Is there a more lovely venue in Irish music than the grounds of Kilmainham’s Royal Hospital on the night of a mid-summer gig? Maybe, but with its perch above the outskirts of the city, and the views of both the building itself and the Phoenix Park which go with it, it’s a venue that takes some beating. The late-June sun setting behind the crowd, just minutes before the first Sigur Rós show here for over 3 years (and only their ninth overall since returning, now as a three-piece, from hiatus), a brief shower of rain produces a rainbow across the stage. You couldn’t make this up.
Before all that, James Vincent McMorrow provides a support set that could easily be a headliner. His chatting to the crowd between songs is a little mumbly, but it would appear that his third album is imminent (Sept 2nd). Performing with a full band, only their third gig as a unit, everyone is quickly reminded what they’ve been missing while JVM has been away. Songs from the new album seem to maintain his run of form. Tracks from the first two records like Cavalier and We Don’t Eat are impressive as ever. McMorrow’s voice is confident, soulful, and at home in the higher registers as always. The new album is keenly awaited.
Sigur Rós themselves, now of course without Kjarri Sveinsson, work their way into what becomes, in time, a magnificent performance. The gimmick which forms the basis of the current tour is that the band begin each gig clustered behind a semi-transparent LED screen. They should probably get rid of it. For a start, singer Jonsi Birgisson is invisible to much of the crowd as he stands obscured behind a drum kit. Beginning with new single Óveður, there are worries for what is to come, with Birgisson’s vocals indistinct and the track totally overpowered by bass.
The screen eventually rises up, and the band come to the front of the stage, where things rapidly improve. The band have seemingly lost none of their performing nous, striding through their discography with the skill of consummate professionals. The visuals surrounding them are one of the most impressive things about the whole experience. Backed by the two screens and surrounded by ladder-like installations on stage, they eschew a standard lightshow for a display which fits the beauty of the music. Flitting from lush, detailed images of supernovae, to the red tendrils of light on Vaka, and the computer-rendered pseudo-Iceland which crops up throughout, it’s as beautiful to look at as to hear.
The music is nearly without fault. The magically put together, perfectly blissed-out compositions which have cemented their place in the mental furniture of fans everywhere are, if anything, almost more impressive in a live setting than they are on record. Epically-proportioned set pieces like Festival, Ný batterí, and Glósóli hum with a powerful, atmospheric beauty. It is a surprise just how much noise these superficially meditative tracks can convey. The crowd, for most of it, are rapt in awestruck admiration. It is fantastic. Things do start of lag slightly in the third quarter, as a sense starts to grow that the gig may peter out. No worries. Hafsól and Popplagið bring things to a barnstorming conclusion, with Jonsi ultimately breaking a violin bow, knocking over a mic stand, and bassist Goggi Hólm smashing his instrument before leaving the stage. No encore is demanded, and none is particularly needed.
How utterly lovely.