Live Review: UnderCover Presents’ Tribute to Björk

Bay Area artists covered the Icelandic singer's Homogenic at the Independent on Saturday, Nov. 12.

Sólás Burke-Lalgee (Credit: Zack Ruskin)

UnderCover Presents are secret agents in the war to keep local music empowered.

Each show is focused on a specific album, with the tracks performed live in chronological order by artists of every conceivable genre. The effect is impressive, and many times, the songs sound very different from the originals, but still manage to channel its fundamental essence. One is just as likely to see a glockenspiel or a gospel choir as they are a traditional guitar, bass, or drum arrangement.

On its surface, UnderCover Presents is a celebration of touchstone albums – Green Day’s Dookie, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Bob Marley’s Exodus – but, on a deeper and more lasting level, it’s also an invitation to see the incredible diversity and talent of musicians currently residing within the Bay Area.

For the program’s latest offering, Björk’s Homogenic was the featured record. As I told a friend between songs at the Independent on Saturday night, Björk probably has a hard time covering her own songs in a live setting. For other artists to take up that mantle was no small challenge. Under the guidance of guest music director Geneva Harrison (also known as the drummer for Bells Atlas), the results were a resounding success.

For an album that only spans 10 tracks, Homogenic covers a lot of ground. As Harrison explained during an interlude between acts, Homogenic represents a period for Björk in which the crushing weight of fame compelled her to look inward. Many of the lyrics speak to failed relationships, and the sonic quality of the record is largely icy and abstract.

Pamela Z, who was tasked with covering “Jóga,” used a series of looped vocals and string accompaniment to replicate the haunting, ethereal tone of the song. Her voice, a powerhouse, brought welcome warmth to a track intended to reflect the Icelandic cold. Zena Carlota employed the kora – a 21-string North African lute-bridge-harp – in her interpretation of “Unravel.”

“A poet friend of mine posted online: ‘Sharpen your teeth because you’ve been called to war, but don’t forget the dreamer in you,’ ” she said in one of many asides made by artists to address the angst and despair of the past week’s election.

Flashes of Björk were present all evening, from the paper artwork strung above the stage to the “ghost” dancers that wandered the crowd and performed in front of the curtain between songs.

But while Homogenic is an album built on electronic beats and strings, many artists opted to replicate the pulse and throb of their chosen songs with more traditional percussion. Several tracks featured multiple players on hand drums, their rhythm a strong and organic reflection of the power of people working in unison.

Yet one of the night’s standout performances had one of the least eclectic arrangements: Madeline Kenney on guitar and vocals, backed by members of Astronauts, Etc. What they created was something transcendent. Kenney flawlessly channeled Björk’s primal anguish in her take on “Immature,” feeding the music with raw emotion without ever letting it bloat. It is often said that artists “leave it all on the stage,” but Kenney’s performance of  “Immature” was the kind that the phrase should be reserved for.

By the time Sólás Burke-Lalgee and DJ Cecil brought back many of the evening’s artists for a call-and-response finale to Homogenic closer “All is Full of Love,” the energy in the Independent had been transformed from 500 people in need of a distraction from the world’s woes to a crowd revitalized in their appreciation for the power of music. We won’t change the world by buying concert tickets, but we can certainly hope to meet the people that will at spaces like UnderCover Presents shows.

It’s at these venues that creators and fans agree to suspend their lives for a spell and create moments that live on in the form of inspiration. It is so easy to feel alone, but progress isn’t built in isolation. UnderCover Presents proved this yet again on Saturday night, bringing artists from every conceivable discipline together to pay tribute to a common cause. On the surface, that cause was Björk, but for anyone in attendance, the intentions were deeper.

For a night, some of the best and most promising artists in the Bay Area music scene joined forces. They covered Björk, but the power was all their own.

Check out the album with recordings from the night at UnderCover Presents’ website. 

Setlist
“Hunter” — ANML
“Jóga” — Pamela Z
“Unravel” — Zena Carlota
“Bachelorette” — Bells Atlas
“All Neon Like” — Redwood Tango Ensemble
“5 Years” — NOT a Brass Band feat. Yvette Pylant
“Immature” — Madeline Kenney
“Alarm Call” — Gino Robair & The Dynamic feat. Kid Beyond & Jovan Watkins
“Pluto” — DennyDennyBreakfast
“All is Full of Love” — Sólás Burke-Lalgee and DJ Cecil

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