Philly’s unadorned-to-the-point-of-severity Electric Factory, with its naked wires, exposed backstage, and lamely raw industrial architecture, is perhaps the perfect venue for an artist like Jónsi. The building’s dull setup effectively served as a blank palette for the former Sigur Rós frontman’s bombastic show, its jet walls wonderfully showcasing the quirky, esoteric line animation that has become a trademark of his virgin tour. Steeped in these alabaster visuals and Jónsi’s icy-beautiful music, a mellow, flannel-flecked crowd sat transfixed by the lanky, otherworldly Icelander, who belted pitch-perfect cuts from his first solo album, Go. Jónsi’s voice—a pristinely gorgeous, alien thing that has long suggested he’s the bastard child of Thom Yorke and Björk—is a wonder to behold in such a closed vicinity. To borrow a few words from my colleague Matthew Cole’s review of the album, the usually black space of the Electric Factory was, at least for this night, purely radiant and glacial, imprinted with the blissful soundscapes of Jónsi’s post-Sigur Rós adventure.
Despite all the theatrical leanings, this was a rather forthright, no-nonsense show: Jónsi performed Go in its entirety with very little pause, stopping only toward the end of the night to share a few pleasantries in his soft, broken English. A humble, acoustic-only rendition of “Stars in Still Water” began the set, before his backup band joined in for the soothing, slow “Hengilás,” a bowing piece that, in intimate distances, tends to conjure up the rich ambience of Sigur Rós’s Takk…. Followed by similarly developing songs “Kolniður” and “Tornado,” Jónsi savored a pensive, deliberative start before turning to a crowd favorite with “Sinking Friendships.” A rising piece that suffered little in the stripped-down format, the song’s chorus found his voice even more tearful than usual, backdropped by the barely audible crowd whispering along to its sweet, yearning refrain of “No one knows you ’til it’s over.”
Amid twitchy, projected images of scattering butterflies, loping wolves, and unfurling tulips, the percussive-heavy, hammering ensemble—piano, xylophone, and drums were mainstays—moved on to Go’s meat and potatoes: Standout “Go Do,” complete with schizophrenic vocal samples and lilting fife noises, and the crystalline, flittering “Boy Lilikoi,” both of which were pounded out with militaristic thumping. Jónsi writhed and whirled in seizure-like joy to both, looking much the part of a berserk insane asylum patient in his white jumpsuit top and rainbow-hued headdress. Breathless, he then sat himself at the piano and presented an extended version of “Around Us,” one of few variations from the studio material. With an elongated solo introduction, the song’s alluring melody was exposed and slowed, revealing a brief, dreamy simplicity before Jónsi quickly bolted from the piano and back to the center mic as the band swept in with the usual icy, orchestral aura.
Only live can listeners realize how much power actually resides in Go’s material: Though sparkling with the very same frosty icicle tones as fellow Icelander Björk’s Vespertine, Jónsi’s solo work is far more muscular. Two encore performances of “Animal Arithmetic” and “Grow Till Tall” hammered this realization home. The latter, especially, perfectly straddled the line between anthemic, just-loud-enough volume and speaker-destroying sonic reverberation, looping over and over in its heady, distortion-driven chorus against delicate vocal humming. Much like the show itself, Jónsi abandoned the slow, deliberative pace of the finale’s opening for ribcage-rattling sound swells, allowing himself—as well as the audience—to get lost in the ecstatic noise. “You can just feel it in your chest,” one concertgoer agreed, as semi-dazed as the rest of the crowd by the imaginative, sweeping display. As Jónsi finished and the Electric Factory slowly emptied out, perhaps that feeling—one of stirring, physical wonder—was at the root of the awed silence.