I try to reserve my concert reviews for when something truly notable happens, and that was definitely the case at last night's show by The Knife at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The band, made up of brother-and-sister duo Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, are on tour with a troupe of ten people who serve both as backup musicians, singers, and dancers throughout what is most certainly a spectacle, and something that transcends the word "concert" on most levels. It is performance art at times smacking of the un-ironic sort that New York feminist artists of 1980s did, like Karen Finley, or the fictional performance artist played by Daryl Hannah in Legal Eagles. Throughout the show I found myself wondering if they appreciated the humor in all they were doing (the costumes, bright blue and purple shiny jumpers with neon sneakers, would suggest that they must), but that didn't matter — this was more of an exuberant party than a sober presentation of their songs.
And that's not what one might expect listening to the sonically difficult, and dissonant fourth album, Shaking the Habitual, that formed the themes for this tour. In promotional copy for the tour they promised, with all the earnestness of Scandinavian intellectuals, to "play with the expectations and question habits of the concert, the dance performance, the club and the music festival." And, "Working within a highly commercial, professionalized and male-dominated music industry, we strive to twist and strangle hierarchies to find other ways of organizing work and its conditions. Disrespecting borders between digital and analogue, fake and real, professional and dilettante, star and cast, experimental acts and glamorous shows, nature and culture, audience and artist, blood family and chosen family, dance and action, a Buchla and bongo and the sound of a hit and a kiss."
The result is a gloriously 1980s-inflected kitsch circus of energy, aerobics, electronic drums, bizarre instrumentation, kicky choreography, and self-conscious art-making that most American bands never even strive for. Things kicked off with a warm-up set by local DJ Rapid Fire, but with the added element of a flambuoyant, purple-wigged, neon-tights-wearing aerobics instructor who worked the crowd into a bouncing, feel-good frenzy by sheer force of will, and wackiness. He had people doing gestures for pushing away the bad in their world, shouting out "No! No! No!" while bouncing and pumping their hands out in front of then. Then gesturing to the sky with an orgasmic "Yes! Yes! Yes!", and then addressing the gray areas of life by bouncing side to side, flailing their arms up and down and saying "Maybe. Maybe. Maybe." Hilarious. And by the time The Knife took the stage at 9 sharp, people were giddily ready for them.
Amid a bath of thick fog and dramatic percussion, they opened with "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" and "We Share Our Mother's Health," with Olaf leading the crowd to clap along. In many moments from the show's opening, I couldn't help but feel like I'd stumbled into an African drum circle gathering in a square in Stockholm in 1987, which at moments morphed into moments of musical theater. See the video below.
Most of their 80-minute set was devoted to music from the new album, though they did hit on some of their older tracks including "Silent Shout" and "Pass It On." They skipped their most familiar hit, "Heartbeats" which was more famously covered by José González in 2003 and then put into a car commercial a couple years later but how could we be so boring as to expect them to play their hit?
Karin did break to speak to the audience mid-show, delivering a poetic monologue (it turned out to be a poem by someone else) that included lines like "I want a body like your body" and "I want a body in every color." (Sidebar: Up in the men's room a guy turned to me at the urinal and said, "I want a body in every color... That's like the clarion call of this generation, man.")
And just a couple words about the crowd: So eclectic! People in their 20s and 30s and plenty of Oakland hip kids were represented, but there were also much older people, fans of every race and sexual orientation and gender expression. If nothing else, The Knife seems to bind together an extremely diverse group of people who revels in their brand of art rock and performance.
In the end, they again frustrated expectations of "the concert" as we know it, closing the curtains, turning on some dance music and disco lights, and never coming out for an expected encore even though they also didn't bring the house lights up to signal that things were over. But no one seemed to mind too much. People down on the floor kept dancing while others filtered slowly out, a little confused but still delighted by what they just saw. No, this was no ordinary concert, and they couldn't really tell you what the playlist, but holy shit that was a good time.