The Album Leaf – Detroit – The Gem Theater, MI – 2001-09-19

The Album Leaf
Where: Detroit – The Gem Theater, MI.

When: 2001-09-19

(Jeff contributes after seeing the same show the next evening in Toronto)

In one of the strangest occurrences of my entire life, my ticket to see Sigur Ros managed to mysteriously disappear just days before the event. I have no idea what in the world happened, but it went a little something like this. The Friday before the show, I checked my desk drawer to make sure my ticket was still there (which it was). I didn’t bother taking it home because my plan was to head to the show straight from work, and my dumb ass would’ve just lost the frickin’ ticket if I’d have put it anywhere else. Blah. Monday night, I’m leaving work and I notice that my ticket isn’t in the drawer anymore. I freak out. Thinking I may have mistakenly put it in my backpack, I ransack it to no avail. I head home and search my apartment high and low with the same negative result. By now, I’m spazzing. Tuesday morning, I tear my desk apart again in-between being swamped with work, but I still can’t find the ticket. Last resort, I take off from work early for lunch and head to pillage my apartment again. Eventually, I do find my ticket, sitting with my girlfriend’s Tori Amos concert tickets on the living room bookshelf. Now, how in the world my ticket materialized from point A to point B without me realizing it was so far beyond my comprehension that I almost burst a vein in my head trying to figure it all out. After getting stuck at work with an hour-and-a-half of overtime tacked onto the end of my day, my fellow show-going buddies decided it was beer-o’clock for me …

… And that finally leads me away from my tirade and into the show. The Gem Theater turned out to be the nicest place I’ve ever seen a show, hands down. The rumor is that the Gem is a refurbished jazz club from the 50’s, and the place is just completely SWANK. There are elegant wooden staircases, polished wooden bars, and cute little tables with cool looking (but uncomfortable) wicker chairs that really added to the small club feel. This place was intimate with a capital “I,” as it probably only seated 400 people or so between both the main floor and the balcony combined. The neighborhood was good, too – The Gem is conveniently located only about a city block away from the Detroit Opera House.

It took about 20 minutes to shake off the “I don’t belong in a place this nice” vibe, which pretty much filled the void between our arrival and the opening act, The Album Leaf. This instrumental quartet fell somewhere between Mogwai and Sigur Ros sound wise, only with a little more emphasis on keyboards. The band opened with a gorgeous track that laced a slow, solemn bass line and cautious drumming with two delicate guitars that intertwined with each other in various ways throughout the song. From that point on, though, the guitars were set out of the way as soft keyboards became the focal point for the rest of the set. The Album Leaf fellas fashioned a nice little groove with their set, and they appeared ready to strap on the guitars again before deciding instead to thank everyone and end their set. The finish seemed really abrupt, but the band’s set was pretty fly, to say the least. After the fact, Editor Jeff informed me that The Album Leaf is actually the side project of Jimmy LaValle from Tristeza (just thought I’d throw that in there).

Now Sigur Ros … Wow. The Gem Theater was literally quiet enough to hear a pin drop when the band hit the stage, and it was probably a good thing. At times, the band was so quiet that I swore I could hear the singer exhaling when he was standing five feet behind the mic. Seeing Sigur Ros live is truly an ethereal experience, just because the sound is so incredibly honest to what you’re seeing in front of you. On disc, it can be assumed that a lot of production work was probably spent on making Sigur Ros sound what it is. However, when the band members step up on a stage and pull out performances that are even more stark and touching than the records (which is quite an accomplishment in Sigur Ros’ case), it’s time to just sit back and say, “Damn.”

The only song anyone recognized was “Svefn-g-englar” (from Agaetis Byrjun), but recognition hardly mattered at a show filled with such amazing textures. Frontman Jon Thor Birgisson delicately dragged a bow across his guitar strings for much of the night while punctuating the almost ghost-like sounds with a timid voice that somehow found the strength to cut straight through the few sonic swells the band let loose. The band’s entire set felt like being privy to an actual concert of true angels, with Birgisson’s cherubic voice leading a movement to show that sometimes the quietest shows can be the most powerful. There were portions of the night where there was no sound at all except Birgisson deftly pulling at his guitar strings with his bow … and even though it was the most hushed sound, it came across like a landslide to an audience that was so awed that it literally held its collective breath while admiring the beauty in the muted tones.

Of course, not everything went quite as planned during the performance. Someone in the band was using wireless equipment that kept picking up a Detroit soul station in the dead space between songs. Birgisson made a casual joke about everyone coming to a concert to listen to the radio, and the keyboard player mockingly stared down the offending equipment until a solution was finally found, drawing applause from the crowd. Undaunted, the band simply waved and continued on as if nothing had ever happened. It was a cute running joke of sorts for the first three-quarters of the show, and from that I drew the startling revelation that such angelic tones were actually coming from real people, just like everyone in the audience. It seemed odd that such grace and beauty could evolve from such a young group of musicians so fluidly and, seemingly, so easily. In my eyes, Sigur Ros live is as close to a religious experience as I’ll ever get.

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It just so happens I caught Sigur Ros in Toronto the night after Gary caught them in Detroit, so I figured I’d add my own input and mini-show review. Massey Hall was much bigger, it sounds like, than the Gem Theater. I guess it seated about 2,000, but it was only about two-thirds full. We kept moving around, eventually sitting in almost the top row on the highest balcony to get a full, unencumbered view of the four-piece band. Odd that moving back and higher gains you better seats.

The Album Leaf apparently wasn’t scheduled for this show, which was disappointing. I was told that the opening act would be another project that was, apparently, the members of Sigur Ros. Oh well, they decided not to open for themselves, and instead they played two hours of music that left me firmly convinced that they are today’s Icelandic version of Pink Floyd. In a good way, really.

On album, Sigur Ros are beautiful and atmospheric, but it’s easy music to use as calm background music. Live, they are so much better. Even without the string quartet they occasionally tour with, the four-piece band is stellar. Birgisson’s voice is so high and gorgeous, another instrument, really, as he doesn’t sing in English, and he holds notes for an amazingly long time.

What blew me away was the intensity that the band played with. There were a few songs that were very calm and gentle and soft, but most flowed from almost minimalistic to powerful and rocking. The drummer struck the drums with more force than any drummer I’ve seen, pounding out unbelievable volumes, and the haunting bowed guitar is an amazing sound coupled with Birgisson’s voice.

The band played at least three songs from Agaetis Byrjun, but they didn’t speak to the audience even once. Just played with barely a break between songs. At one point, the singer sang into his guitar’s pickup, creating a more electronic, echoed vocal approach that was completely unique. And while I thought originally they should have ended with my favorite song from that album, they went on to play two more. The closer was easily one of the most amazing experiences I’ve heard live. Building throughout, by the end of it the band was playing louder and more intense than any hardcore band I’ve heard. Pounding drums, driving guitar and bass, all swirling around Birgisson, who someone kept playing soft and crooning out those gorgeous vocals. Even by the end, when he pulled away from the mic, the song built to an incredible crescendo and then dropped to nothing, as the band left the stage in silence.

There was no encore, but the band had to come back out on stage twice to satisfy the crowd, who were giving a standing ovation. Both times, they linked arms and bowed, which was cute at first but kind of silly the second time. I think they had no other idea what to do. Odd and slightly mysterious, Sigur Ros play certainly the most beautiful music I’ve heard and put on an amazing live show.