Bjork is one of my all time favourite artists. I’ve been listening to her since ‘Debut’ was released over twenty years ago, and there hasn’t been a single album I’ve not enjoyed. I can’t think of another artist who I’ve appreciated so much for so long. So getting the chance to see her first European show since the release of her latest album ‘Vulnicura’ was very exciting.
The show took place at the Castlefield Bowl as part of the Manchester International Festival. I’d lived in Manchester for over a decade, but hadn’t been back for a couple of years, so even before the start of the gig I was full of memories, walking past old haunts, noting how my former home city had changed. Feeling slightly melancholy at being away from my wife and daughter and back in my past.
The venue is a kind of outdoor ampitheatre, and it was a perfect sunny summers evening (the usual Manchester storms having passed earlier in the day), and we settled ourselves on the slope overlooking the stage, trying not to slide down the steep, damp grass banks. I had to give up and go stand in the end, which meant a worse view, but better sound quality, a trade-off worth making I think.
First up was support act Arca and Jesse Kanda. One man sat behind his laptop producing disjointed beats, melding hip-hop and electronica, somewhat in the vein of Flying Lotus, the other paraded the stage in thigh high boots and lingerie, gyrating to the videos on the big screen at the back of the stage and occasionally bursting into bassy ragga-inflected vocals that it was hard to believe were coming from the man we could see on stage. Having heard Arca’s album of dark electronica I assumed him to be the laptop man, but it turned out to be the other way round. It was all pretty impressive, but a little lost on a large stage in an outdoor arena, very much the kind of music best heard in small dark rooms.
Appetites whetted, we awaited Bjorks arrival on stage wondering who she would bring along. It turned out to be the UK’s Heritage Orchestra, percussionist Manu Delago and electronic producer The Haxan Cloak. Bjork herself was clad in a spectacular dayglo butterfly outfit, which was somehow was less surprising than if she had walked on in jeans and a t-shirt.
The Manchester International Festival is known for premiering new works, so we expected a lot of songs from the new album, and indeed she started with 5 tracks from Vulnicura. Some artists you’d be disappointed to hear so much new material, but the songs sounded amazing. The string arrangements were stunning, Bjork’s voice unique and powerful as ever and the beats from The Haxan Cloak you could feel right through your body. I had worried the outdoor setting would lead to poor sound quality, as I’d often found at festivals, but here it was perfect. ‘Black Lake’ in particular was inspirational, and as the song drew to a close and just a single violin and cello played, I had to close my eyes, better to take in the beauty of what I heard.
Just when I was starting to accept that we may be hearing nothing but the new album, they began playing the classic ‘Hunter’ with smoke emitting fireworks going off in time to the beats, and the gig reached a whole new level as Bjork played songs from throughout her career (understandably concentrating on the string heavy tracks). ‘Where Is The Line’ was a highlight for me, but we also got ‘Possibly Maybe’, ‘Wanderlust’, ‘Bachelorette’ and many more. The crowd bellowing back the chorus of ‘Army of Me’ was another great moment, Bjork not generally being known for her singalong songs. Arrangements of songs both new and old were perfect, and had me dancing around to heavy almost techno-like beats one minute, listening silently to Bjork’s hushed whisper the next. Videos played on the big screen at the back of the stage, complementing the music and leading to some great moments where the on stage Bjork danced in front of big screen Bjork, as superbly captured in Ruth Hesketh’s photo below, which she has kindly let me share.
It was one of those shows where the crowd gets more and more into it as the show progresses, and as she left the stage at the end of the main set everyone was pretty hyped up. As she came back on stage and announced they would play one more song, I think everyone in the crowd thought much the same thing, please play ‘Hyperballad’, the Bjork song more suited to an orchestra than any other. We got our wish and I danced like a loon, singing along to the chorus along with everyone else in the crowd, as more fireworks lit the Manchester sky. Memories of listening to the same song in my teenage bedroom so long ago somehow heightening the emotion.
It says a lot about Bjork that her music, which is often challenging and experimental, can bring so many people together, and it says a lot that her most crowd pleasing singalong song is about getting up early and going to throw things off a cliff top, working out your anger so you can return home and be happy with your partner. It’s one of the many reasons that I love her, and one of the many reasons why this was one of the best gigs I’ve been to in my life. It seems apt that I wrote about things that make a gig memorable last week, as they don’t come much more memorable than this. If she tours the show more widely, I can only urge you to see it.