May 12, 2009

Bjork and the Dirty Projectors @ Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

Last Friday, I took MB to see Björk and the Dirty Projectors at the Housing Works Bookstore for her birthday. After a lobster roll at the Mermaid Inn, we headed to the venue to get a good spot in line. Tickets for this super-exclusive event were pretty pricey - $100 for our standing-room tickets, $400 for reserved seats and, according to an employee standing near us, between $800-$950 for the auctioned front row tables - but all of the proceeds went to a great cause and we were witness to the premier of a brand new suite of music written by Mr. Longstreth specifically for his group and Ms. Guðmundsdóttir.

The whole evening was the brainchild of Brandon Stosuy, a writer for Stereogum. Before introducing the performers, he explained how he worked with the Dirty Projectors on a cover of Björk's "Hyperballad" and, a few weeks later, had an interview with Björk who happened to mention her admiration for the Dirty Projectors and their vocal arrangements. Although both parties were eager to collaborate, it took Mr. Stosuy some doing to find a time when all of the performers were both available and in the same location.

To start the evening, the Dirty Projectors and Björk each chose an opening act. Nat Baldwin, bassist for the Dirty Projectors, introduced the first opener, Kurt Weisman. According to his myspace page, Mr. Weisman describes his music as experimental and apparently most often works with electronics; for this event, he simply played guitar and sang. Unfortunately, the combination of his soft, ethereal voice and the two-and-a-half feet that separated his mouth from the microphone made it nearly impossible to hear him even though we were standing less than 15 yards away.

Next up, we got our first glimpse of Björk as she introduced Ólöf Arnalds, a fellow Icelander and vibrant folk singer. Ms. Arnald's set was much easier to hear and the audience fed off her youthful energy. In a nod to the main attraction, she performed the only Björk cover of the evening, a solo version of "Unravel" with Ólöf singing and accompanying herself on violin. Later, she was joined by two other musicians and at one point, pulled out a small, 10-string guitar-like instrument with a body made from an armadillo.

After Ólöf's set, and a break that felt like an eternity, the Dirty Projectors finally took the stage, performing 4 songs off of their upcoming album, Bitte Orca, which is due out in early June. When these were done, we were finally ready to hear the main event. The pain we were feeling in our legs from the 45 minutes spent standing outside the venue and another three hours inside quickly melted away as the collaborators premiered an impressive six-song suite which told the tale of a woman standing on a mountain, looking out at a whale in the ocean and the whale, in turn, looking back.

Like the Andrew Bird show at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, I decided to record the event on my iPhone for my own personal listening pleasure. I'm very reluctant to post any of it here as the event was professionally recorded, filmed and photographed, suggesting the entire performance will be available sometime in the not-so-distant future. However, the second song in the suite was so vocally impressive, no amount of explanation is going to do it justice. In an effort to satisfy your curiosity without offending the performers, I've decided to make this 20 second clip available. Over the the pulse of the bass and guitar, you're hearing the alternating voices of two women. Even as I watched them do it, I couldn't really fathom how it was possible. Not only are they singing every other note in a difficult rhythmic pattern, there making ridiculous jumps in their range. Absolutely breathtaking.

Six-songs and roughly 18 minutes later, the show was over. As the performers walked past me, I turned to applaud and plead with the rest of the audience for an encore, which sadly never came, but once I was facing away from the stage, I realized the man with the shock of white hair standing directly behind me was David Byrne. According to other attendees, M.I.A., Fourtet, members of The National and Vampire Weekend were also in attendance. Now, I've heard a lot of people complain that the show was far too short for the price of admission, and I have to admit, I feel the promoters could have done a better job setting appropriate expectations - instead of "Björk and the Dirty Projectors," the show should have been billed as "The Dirty Projectors with a special appearance by Björk" - but the excitement of watching these performers debut brand new material in such an intimate setting cannot be overstated.

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