Some artists are only discovered posthumously. So it seems to have been with the Sugarcubes who returned to perform a concert last Friday in celebration of the 20th anniversary of their first single, Birthday, despite the band announcing its death in 1992.
At a press conference two days before the concert, with nearly 5,000 tickets sold in advance, the Sugarcubes’ bass player, Bragi Ólafsson told me: “This is very new to us. We are not exactly used to be playing in front of large crowds here in Iceland. We are used to playing small clubs.” The sentiment was echoed by Sugarcubes front man, Einar Örn Benediktsson, when I asked him if he was surprised that the show had not already sold out. “Not so much, we were never really a success in Iceland.”
Despite a meagre following in Iceland during their heyday, the combination of their well-documented and somewhat aberrant quirkiness, their timeless songwriting, and the fact that they are Björk’s former band has secured the Sugarcubes an almost mythical status in Iceland’s musical history. The Sugarcubes decided to use this opportunity cash in on this fact in order to bankroll further operation of their own record label, Bad Taste, founded the same day as the band and still a productive and daring label, despite the band’s demise. Although I am not a big fan of bands reuniting in order to cash in on former fame, the Sugarcubes lapse was easily forgiven in light of their altruistic reasoning.
While much of the older audience that night was there for the rare second chance to fulfil something that perhaps they ought to have done circa 1989, many of the younger audience was barely old enough to remember the times when the Sugarcubes were still a band. Overall, attendees were not so much nostalgic as they were curious to see the return of the now legendary and much-hyped Sugarcubes.
Despite the anticipation filling the stadium, the show got off to a rather slow start as the band opened with the song Traitor, the first song from their first album. In the early moments of the show I could not escape the feeling of the band being out of place and time, playing in front of 5,000-plus disconnected patrons, 15 years after their prime. This feeling was not lost on the band either as they strained to find their comfort level and create a connection with the audience in the large stadium. It was not altogether pleasant to witness and for a moment I feared that the Sugarcubes reunion would prove to be as disastrous as Michael Jordan’s second comeback.
Nevertheless, the night was kicked into gear with the rock solid delivery of Regina and Cold Sweat, both early highlights. From that point on, crowd and band were in unison, equally at home with one another as the band blazed through their hit singles one by one. Other notable highlights were Deus, Motorcrash, and the obvious Birthday. It was pleasant to hear how well their songs have withstood the test of time. The gist of songs sounds just as fresh today as they did when they first came out.
Despite the long lay-off, there was little rust to be found in their performance. Band members resumed their duties without effort and quickly fell into their roles. More or less motionless in the background stood guitarist Þór Eldon and bassist Bragi Ólafsson, with Margrét Örnólfsdóttir standing behind a keyboard to the side. Their calm demeanour stood in stark contrast to the bantering and spastic twitches of singer Einar Örn, who at times conjured images of the Mad Hatter as he joked around with the band’s other vocalist, Björk, and danced around with a red trumpet.
As much as everyone tried to ignore it, the star of the show was still Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Her command over her instrument is quite amazing, and it is hard to imagine the Sugarcubes having reached their level of success without her unique vocal lines. Although her mates onstage were all accomplished, seasoned musical veterans – (with the exception of bass player/writer Bragi Ólafsson, who had earlier told me that even if he had not played bass in years, his lines were simple and really, it was just like driving a car, you don’t forget) – she is the only international star, able to attract audiences from afar. Which she did.
On location that night were over 1,000 foreigners who flew in exclusively to watch the night’s show. You wonder how many would have shown up if Björk had not been present. She fell seamlessly in line with the band, and at times she looked so at home on that stage, you could almost forget that they had disbanded and she had moved on to bigger and better things.
More than anything, it was drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson who caught my attention. Even if this talented drummer has been involved with various projects recently, witnessing him in his element that night, truly made it clear how much fun it is to watch him play. His constant smile and jovial spirit also underscored another detail that was lost on no one that night; just how much fun these people were having, sharing a stage again for the first time since 1992.
After they had performed 18 songs, the Sugarcubes finally retreated under the feverish salute of the crowd. After a few minutes of the stomping, clapping and yelling, they returned to perform an encore, including their most successful single, Hit, off the 1992 Stick Around For Joy. After the band left the stage for the second time, the crowd was still hungry for more and brought them out for yet another encore.
For the final act, the ‘Cubes brought out a special guest in none other than Johnny Triumph, the only man alive who could justifiably demote Björk to a back-up singer. Joining him onstage were two young teens, Einar Örn’s and Þór’s and Margrét’s sons, who joined the family in performing Luftguitar, a collaboration project from Johnny Triumph’s own album. Even if Triumph’s return was a welcome sight for many Icelanders, I have a feeling the joke may have been lost on the majority of the foreign guests, as his album was never released outside Iceland.
As Triumph brought the night to an end by smashing his invisible Luftguitar against the amplifiers and eventually tossing it into the audience, the night was brought to a memorable pinnacle and ultimately, a close.