Every once in a while, I hope that a show is going to be transcendent. I put aside all of my jaded history of seeing bands, playing shows myself, and of being disappointed by artists that I really admire, and I just walk into a building hoping to be carried off the Earthly plane. There are only certain bands through which an experience like this is even possible, and usually when I hope for it, everything falls through. With Sigur Ros in 2002, still just ahead of the curve of their popularity, it seemed like I might just have a shot.
Sigur Ros makes music that wants to be transcendent. They are almost incapable of playing in the middle--everything is either tiny and emotionally compact or huge and sweeping and bombastic. I love that, and that's exactly what usually makes for a good show. The other component of a good show is a good venue, one where the sound and ambience fit the band and Variety Playhouse seemed like a good choice for Sigur Ros. Alas, my plans for a night of exceptional connection to music were foiled by the seating plan.
While the Variety Playhouse has seating, there's a standing room space in front of all of the theater seats that typically gets swollen with younger fans who want to be close to the band. After doing this for a while, I'm quite content to be back a ways, in the middle of the room where I can hear everything perfectly and see everything just well enough. I also like sitting down, especially for a band like Sigur Ros, where I'm not going to be inspired to dance or jump around as much as close my eyes and sway.
The problem with this arrangement at Variety is that when the standing room fills up, the first 15 or so rows of seats are farily useless because the room isn't sloped enough for people sitting to see over those who are standing. So people stand at their seats in the first row. Then the second. Then the third, because really, how can you see through people standing at their seats in rows one and two? This effect fans back like a slow-motion version of the wave, but where people never sit back down to let the wave ebb. When this happens, I want to stop the show and just ask if people can figure out that the seats are for sitting and the standing is for standing--but of course that would never work. So I managed to watch most of Sigur Ros with my head cranked sideways as I peered through the gap in between some guy's arm and his torso, and around someone else's head. I think I saw mostly the drummer.
So after waiting for that once in a lifetime experience and watching it fall flat through the fidgety body parts of others, I decided that maybe transcendent concert experiences weren't for me anymore. If Sigur Ros couldn't do it, and if Cocteau Twins couldn't do it, then what hope was there? Some years later, I would see a movie about a band that came close to the effect I was looking for, so I can at least say now that all hope is not lost. It's just not likely to be found on the floor of the Variety Playhouse.