Like any good workout, the Knife began Monday’s stop of the “Shaking the Habitual” tour at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium with pre-show calisthenics. An in-drag trainer/preacher with a full beard and glitter led the thousands in the crowd through DEEP Aerobics — prepping the audience for a physical and mental workout to follow. After a good stretch, the Knife worked to re-establish what many would consider a contemporary musical performance. Those expecting to see a traditional electronic, pop, or rock show instead were given something closer to an aggregated art show — more fitting in a museum than the Fillmore.
Throughout the pre-show warm-up fans danced and repeated in unison such weighty lines like, “I am still alive and I am not afraid to die!” Once the music began, there was often, as in the song “Bird” from the group’s self-titled debut album, the fury of a neon favela afire with live percussion and lighting, set against haunting vocals. Put music, dance, theater and poetry in a cauldron and heat it ’till it boils.
Of course, art, like anything personal, is necessarily political, and The Knife does not try to compromise this reality. “What we do is political,” they say through unidentified voices on their website’s “interview” page. “That should be impossible to misunderstand. (We) don’t think there is a difference between what you do as an artist and what you do privately.”
Their music tries to ask what a protest song sounds like in the 21st century. Following the feminist tradition that influenced them, they try to transcend gender in both their appearance and approach, wearing matching blue vinyl jumpsuits, painted faces and performing in choreographed movements. Gone are the masks they used to wear: “It felt too safe behind the masks,” they add in the interview. “Something that was meant to question identity and fame became a commercial product.”
The group appeared on stage as dark figures framed in fog. Their original instruments included drumming tubes, a giant table bass that was played with both a bow and mallets, and an array of handheld percussion instruments. Almost every member of the 11-piece band played an instrument, sang and danced at various intervals. Highlights from the setlist included:
• “Raging Lung”: The sound of the bowed table bass, combined with live drums and droning vocals, drew out the dub-style tempo and offered the feeling of submerging and surfacing in the song. It served to remind you that the music is not always about creating a dance rhythm.
• “One Hit”: A battle between dance lines, with each side charging each other to the chorus, “One hit/one kiss,” and eventually facing and charging the audience, as well.
• “Full of Fire”: Comical, Devo-like arm movements; a spoken word with the verse, “I want a body that, no matter how dead it seems, always wakes up clawing!”; a nod to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” as sung, “Let’s talk about gender, baby/Let’s talk about you and me.”
• “Stay Out Here”: Multiple singers above a repetitive drum beat carried the song influenced by the Occupy Movement. The rhythm produced one of the only moments of the night when the electronic overwhelmed the live.
• “Silent Shout”: The dance version, whipping the capacity crowd to a froth. At song’s end, the group encouraged the crowd to stick around for the hour-long D.J. dance set that was to follow (most of them did), then said goodnight.
With that, aligning with their collective credo, they faded back into the fog on stage as silhouettes.
After experiencing such a spectacle, and knowing what a different kind of spectacle most of the music industry is, you couldn’t help hoping The Knife finds a way to keep its swirl of identities, its “masks,” from ever growing safe. A performance of this scale is rare. And, it wakes us to the fact that not only is art far from irrelevant, but in the form of The Knife, we can be reminded again of its force.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and recently completed his novel, “As We Used to Sing.” His selected work can be read at samdeleo.com.
Glenn Ross is a Denver-based photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work here.