Over Memorial Day weekend, my sister and I took a road trip to Central Oregon to see Sigur Rós. Neither one of us is really more than a casual fan at this point, but we figured they’d put on a good show and it was a great excuse for a road trip. We were correct on both counts.
We started out Sunday morning and headed up the Gorge. It was sunny and breezy when we made our first stop in Hood River for a little bookstore shopping and café snacking. A little further east, then it was more or less a straight shot south to Bend. The scenery along US 97 is lonely and striking, the deep greens and tall trees of the Gorge quickly giving way to the muted greens and browns of the high desert. The quaint town of Maupin, sitting on a ridge overlooking the Deschutes River, was the only sign of civilization for a stretch of many miles. Just south of Maupin, 97 winds back and forth sharply, clinging to the edge of the steep canyon wall. Did I mention there are no guardrails?
We reached Bend mid-afternoon, checked into our hotel, and listened to the clerk’s glowing and lengthy description of the complimentary continental breakfast, then headed to the amphitheatre. While walking from our car to the gate, the wind carried our tickets away and it may have taken me a minute or two to realize they were gone… Luckily, there was a kindly security guard with good reflexes who caught them and, after a bit of teasing, returned them to us.
Despite a forecast of thunderstorms, it was sunny and warm. We staked out a spot on the grass, got some grub from the row of food carts (definitely not the alligator meat, however), and waited. And waited. And waited.
Eventually, the opening act took the stage. Julianna Barwick has a wispy, ethereal voice, and I’d like to say the performance was captivating, but… it was really just boring. I honestly don’t know if there were lyrics to any of the songs. In fact, I don’t know how many different songs she performed, because they all sounded the same. That’s not to say they weren’t lovely, but they would have been a lot lovelier in a small, cozy venue rather than a huge outdoor amphitheatre.
During the intermission, we met up with cousin Davey. Remember, I met him for the first time last autumn before his trip to Iceland? He and my sister met for the first time, we met his girlfriend and a couple other friends, and we reminisced about our respective trips to Iceland.
After another long (but sunny) wait, Jónsi and co. finally took the stage. Now, to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect with this show. I’ve never seen any artists remotely like Sigur Rós in concert. In fact, I can’t even name any artists remotely like Sigur Rós. If you’ve heard their music, you’ll know what I mean – it’s not exactly sing-along music (especially because it is entirely in Icelandic), and it’s not clap along music, and it’s certainly not mosh pit music. It’s more like sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you music.
Several songs in, the sun was sinking and the temperature dropping and I decided to venture up front and shove my way into the standing-room crowd to get a closer look. I squeezed through and found a little spot to stand, close enough to see the stripes on Jónsi’s signature jacket. Whether it was the stage lights or just collective body heat, it was a lot warmer up there, which was nice, except that it also reeked of pot, which is not exactly my thing. It was worth the shoving and the stink, though, because I happened to be up there when they played Hoppípolla, one of my favorite songs (and definitely one of their most well-known, as the opening elicited quite an enthusiastic response from the audience).
In an effort to spare my nose, lungs, and brain cells, I returned to my seat after Hoppípolla. At one point Jónsi commented, “It’s so cold… it’s just like being in Iceland.” And those were the only words he spoke all evening, save for a couple “takk fyrirs.”
I should probably mention the people sitting in front of us. There was a couple, likely husband and wife, 30ish, and then a separate group of 5-6 adults. They arrived separately, that is, but after discovering that a couple of them were from the same area of Nevada, they quickly became best friends. Their friendship was further cemented by a shared bottle of red wine… and then five more. About halfway through the concert, the young woman had become quite noisily drunk, prompting some other nearby concertgoers to shush her, which didn’t bother her in the least considering her euphoric state of mind. She and one of the women from the other group became more and more demonstrative as the night went on, swaying to the music, intertwining their arms and holding cups of red wine to each other’s lips. But perhaps my favorite moment was when the older lady asked the young man, in a loud drunk-whisper, “Do you think he’s singing in HIS NATIVE TOGUE? Or is he just MAKING UP WORDS?”
The evening ended with the slow-building, sweeping Popplagið, a bow and a final “takk fyrir.”
Overall, I feel like I would have enjoyed the show more had I been more well-versed in the band’s discography; however, I also feel like it would be impossible not to enjoy a Sigur Rós concert. Their music is haunting, Jónsi’s piercing voice is just as strong and pure live as it is recorded, and the band just has a strong but laid-back stage presence that draws you in and holds your attention. As many a journalist has pointed out, it seems impossible to separate Sigur Rós from their homeland. And it’s not just about the language. There’s something about Iceland’s harsh, striking, bold, haunting beauty that seems to settle into every phrase. Beauty that transcends language barriers and makes six hours in the car and numb fingers more than worth it.
postscript: The continental breakfast consisted of canned biscuits and gluey sausage gravy. We declined.
(I apologize for the lack of photos; I posted quite a few to Instagram but I can’t figure out how to transfer those here.)