Real, coincidental symmetry is rare in life, so when it shows up, you have to appreciate it. Two weeks ago, I caught Lykke Li at First Avenue, and saw her perform for the first time in two years. Opening was First Aid Kit, two gorgeous Swedish sisters whose new LP, The Lion’s Roar drops in two months, and whose North American tour brought them to the historic venue for the first time. This could be reading between the lines, but I’m superstitious; I’m running with it.
I caught Lykke’s set at Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee in 2009 and was mesmerized in a way that happens so infrequently at concerts these days. It was the perfect intimate spectacle; not too crowded, and just the right mix of showmanship and familiarity. While maintaining her phantomlike presence onstage in her long, black clothes, Lykke chatted with the audience as we stood before her, united in captivation. This quality is rare in performers, which is enough to make a concert memorable even aside from great musicianship.
That being said, I had the highest expectations for such a great Sunday night show. Lykke’s appearance on the New Moon Soundtrack and the sterling reviews of her sophomore album have made her bigger than ever, while her opening band has had a steady rotation on my iPod since the release of their debut album, The Big Black & The Blue, last year.
Hailing from Stockholm, the impossibly young Johanna (21) and Klara (18) Söderberg of First Aid Kit gained notoriety with their cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” back in 2008. Since then, they’ve collaborated with both Jack White and Bright Eyes. The sisters’ dreamy harmonies and ever so slight Southern twang blend into a massively appealing brand of folk, in league with Fleet Foxes, Alela Diane, and Joanna Newsom.
As they stepped onstage in their floor-length, flower-covered caftans, Johanna and Klara completely channeled their American folk inspirations. In fact, the only things that gave away their heritage were the soft Swedish greetings toward the audience. Of course, that makes their talent all the more obvious, and endearing. Surprisingly confident for their years, their voices rang crystal clear in First Avenue’s Mainroom, their tight harmonies simple, clean, and perfect.
Obviously eager for the release of The Lion’s Roar, First Aid Kit mixed in a variety of new singles along with old songs like “Hard Believer,” a rousing song of affirmation that speaks of the kind of jilted experience that seems beyond the band’s collective years. In fact, many of their songs evoke that same tone of almost fatigued wisdom and maturity, such as another track off their first album, “Ghost Town.” Steeped with regret and haunting memories, the song in concert offered a humbling and unsettling piece of advice: “If you’ve got visions of the past / Let them follow you down / For they’ll come back to you someday.”
In the same vein is new single, “Emmylou.” Named in honor of Emmylou Harris (and with references to both her and Gram Parsons as well as June Carter and Johnny Cash), the song resonates with such sweet and earnest simplicity that it seems impossible to have been written by such young artists. But in front of a sold-out crowd, both women sing with such self-assured passion that proves age is just a number.
Undoubtedly, the standout number of the set was the title track from First Aid Kit’s upcoming album, “The Lion’s Roar.” Charged with the kind of energy that sets it on a level apart from former songs, Klara’s sweet vocals turn slightly biting in a way that’s electric live. But the very best part of the song was the guitar jam at the end, when both sisters launched into furious head-banging. Their long hair took on a life of its own, obscuring their faces and giving the impression that they’d been bewitched; turned into dancing mops straight out of Fantasia. It was surprisingly intense.
First Aid Kit closed out their set with “I Met Up With the King,” which provided a soothing contrast to “The Lion’s Roar.” The return to their simple harmonies and acoustic guitar was calming and familiar, and left exactly the right impression: all I wanted was to hear more.
As we waited for Lykke Li to take the stage, the audience suddenly compressed, everyone impatient to see the blonde-haired pixie woman they’d come to see. As the lights cut out and the smoke machine settled a thick haze over the room, the band started up with “Jerome” and Lykke, like magic, appeared onstage. Intense, dramatic light flashes combined with the black curtains hanging behind her onstage made the normally quiet songstress larger than life while her slowly accentuated dance moves alternated with bursts of movement that energized the entire room.
Li’s strong start continued with “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” and “Sadness is a Blessing,” the former a frenzy of fanatical drumming and the latter a soulful ballad she used to connect with the audience, pointing out fans to sing to in the crowd.
The incredibly strong start to her set seemed to fall flat, however, upon reaching the very popular single, “Dance, Dance, Dance.” Where her vocals started strong and pronounced, “Dance, Dance, Dance” found Li barely audible, with half of the words getting lost amidst dance moves and the added drum break. Though not overly distracting, the absence of the vocals was disappointing in that her lyrics are characteristically simplistic, and thus each word is emphasized. This loss was especially noticeable here because “Dance, Dance, Dance” contains so few words and relies on the repetition of its chorus for strength. With only half of the words coming through, its resonance was diffused.
The rest of the concert seemed to lose steam in a similar fashion, though did have high points such as the calling of First Aid Kit back to sing “Silent My Song,” a surprisingly poignant solo performance of “I Know Places,” and a cover of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” These ballads added a definite depth to Lykke’s overall performance as the toned-down instrumentals allowed space for her voice to shine.
Where the second half of the concert did contain solid performances of songs like “Little Bit,” “Youth Knows No Pain,” and “Get Some,” they weren’t infused with the same kind of energy that was so prevalent in the first few numbers. And though it was by no means a bad effort on the artist’s part, as an audience member, I was mildly disappointed. Li shone so strongly on “I’m Good I’m Gone,” beating furiously at a cymbal, in a way that was absent from other songs with the same potential energy. I chalk this up as a simple set list issue; that song would have made one hell of a final number.
Upon reflection, all points go to Team Sweden, despite the headliner not tasting as sweet the second time around. First Aid Kit more than made up for what was lacking in Li’s set, which itself is what fueled my dissatisfaction. The Söderberg sisters were so strong and so charming in their set that topping them was a difficult business. But by no means am I counting Lykke Li out; not while her vocals – when you can hear them – still ooze divinity. What I will do is set my sights to Saturday, April 7, when First Aid Kit will again grace Minneapolis with their impeccable talent; this time as headliners. Round two, I can hardly wait.