22 mai 2013

Craneway Pavilion

Richmond CA, États-Unis


It was hard to know what, exactly, we were witnessing.

Bolts of electricity shot about the center of the stage, always in time with the music. Voices harmonized, while laptops hummed. A harp was plucked elegantly and beats, both synthetic and organic, thumped pretty much nonstop. A pipe organ played on its own and huge pendulums swung to the earth’s gravitational pull.

Dancing, prancing and crooning in the midst of all the otherworldly action was an Icelandic female choir, which anchored the whole shebang with 20 heavenly voices.

Then there was the star of the show herself.

Of course, I’m talking about Bjork. Who else would ever dream up such a spectacle and then dare to take it on the road ?

The Icelandic alt-rock legend, who is now 20 years into her solo career, is certainly still pushing boundaries. Her current Biophilia Tour is one of the most wildly adventurous shows in rock ’n’ roll history.

The singer launched this trek in June 2011 and has been slowly, steadily moving it about the globe, usually performing multiple nights in each market. On Wednesday, the multimedia spectacular finally reached the Bay Area — setting up shop at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. The show will be repeated on Saturday and Tuesday.
The Craneway isn’t well known for hosting concerts, and it’s safe to say that most fans had to use GPS to even find the building. Yet, it proved to be a perfect spot for the production. It was roomy
enough for the "in-the-round" setup, with fans on each side of the stage, and the large windows provided great views of the Bay. Plus, the sound was crisp and clean in the building, allowing the many musical nuances to be heard — even if it wasn’t always clear what, indeed, we were hearing. I hope that promoters decide to host more major shows at the Craneway.

The choir had the first say of the evening, opening the show with the traditional Hungarian song "Oskasteinar," and then Bjork appeared to sing "Thunderbolt," from the 2011 album "Biophilia." Her bushy, oversized wig shone in the colors of rainbow sherbet under the lights. When the lights dimmed, it resembled a mane, making Bjork look like a character in "The Lion King" musical.

More than half of the set list was devoted to "Biophilia," which one might assume would be a problem. The record is, after all, her worst effort to date — and, in my book, the only clunker in her otherwise stellar catalog. Yet, these songs came across much stronger in concert than they do on disc.

Still, the capacity crowd of some 4,000 fans understandably showed the greatest enthusiasm for the older material. The audience erupted when Bjork led us into the "Hidden Place" and then belted out "Pagan Poetry," both of which hail from 2001’s excellent "Vespertine." The latter was the highlight of the night, as Bjork’s passionate vocals were cradled by the choir’s ethereal harmonies.
The show would’ve certainly benefitted from the inclusion of more fan favorites. There were times when the crowd seemed to grow a bit restless, perhaps from hearing too many newer songs in succession, and I can’t help but think that "Hyperballad, "Army of Me," "Unison" and/or "All Is Full of Love" would’ve fixed the problem.

Yet, if we’ve learned anything over the last 20 years it’s that Bjork is always going to do her own thing. Fans just go along for the ride — which, in the case of the Biophilia Tour, is one heck of a trip.


With purple lightning bolts of electricity jagging toward one another in a steel cage center-stage, powerful pipes that reverberated through the pavilion and rippled out onto the sea, and a fuzzy Snow Cone wig of every color — cherry red, orange, lime green — Björk seemed like the mad scientist of the natural world last night at the relatively intimate Craneway in Richmond, Calif.

She also thanked the audience often, ’t-ank you, Bay Area, gggrrrratitude !" (she rolls her Rs beautifully) and offered up a 16-piece coven of sequined and hooded Icelandic choir princesses, so you can assume she’s the benevolent type of creator.

The vibe was weird to start, with most of the audience confused as to where to go, do we sit or stand, what is this place, will she come out before dark even though the whole place is encased by floor-to-ceiling windows ? Will I cry when she appears ? There were a few poofy pink or orange wigs dotting the crowd, and at least one swan costumed fella, who, also benevolent, took time to pose for photos with fans after the show.

The Craneway only holds 4,000 people, which still seems like a lot until you realize that when Björk’s Volta tour came through, it went to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, which holds 22,500. And with the stage in the dead center and the aforementioned ripply waters just outside the windows, it did feel like the smallest possible way to view Björk. "Did she just look directly at me ?” It must have been thought dozens of times throughout the night during this Biophilia stop.

The show itself began auspiciously enough, with a young woman stepping out onto the stage to patiently ask the crowd to put away its cell phones and cameras, to live in the moment for the night. People cheered, as concert-goers are sick of the constant interruption at shows (or maybe I’m projecting). Most got the point — hello, we were about to be in the presence of a legendary elf and sonic genius, live in the now — but plenty decided to shirk the suggestion, just too giddy with social media attention. (Full disclosure : I posted a photo of the empty stage long before the show started, but still, I admit to that tugging need to let people know I was there, near her.)

At 9pm, a National Geographic documentary-style voice (actually British broadcaster David Attenborough, narrating Biophilia’s intro) came over the loudspeaker and explained the night would be about "NATURE, MUSIC, AND TECHNOLOGY." It also asked us to expand our minds, and a few other ideas that I missed due to excitement. Just listen to the album introduction, it’s all there.

The cloaked Icelandic choir — all blonde, Viking-esque, and vaguely Kirsten Dunst-looking, wearing oversized smocks of glittery green or velvety amber-brown with large hoods — marched out and stood in a hunched and humble circle on the already circular stage and began chanting. A sea of impressive vocals rose with immediacy.

And then Björk rose up like a bewigged phoenix from the ashes, and lightly shuffled near the Tesla coils as they crackled with purple electricity inside a human-sized bird cage (technically, a Faraday shield). She later called the Tesla coils her "fun new toy." The set began with "Oskasteinar," then electrifying "Thunderbolt,” which teetered between grinding techno thanks to arpeggios timed to the coils and passionate love song, given Björk’s leaping vocals. This was followed by "Moon" (large moons floating and shifting on the circle of TV screens surrounding the stage) and "Chrystalline" (crystal gems dance across said screens). Most songs had a visual component on those screens, a natural element growing and twisting like a video game or early web screen-saver. The image of the earth’s mantle cracking open looked straight out of a biology book.

Björk and the hooded Kirsten Dunsts sang their way through most of Biophilia — the main star of this tour — but also revisited old favorites like "Hidden Place,” which was matched to a neat video of colorful starfish frolicking underwater, and incredibly sexy Vespertine hit "Pagan Poetry," which burst out of Bjork’s mouth like fire, filling the room with warmth. That powerful "I love him/I love him/I love him/I love him" breakdown felt almost too personal in such a small place. But then the choir piped up with that tender backup “She loves him,” and it brought us all back to the present.

While she sang, Björk one-two shuffled around in platform glitter shoes and a glittery beige haute couture dress that looked like it was covered in 3-D alien breasts. She pushed her body forward and back. She shot her hands out and spread her fingers like she was casting spells to the beats. She pulled out the iPad to play during a handful of songs, and was also backed by a live drummer, a musician on "computers and shit," and a truly epic harpist, also wearing a glittery oversized smock. Large pendulums swung to and fro just off the stage.

Björk and the Dunsts left the stage after an hour, returning a few short minutes later with "Possibly Maybe" off 1995’s Post, “Nattura," and finally, closing with Volta’s "Declare Independence." For that last song, she asked that everyone stand (VIP area was seated) and sing-along, "Declare independence/Don’t let them do that to you" and everyone obliged, hoping to please their mad scientist master with repeated declarations of independence. Make your own flag, raise your flag higher, higher.


When tickets for Björk’s long-awaited West Coast tour were announced in early April, the Icelandic pop star tweeted : "And the venues are...(drum roll) : the craneway in san francisco & the hollywood bowl & hollywood palladium." At her set on Wednesday, May 22, Björk said, "Thank you, Bay Area" enough times to make it clear that she knew she wasn’t in San Francisco, but it still felt like no one in the crowd understood why her three Bay Area shows happened at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond.

At the Craneway, there is a sense of being on the edge of the bay — waterfront views that span the Port of Oakland, the San Francisco skyline, and parts of Marin County — and attending Björk’s Biophilia tour, there is a sense of experiencing the far reaches of human existence. It is, in so many ways, an unlikely but perfect union. So how did the Craneway land its first Live Nation event ?

First, some background : Björk kicked off her Biophilia tour in 2011, but the concept went beyond live performances and recorded music : It incorporated interactive design, web and mobile apps, a documentary, and a series of educational workshops. Björk’s camp considered performing at The Exploratorium back in 2012, when it was still located in its original home at The Palace of Fine Arts, according to Live Nation production director Ron Bergman. But when all dates last year were cancelled due to Björk’s throat surgery, Live Nation was tasked with finding a venue large enough to accommodate her 360-degree, in-the-round performance (in which the audience surrounds the stage) that could still maintain an intimate feel.

"This is a one-off show, not a touring production," said Bergman as his crew was busy setting up for Björk’s performance. "She didn’t want to play an arena, and it had to be in the round."

Bergman said that most tours come pre-loaded and assembled, but Björk’s required his team to rig oddities that included four ten-foot wooden pendulums, two Tesla coils connected by a metal cage, and eight large screens. Live Nation also constructed an elevated stage and set up bleachers and floor seating to accommodate the 4,000-capacity crowd. After 34 years at Live Nation, Bergman said Biophilia "doesn’t look like any tour we’ve done before."

Live Nation considered many San Francisco venues for the show, Bergman said, including Fort Mason, but finally confirmed Craneway in February, only two months before the show was publicly announced. Bergman admitted that he initially didn’t consider the former Ford assembly plant a viable music venue.

The family that owns and operates Craneway, developer Eddie Orton and his son, Joey Orton, believe the Björk shows will help the venue establish a solid reputation in the music industry and among fans. "We’re hoping to usher in a new era of music at the Craneway," Joey Orton said. "We haven’t had nearly as many concerts as we deserve. It’s a big step for us."

The Ortons started redeveloping the Craneway in 2003 with live concerts and events in mind. The 45,000-square-foot glass-enclosed pavilion was designed in 1930 by architect Albert Kahn, and is tall enough to fit a train inside its massive doors. The venue gets its name from the cranes that once hoisted completed Fords onto waiting train cars. Orton said the building "was crumbling and uninhabitable" when they began work ; as part of the process, the Ortons replaced more than 40,000 windows. Even when the Craneway opened its doors in 2008, the acoustics were not yet in place to house live music.

"When we opened, it was just a big empty room," Orton said. The Ortons enlisted Berkeley’s Meyer Sound to take down the reverb levels — upgrades that cost $100,000 and took two years to complete. In addition, they added staging infrastructure and professional lighting, and hired former Shoreline Amphitheatre general manager Lance Miller to oversee operations.

"[Live Nation] came to check out the venue and saw how far it has come," Orton said. "It took them a long time to find the right venue for it. They’d been trying for two years." Orton said they quickly "worked with Live Nation to give them a deal they’d be excited about. We gave them a really great deal."

Beyond the venue’s lack of reputation, Orton said the perception of Richmond as a hotbed of crime didn’t give promoters confidence in its draw, even though people familiar with the East Bay know that the area surrounding the Craneway is pretty removed from many of those issues. "Anyone who comes on our site immediately realizes that it’s safe," Orton said.

The venue’s remote, waterfront location also presented issues of access, requiring concert-goers to take BART and a bus or drive to the venue, which Craneway and Live Nation addressed by including an option of round-trip ferry service from San Francisco in the ticket price. Orton said that the venue dedicated a staff member to answering calls regarding transportation.

On Wednesday night, a nearly full moon rising above the water, no one seemed to mind the location. Aside from moments of confusion about where to find the bar or bathrooms, the crowd easily flowed into the vast space.

Around 8:45 p.m., the lights dimmed and a 24-member, all-female choir clad in gold sequined costumes calmly started the set with the folk song "Óskasteinar," singing its Icelandic lyrics in breathy, high notes as Björk took the stage. The lights came up to reveal the singer, in silver sequins and a massive wig, surrounded by the choir, a harpist, a drummer, a DJ, the four pendulums, and a MIDI-controlled pipe organ ; above her, the Tesla coils were slowly lowered. As they launched into "Thunderbolt," one of the more high-energy songs off Biophilia, the stage exploded in electricity — both musical and literal — the Tesla coils sparking in time to the beat of the song. Björk’s soprano arpeggios soared over the chaos, as robust, elastic, and expansive as the song’s theme of love and desire.

The set list, mostly composed of tracks off Biophilia, moved seamlessly between up-tempo, bass-heavy songs like "Crystalline" and slower, harmonized ones like "Dark Matter." A few of Björk’s older tracks were peppered in between, including "Hidden Place" and "Pagan Poetry" off 2001’s Vespertine, both of which fit into Biophilia’s overarching theme about the intrinsic bond between living organisms. As expected, the crowd erupted when Björk kicked off a three-song encore with "Possibly Maybe," the only track she played off Post, one of her most popular albums ; it was a significantly rearranged version that gave the choir a major role in the song. Just before the encore, the choir exited the stage for "Solstice," leaving Björk to sing accompanied only by the harpist. As her voice crashed over the violently plucked, off-kilter harp, the pendulums swayed and created sweeping shadows across the stage. It was movement, perfectly embodied in that moment, as if Craneway itself was floating adrift in the bay.




01. Oskasteinar
02. Thunderbolt
03. Moon
04. Crystalline
05. Hollow
06. Dark Matter
07. Hidden Place
08. Mouth’s Cradle
09. Virus
10. Sacrifice
11. Generous Palmstroke
12. Pagan Poetry
13. Mutual Core
14. Cosmogony
15. Solstice
16. Possibly Maybe
17. Nattura
18. Declare Independence

sur scène

  • Graduale Nobili
  • Manu Delago
  • Matt Robertson
  • Zeena Parkins

habillée par

  • Iris van Herpen