For once my timing seems to have been right on. It appears that I saw the first and last Björk concert ever to happen in mainland China. I’ll get to why I say “last” in a while.
The Gymnastics Center is in the Western part of Shanghai, but not too terribly far from the Zhongshan Metro station. One thing that seems a little odd is that there’s a Tesco discount market underneath the auditorium.
So you can save money on your shopping and catch a show in one convenient location.
And if you need to shop for any kids’ things, there’s a Baby Mall below the Tesco. This is one entrance, right next to the box office.
In spite of the sign outside that said “No Cameras,” neither I nor any others in the majority of the crowd had any problems taking pictures.
Björk is known for experimenting with different kinds of instrumentation from typical pop and rock lineups. This time she had a nine-piece brass section (three each of trumpets and French horns, two trombones, and a tuba), a keyboard player (clavichord, organ, piano and so on, all artificial of course), a drummer/percussionist, and two guys with laptops and keyboards. No guitar, no bass.
Anyone who’s heard her current album (Volta) knows that brass figures prominently in the arrangements, so those tunes came off much like the studio versions. The surprise was how well the arrangements worked on some of the older tunes which did not originally have brass, such as “Jóga” and “Army of Me.” I found it quite refreshing that the brass parts were not simple chordal accompaniment, but very nicely arranged polyphonic lines, with many touches of modern classical music. Kudos to whoever took care of that.
The show opened with an abrupt lights-out, then the brass section trooped in playing a catchy tune and wearing colorful costumes with flags attached. They took their places on the stage, and Björk came out to launch into “Earth Intruders,” the lead track of Volta. Her voice, the brass, and the electronics were all crystal clear in sound, loud enough to be impressive, but not so loud as to be uncomfortable.
The crowd was reservedly enthusiastic for the first four tunes or so, cheering loudly but stuck in seats, until she asked, “Can you dance?” The result was an instantaneous eruption of bodies from chairs; the center aisle on the floor filled up, and people approached the stage barrier. Half a dozen extra security guys rushed out to keep people back from the fence, but from then on there was no sitting that I saw.
Things really kicked into overdrive when her hit “Army of Me” started. A green laser beam flicked around the room, hitting strategically placed mirrors, and the energy level hit a new high, both on stage and in the audience.
There were some quiet, reflective moments as well.
For me, as a fan of the new album, I didn’t mind the concentration on new material. There were enough old favorites to keep me happy: “Hunter,” “Pluto,” “Possibly Maybe,” “I Miss You” and so on. Sure, I could have wished for “Human Behaviour” but there is nothing she played that I regretted hearing.
All through the show, I was amazed at the strength, accuracy and expression of her voice. I’m well aware that the excitement of seeing a good show can make things sound better than they really are, but I didn’t hear a single note off-key, and I noticed no fatigue as the evening wore on.
All too soon (around 9:30) Björk and crew left the stage. The crowd kept up a racket for a long time before the brass came out again, forming a half circle at center stage. Björk sang in the center, and when they segued into “Declare Independence” all the stops were pulled out. The lasers flashed around, the lights went crazy, everyone on stage was jumping around chaotically, and finally a snowstorm of confetti came over the arena.
Later, I heard many reports that she mentioned Tibet in the song, but I honestly did not hear it. Everyone was jumping up and down around me, and I was trying to get a photo around the 6’6” guy in front of me, and we were all chanting “Declare independence! – Don’t let them do that to you!” so loud that I missed the little interjections between the lines. Of course, when you’re in China, mentioning that an Autonomous Region should maybe have some other status (such as the one mentioned in the song title) is not looked upon kindly. It is not a subject of public debate. Once the story started spreading about what she shouted, people came to the likely conclusion that should she ever apply for a visa to perform (or even visit) China again, it was unlikely to be approved. There have also been stories that those at the Ministry of Culture who gave approval for her performance (given her track record on such issues) would be looking for new jobs.
Anyway, this is a show that goes right up there in the list of all-time best shows for me, which puts it in pretty good company.
Update: One thing I forgot to mention...