Bjork, Hammersmith Apollo, London, 17-04-08

For some reason I'm reminded of a, possibly apocryphal, story that one of the suggested titles for Nirvana's In Utero album was Verse Chorus Verse. This was a comment on the formulaic notion of music at the time - but also a little nod to the quiet/loud/quiet/loud songs that Nirvana had become accused of writing. Bjork doesn't do verse chorus verse.

Going to see a gig can sometimes be predictable in content and style: big hit to start, a track from the last record, two new album tracks to force on the majority while the hardcore beam, another hit, another hit, obscure song, album track, album track, three big hits to finish the encore. That's how it goes, with all bands really. Last night was thrilling precisely because it was a challenging evening, musically, visually and aurally. The venue was the tatty old Apollo, location of so many legendary gigs. I've seen Bowie, Dylan and Rufus there myself, among others.

The lights flashed off and a cute female DJ appeared behind decks on the right. Then, and I shudder as I even think of this, the most horrendous, painful, noise came out of the PA system. What was this? Bjork's madness/genius is inspired, channelled and effortless. This was just bad DJing and it was disappointing to have to listen to it. The mixing was all over the place, that was when it wasn't simply a collection of noises. Two minutes of Bowie's Fashion was the only break from the hell of this so-called support act. The emperor wants his clothes back. I don't know who she was but it was the worst attempt at supporting an artist I've ever seen - and she wasn't even a musician! People put their fingers in their ears because, aside from being musically unlistenable, the PA system was far too loud. Now, I'm a metal fan of 20 years and have been to my share of loud gigs so I don't oppose being blasted. In fact, I've even been having a bit of a moan recently about gigs not being loud enough. But this was ridiculous. I feared ear damage, that's how loud it was. Was she put on to open our ears up and ready us for the voice we had come to hear? Was this a case of having an awful support act to make the main attraction look better? Whatever the aim was, it didn't work.

After what seemed like an eternity of pain, she exited the stage to cheers. Activity was imminent - spotlight operators climbed their ropes and took their place, vibrantly coloured flags appeared from nowhere at the sides and back of the stage and then, quite quickly, a ten piece, identically dressed, all female brass section walked onto the stage as the volume and energy levels rose. Three musicians - who all looked like they work in an Apple store - walked to their decks, Macs and a drumkit as a keyboardist, looking every inch the City gent in his suit, took his place on stage right. The insistent beat of Earth Intruders began and there she was - looking like a cross between Siouxsie and a demented geisha, in multi-coloured dress and huge headpiece wig. We realised quickly that we couldn't see - the floor of the venue is not tilted enough like Brixton Academy's, so we moved back 20 feet and suddenly the view was desirable. Watching her, listening to her, is more of a performance art piece than a pop concert.

We'd seen her at Glastonbury last year, following Arcade Fire, and I was too tired to fully take in what was going on. Normally at gigs, there's singing, jumping around, dancing and general merriment. For large swathes of last night's show, and it was the same at Glasto, it was just... not like that. You're in thrall to her as a performer, you want to watch her and not partake in the usual physical expressions of gig-going. There are moments, from half way through the gig or so, where it does become dance music and that provokes an automatic reaction from the audience - who do want to dance and find the beats in even the most complex songs. You find yourself being manipulated as an audience member in the most mesmeric way. She holds the attention of the viewer/listener with her very being - you realise that the whole show really is about her voice as an instrument, that the songs are merely vehicles by which the voice gives itself to the whole. There are concessions to the 'show' on occasion, as cannons of confetti shoot across the stage as a thunderous Army Of Me reverbs round the venue. That's as close as it gets to a regular gig. I could listen to Bjork's voice for hours on end. The way she uses her voice is unlike any other singer I've ever heard. You can only be in thrall to it, as you watch, glassy-eyed in admiration and astonishment. And yet, with all the unusual energy floating around there are simply magnificent audience pleasing anthems like Hunter, Hyperballad and, one of my highlights of the night, Wanderlust.

Perhaps my ultimate highlight though was Joga, the first song of the encore. The melody makes me want to cry, its beauty brings me to my knees. The expected finale of Declare Independence finished us off, it's a flawless set closer. Given that I go to a fair few gigs that exist in that verse chorus verse universe, it's a joy to see a live show that transforms and challenges your expectations. Only Bjork can provide it.

Earth Intruders
The Pleasure is All Mine
Dull Flame of Desire
Vertebrae by Vertebrae
Desired Constellation
Army of Me
Who Is It
Cover Me

Declare Independence