State isn’t supposed to be here tonight. Okay, it’s the right show and it’s the right place. Only, this was all supposed to happen back in April. That was until some pesky Icelandic volcano threw international air travel into disarray, forcing bands and promoters into carrying out some funky re-jigging of tour schedules. There was also irony in it all for The Whale Watching Tour, which is basically a supergroup comprising of artists signed to Bedroom Community, a label based in – wait for it – Reykjavik. And to add insult to injury, while ticket sales were healthy for the original date it seems many have chosen to take up the offer of a refund instead of waiting to attend tonight’s show. It’s their loss – a whopping double-facepalm loss, in fact – because what unfolds here is nothing short of magnificent.
Backed by a string section and trombonist, the group (consisting of Sam Amidon, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson) combine to perform a selection of each other’s work. It’s Muhly who assumes band leader duties for the evening, regularly drawing laughs from the crowd with his witty observations, and two of his works gets proceedings underway, including a new number entitled ‘Music Under Pressure’. As the name suggests, it’s full of tension and urgency and sets the bar high for the rest of the show.
The group uses a wide range of sources to create their sound, from the aforementioned strings to laptop workstations, guitars, piano and even paper being crumpled against a microphone – which is quite effective, as Valgeir Sigurðsson demonstrates on several occasions. Getting the crowd to sing along, however, requires nothing more than Sam Amidon strumming an old Appalachian folk song on a battered acoustic guitar. The Vermontian’s smokey vocals echo through the auditorium as he turns out spine-tingling renditions of ‘Saro’, ‘Way Go Lily’, ‘I See the Sign’ and ‘Pretty Fair Damsel’ – detailing the story behind each song as he goes.
Ben Frost’s experimental ambient-industrial material is a juxtaposition to all that. It’s not music in the traditional sense, being constructed from layers of filtered noise and naturally occuring sounds, such as whale song, with a guitar being his token link to normality. The likes of ‘Kill Shot’ and ‘The Carpathians’ are astonishingly evocative, even if the sub-bass frequencies do force a small section of the audience to cover their ears and exchange bemused glances with one another.
Despite the fact he undertakes production duties on the majority of albums released through Bedroom Community, Valgeir Sigurðsson maintains a relatively low profile on stage. Perhaps it’s because he’s better known as a composer than for being a performer himself. He’s no singer either, so when the time comes to perform his songs he enlists Helgi Hrafn Jónsson on vocal duties, while he continues to busy himself in the background. Jónsson is a self-effacing character who appears uneasy in the spotlight but his persona lends itself well to this situation. His voice is crystal clear, yet achingly fragile and provides the perfect foil for Sigurðsson’s lush, sweeping arrangements on numbers like ‘Baby Architect’.
It’s been a while since State has witnessed a performance this engaging – so engaging that over an hour and a half passes in the blinking of an eye. And far from sneeking peeks at watches and thoughts of catching the next bus home, there’s an air of disappointment when Nico Muhly announces to the audience that there’s only one more song left to play. That song, though, is something extra special. With Amidon taking the microphone once again and the others providing a wall of sound that would put Phil Spector to shame, they launch into a thoroughly haunting version of ‘The Dreadful Wind and Rain’ – an old Irish folk song chosen by Muhly because it frightened him when his parents sang it to him as a child. Its conclusion is greeted by a standing ovation, an act which describes the feeling amongst the crowd better than any more words can, really.
Photo: Pierre-Alain Giraud