There’s a difference between playing an album live and bringing an album to life. One approach aims to faithfully reproduce an existing work and the other diligently reinvents it in a changed context, making a new creation in the process.
Swedish electronic provocateurs the Knife, making its first U.S. appearance in nearly eight years at Coachella on Friday night (April 11), proved to be enthusiastic students of the latter school. The group took its vexing and wildly experimental 2013 album, “Shaking the Habitual,” and capably translated it into an experience that was deeply accessible and joyously human.
It started with the outfits. Entering the Coachella Outdoor Stage decorated to look like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” or an undersea Willy Wonka compound, the brother-sister duo of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson was accompanied by nine dancer/instrumentalists decked out in sparkly, metallic, sleeveless jumpsuits and eye masks of teal, purple and electric blue — a merry band of neon ninjas.
“Music can be so meaningless,” the Knife wrote last year in the mission statement for “Shaking the Habitual.” “We had to find lust. We asked our friends and lovers to help us.”
From the first song, the rhythmic and bass-heavy “Raging Lung,” the performance was eminently democratic and playfully multidisciplinary. Dreijer and Andersson took non-privileged stage positions that rotated frequently, and other members of the troupe swapped instruments, including something that looked like an eight-foot, conical glockenspiel and an electronic flute-like instrument that could have been a “Star Trek” fazer. Performers — including Shannon Funchess of Brooklyn band Light Asylum — took turns addressing and pumping up the crowd, as if they were members of an alternate universe Mickey Mouse Club.
But choreography that had been consistent throughout the show reached an exuberant apex with the delivery of “Shaking the Habitual” single “A Tooth for an Eye.” The ninjas bounded across the stage making dramatic hand gestures and swinging their hips. Pairing off into two groups at one point and facing each other for symmetrical line dancing, the display was similar to the closing sequence in a Bollywood blockbuster.
The dazzling performance, however, was light on such better-known Knife songs as “Heartbeats” and “We Share Our Mother’s Health.” Instead, the duo devoted all its resources to animating “Habitual” in the most singular and compelling way possible. Unconventional but universal, light-hearted but disciplined, it was a neo-tribal, life-affirming extravaganza. The Knife’s music is occasionally accused of being overly literate or pretentious; thankfully, they take partying as seriously as their politics.