For the 105 minutes in between, a sense of magic permeated Oakland’s Paramount Theatre as one of the music world’s most quixotic stars enraptured a sold-out audience with a performance that was part pop, part avant-garde classicism and thoroughly enchanting.
In more than eight years as a solo artist, Björk has followed her muse through adventures that ranged from quirky dance music to abstract aural collages and show tunes. That whimsical spirit has never been framed as exquisitely as on the current tour supporting her new album, "Vespertine."
Backed by a full orchestra, an 11-member girls’ choir from Greenland, electric harpist Zeena Parkins and San Francisco sound duo Matmos (Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel), Björk has created a concert experience as unique as her repertoire.
The night’s fanciful opening featured Björk looking elfin in the spotlight, wearing one of her trademark white dresses with a swan’s head draped over the shoulder and playing the instrumental “Frosti” on a music box. The orchestra followed with another instrumental, the sweeping “Overture” from last year’s “Selmasongs” CD.
The rest of the show’s first half drew largely from the coolly atmospheric “Vespertine,” from the crystalline harp of “An Echo a Stain” and “Pagan Poetry” to the glacial video imagery of “It’s Not Up to You” and the amusing sight of Schmidt crunching through an amplified pan of artificial snow to create sound effects for “Aurora.”
Assisted by her choir in traditional dress, Björk gave her distinctive voice a workout : whispers, crescendoing wails, lilting arias and guttural growls, while Matmos, who also served as opening act, supplied a remarkable array of effects. On the hushed “Cocoon,” for instance, Schmidt ran what appeared to be a hand microphone along Daniel’s back and neck to accentuate the singer’s reverie of drowsy passion.
Lighting set the mood on the minimalist set, flushing deep crimson during the industrial “Army of Me” and bathing the stage in soothing mint green for the airy, up-tempo “Hyperballad.”
The second half of the concert found Björk in another birdlike ensemble, a scarlet-feathered hoop skirt and a bodice covered in plastic bangles that clattered cheerfully as she danced and whirled across the stage.
This section focused on earlier work, with highlights that included “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” from 1995’s “Post,” which Björk delivered in Icelandic to lush string accompaniment (she also sang “The Anchor Song,” from 1993’s “Debut,” in both Icelandic and English).
A majestic “Isobel” combined full orchestra, Matmos’ digital percussion and Björk’s vocals at their overarching best. Equally lavish were the symphonic “Bachelorette” and an encore of “Joga” from 1997’s “Homogenic.”
If the evening began with a tableau of isolation, it ended in collective bliss as members of the audience danced their way down the aisles clapping along to a new song called “In Our Hands.” Björk skipped from one side of the stage to the other, laughing and egging them on, a spritely magician who broke her own otherworldly spell to join her fans in a moment of musical joy.