The Knife Gets Tribal in New York for 'Shaking the Habitual' Tour: Concert Review

The Knife NYC Performing - H 2014
Matthew Allen

The Knife NYC Performing - H 2014

Radical gender theory informs a sweaty dance party.

Radical gender theory informs a sweaty dance party.

Anybody not quite clued in to the radical sexual politics of The Knife's latest record, Shaking the Habitual (and given singer Karin Dreijer Andersson's often distorted, heavily accented vocals, they're easy to miss) got the message immediately at the group's Thursday NYC show, part of a two-night stand that was their first gig here in eight years. Even before the band took the stage, concert goers were greeted by an unidentified calisthenics leader in a fluorescent, spangled outfit — picture a hipster, art-damaged version of fitness evangelist Richard Simmons, then imagine something even less appealing — whose take on aerobics was explicitly omnisexual, touchy-feely and designed to erase inhibitions.

Those vibes would be expressed more eloquently during the show itself, as when one of the dozen or so performers on stage recited a Jess Arndt poem featuring declarations like "I want a body with two dicks, three pouches, and five holes ... a body with no internal and no external ... that sweats medical marijuana ... a body in every color ... I want your body, and your body, and your body."

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The agenda wasn't limited to polymorphous sexuality, but represented a desire to break down all kinds of barriers between people, a rejection even of the idea of individuality. The siblings who make up the band, Andersson and brother Olof Dreijer, have often worn disguises, but here they hid in a crowd, mingling with their fellow performers in ways that made them all but interchangeable. Wearing glittery face paint and jump suits in a range of jewel tones, they all traded performing roles: Many people other than Knife vocalist Andersson sang lead, spoke to the crowd as if they led the group, and played solo instruments, one of which was an elaborate wooden contraption that was horizontal cello one moment and xylophone the next.

Or at least they appeared to play. For most of the duration of two songs, the fact that nobody on stage was visibly at any sort of music-making device begged the already-present question of how much of the evening's soundtrack was preprogrammed. The suggestion of pre-recorded music was hardly a scandalous one here, given that the show was so focused on breathing physical life into music that, on the new record, can be challengingly abstract and machine-made. Dance was the focus, with elaborate choreography much more ambitious than the usual pop-concert fare.

On "A Tooth for an Eye," dancers employed a Bollywood flourish here, a Sufi twirl there, and ended with some Beatnik fingersnaps that, with black lights on, revealed they were wearing glow-in-the-dark orange nail polish. "One Hit" organized antic motion around a series of dramatic tableaux; "Full of Fire" found the stage erupting in shoveling gestures that suggested a crew of workers in an industrial-era engine room. The production's lighting design, featuring beams cutting through air thickened by a smoke machine, was well-integrated with the dancers' most angular poses.

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The dancing got looser and the music louder as the roughly 80-minute set neared its end, devolving from choreographed precision to dance-party chaos. Here, staging seemed fully in keeping with the band's intellectual intent: Having erased the distinction between themselves and their backup dancers, they then became one with the spectators. Instead of signaling the end of their show by raising the house lights after leaving the stage, they cranked up a disco ball and kept the house music loud. One would hardly have been surprised if, within five or 10 minutes, they had wiped off the makeup and snuck into the still-dancing crowd unrecognized.

Set list:

Wrap Your Arms Around Me
Raging Lung
We Share Our Mothers' Health
Without You My Life Would Be Boring
A Tooth for an Eye
One Hit
Full of Fire
Collective Body Possum (Poem)
Ready to Lose
Pass This On
Stay Out Here
Silent Shout