that the disc’s songs, perhaps, belong at home.
While she resembled a futuristic Liza Minnelli during the first portion of the evening, Björk’s over-the-top performance of “Bachelorette” during the second set will forever hold a flame to the dramatic showstoppers Ms. Minnelli had once performed on the very same stage. Dressed in what seemed like a giant red feather duster (a frock that truly took wing during the crowd-pleasing “Hyberballad”), Björk dug into “classics” like “Venus as a Boy” and an extra-gritty version of “Army of Me.” The singer hesitantly approached her microphone like a hungry predator or lover and discretely toiled over each syllable; she is, without a doubt, one of this generation’s most riveting performers of both record and stage. Martin Schmidt and Andrew Daniel of Matmos, who contributed to three tracks on the glorious Vespertine and opened the evening’s show, had their way with Björk’s “Possibly Maybe,” adding layers of their unique stacatto programming to the original production.
Perhaps we’ve become accustomed to spectacle (the lighting often left much to be dazzled by and the anticipated army of cherub backup Eskimos was a no-show), but the orchestra was divine and the choir-that-was truly sparkled during “Hidden Place” (both were conducted by Simon Lee). Likewise, Björk’s childlike abandon throughout the frenetic second half of the show was beyond palatable eye-candy. The theatrical tone of the evening (due, in part, to Radio City) begged for “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which was thankfully omitted. Instead, she closed the show with the b-side “It’s in Our Hands,” reminding New Yorkers of the fragile state of their city and leaving them both empowered and thought-provoked: “Aren’t we scaring ourselves unnecessarily?...It’s in our hands, it always was.”