“The worst show I have ever witnessed”, “absolutely bananas”, “life changing”: Reactions to The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual tour so far have been very divided. So when I purchased my ticket for the sold-out debut Toronto show at Kool Haus on April 25th, I didn’t quite know if it was something to be super excited or super disappointed about. But I knew I was in for something extraordinary, because the Swedish electro act consisting of Olof and Karin Dreijer Andersson (the possibly coolest pair of siblings out there) took the title to heart and really “shook the habitual” with this concert. In fact, the Shaking The Habitual show is not a concert. It’s an elaborate, bizarre performance, where body expression and political statements come first and concert traditions are second – or don’t exist at all. Instead of an opening band, the show started with a warm-up act – literally. Deep Aerobics (Death Electro Emo Protest Aerobics) was delivered by the flamboyant Tarek Halaby. He got the crowd moving and sweating with jumping and stretching exercises, engaging them in interactions with fellow audience members, and explaining the principle of the The Knife‘s show: “You have to move to be moved”.
After 20 minutes of Deep Aerobics, which was both hilarious and refreshingly different, The Knife took the stage with “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”, and whoever wasn’t prepared realized now: This show wasn’t going to be about Karin and Olof, but about a group of about a dozen performers and artists. The duo was joined by the arts collective Sorklubben and Shannon Funchess of Light Asylum for this tour and they kept themselves in the background for the entire show. In fact, they were so easy to miss among all of the performers that they sparked outrage in fans at previous shows for making them think they hadn’t been part of the show at all.
The setlist consisted of mostly songs from their latest album Shaking The Habitual, but also included a handful of old songs. Especially “We Share Our Mothers Health” and “Pass This On” were greedily applauded by everyone. All the songs were performed very theatrically with the use of many curious instruments, percussive elements and choirs of vocals. Karin rarely sang just by herself, and a number of songs, such as “One Hit” were presented as interpretive dance performances based on lip-synched playback versions of the original tracks.
In the audience, there were those who danced and cheered enthusiastically to every song, and then there were those who hungrily waited for the band to play “Heartbeats” and other hits to sing along to. These people likely went home with great disappointment.
What was impossible to ignore was the political nature of the show, with a focus on tearing down gender binaries and embracing queer culture. A moment that stood out was when the Icelandic dancer Halla Olafsdottir recited the spoken word poem “The Body Possum”: “I want a body with no external and no internal. I want a body that no one can kick out of bathrooms – and then, I want no bathrooms.”, Halla demanded. People cheered, people laughed.
After only one hour, the show ended with the song “Silent Shout”, the performers thanked the audience and wished them goodbye. “See you in seven years, Toronto!” No one mistook the show as ordinary enough to even try to cheer for an encore.
Though it would be easy to write the entire rumpus off as a pretentious failure of an authentic live performance, it was a – yes, bizarre – but undeniably moving, entertaining experience that couldn’t have represented the album’s spirit in a more spot-on way. So, seven years until the next show? I’ll mark it on my calendar!