I could have sworn I’d written everything I knew about Stockholm’s First Aid Kit, but that’s the beauty of live performance; just as you think you have an artist figured out, they go and evolve on you. It had been a mere five months since I saw them last, during which time they released their widely acclaimed sophomore album, The Lion’s Roar. Since then, the sisters have kept busy with an extensive touring schedule, and it shows. The vast improvement in both their performance aesthetic and maturity can only hint at one thing: this is not your average folk act.
Initially surprised at the pairing of Brighton-based Peggy Sue as support for First Aid Kit, I was struck by the similarities between the groups: two strong frontwomen, emphasis on simple third harmonies, rakishly good-looking male drummers, and an appreciation for dark, rocking guitar lines. It’s on the last element, however, that Peggy Sue distinguish themselves from their caftan-clad tourmates. Just the right mix of tousled and sultry, Peggy Sue’s aesthetic leans far left of the squeaky clean rock their name alludes to. Gracing the stage in oversized shirts and tights, their no-fuss attitude is as apparent in their attire as it is in their music.
The Brits wasted no time onstage before jumping into a version of “This Constant Night” that faded quickly into “There Always Was.” The rest of their set was an interweaving of songs from their first album (Fossils and Other Phantoms), their latest LP (Acrobats), and a couple surprising covers. Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack” infused the first half of the set with sing-along energy, while Martha and the Vandella’s “Heatwave” brought excellent pep.
While the covers were excellent, the tempo of the show was driven mostly by singles off Fossils, “Yo Mama” and “Watchman,” while the much-lauded single off Acrobats, “Cut My Teeth,” was absent. Despite that, the energy driving the rest of the set, particularly on the irresistibly steamy “Watchman,” was more than enough to make up for any qualms over song choice, leaving me with only one complaint: at barely 45 minutes, the set really left me wanting more. But, of course, that may have been their plan all along.
As we came out of intermission and the Söderberg sisters stepped onstage, it struck me that they looked different in a way I couldn’t define. Hair still mid-waist, peasant dresses, and bright blue eyes; they were the same women I’d seen five months earlier. But as they launched into “This Old Routine,” the sheepish grins that graced their November show were gone, replacing all awkwardness were two confident, serious artists.
As if to highlight their progression, First Aid Kit also mixed old songs into their set. “Hard Believer” (off The Big Black and the Blue) led into new single “Blue,” which sounded incredibly mature live when compared to its recording. No throwback could have excited me more, however, than “Heavy Storm,” which was my introduction to the band back in 2008.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnujWVz1cKk]
The middle of the set was marked by a string of intimate songs, including the Söderbergs’ love letter to the great couples of folk, “Emmylou,” the stripped-down ballad “The New Year,” and the heart-wrenching tale of lost love, “To a Poet.” The last brought to attention just how superb of a job Mike Mogis did in producing The Lion’s Roar, as the sweeping combination of strings and horns were missed live. Of course, that loss didn’t seem so big with the alternative being a much more raw and honest interpretation of the songs. Post-production or not, there’s no changing the ethereal effect of Klara and Johanna’s harmonies.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elOxHrntVKA]
The real highlight of the show was an unexpected acoustic sing-along to “Ghost Town” that brought both sisters to the edge of the stage. One of the band’s most endearing songs, the ballad speaks of the baggage that is unshakable heartache. Like magic, the entire room was drawn to the stage for four minutes (The man next to me even put down his beer, talk about witchcraft…). The most moving part was that the crowd chose not to sing the melody, but rather the harmony, leaving Klara Söderberg’s characteristic voice to shine on its own.
Breaking the crowd from the spell was “Wolf,” followed by a heartwarming cover of the sisters’ mentor, Karin Dreijer Andersson aka Fever Ray, who discovered them in 2008. Despite their completely separate genres, First Aid Kit’s version of “When I Grow Up” is oddly fitting, with their tight harmonies mimicking the electronic distortions of the original.
The cover faded into, “Dance to Another Tune,” where the band’s progression and maturity that were glimpsed before came out in full force. A powerfully dark account of existential searching, the song was made darker with drummer Mattias Bergqvist playing an oddly sinister glockenspiel to dot the verses. It’s the kind of darkness that has become more present in First Aid Kit’s music through their new album and the key element that makes their live shows much more interesting. Klara and Johanna, meanwhile, glared towards the audience as they yelled the words that were soft in the recording, adding an animalistic element to the music that ended defiantly with Klara nearly snarling into the microphone. The effect was visceral; goosebumps abounded.
The set ended with a spellbinding rendition of “The Lion’s Roar.” The added synth on the introduction was mesmerizing, and quickly gave way to a furious minute of headbanging almost transcendent as the music itself. Hop, skip and an encore later come ingratiating shout-outs to almost-like-Sweden (Minneapolis), the harrowing story of Johanna’s broken keyboard, and a cover of “the coolest woman ever,” Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.” Rounding out the night is the rousing “King of the World,” with Conor Oberst’s verse sung by Johanna. As an roomwide clap-athon and a chance for everyone to yell “Fire!” in a full theater, it’s the perfect way to end the night.