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(Credit: J Hayne)

Music

Revist Björk's wonderfully avant-garde performance at Riverside Church

@notmyyaztattoo

Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk has been going strong with avant-garde performances throughout the entirety of her four-decade-long career. Her music alone never ceases to enchant, but many devoted fans and lay followers alike will echo the same sentiments about her performances: seeing her live is simply a different experience.

Not many artists pull off an intriguingly enticing stage presence the same way that Björk does. FKA Twigs and Lorde may come to mind, both of whom are decades her junior. In fact, many of the artists who embody this eerie and entrancing persona now were only children when she dropped her album Vespertine and subsequently gave a number of you-had-to-be-there performances in the tour and year that followed.

One of the performances of the Vespertine era that sticks out as among the best is her half-hour long special at the Riverside Church. Originally filmed as a part of an HBO live stream, Björk boasts a stunning setlist complete with any art-pop artist’s dream backing band. Slightly reminiscent of the structure of NPR’s tiny-desk concert in its half-hour of artistically filmed indie beauty, the circumstances of this show were anything but tiny. 

Not only did the ambient aura of the cathedral lend a gothic sweetness to the show, but it also allowed the acoustics to soar — and soar they did. It wasn’t only Björk’s vocals that were on display. Behind her, a full choir offered their voices for a well-rounded landscape, in addition to a harpist and live, creative percussion. 

The unique use of playing card shuffling as percussion in her song ‘Hidden Place’ is the stuff of noise-rock memes, but it works. All of the little details and puzzle pieces fall together to create a truly mesmerising show that gets better and better every time you watch it. 

Hence the difference between seeing it live and returning to the filmed special again and again: although there is a clear ideal in seeing the show live, there is a unique pleasure in the ability to get sucked in and notice something new each time, which is exactly what you get on the track of ‘Hidden Place’. 

Performing in churches is nothing new. Quite literally, people have been doing it since the church became a cornerstone of western society (and even long before that, depending on your historical take). Churches have even been utilised as punk and EDM venues in some circumstances, especially in recent years. However, bringing an artist like Björk into a space such as this offers something entirely new and balanced. Yes, she does have an ethereal sound, but you aren’t listening to Björk seeking out simple, stripped-down croons.

What makes this performance – this balance – so special is the slight edge that she gives. It’s the card shuffling, the rhythm, the harp, the angelic choir backing Björk as she grips the mic in cabaret tights and chunky black eyeliner. There’s a tension point that this concert brings, and it’s hard to replicate. It reads like an art piece.

The juxtaposition isn’t as simple as a punk show in a church, and it’s also not as subtle as a stripped-down angelic set where the vocals are the only thing that shine. This was a concert that was intensely curated, and it definitely shows. Specifically, the ‘Hidden Place’ performance highlights all of the best parts of this. 

Although this was filmed in 2001, the same year as her album release, it holds the distinct quality of a performance that can be enjoyed again and again. One that can be returned to year after year, even as she releases new music. Especially if you’re a fan of the Vespertine era, this video isn’t one to miss.