First introduced to the world in 2008 with their YouTube cover of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’, sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, known now as First Aid Kit, have slowly built a dedicated following throughout the world.
Evidence of said following was on display on Wednesday evening whenever the Swedish siblings wowed a filled-to-capacity Mandela Hall. Any space left from the thousand strong crowd was filled with the sound of swooning harmonies and lovelorn Americana as the band impressed on their debut Belfast performance.
Wearing sparkling gold dresses that seemed like a throwback to their compatriots ABBA, Klara (Vocals, Guitar) and Johanna (Vocals, Keyboards) stood center stage, backed up by what Nashville would call a utility player in Melvin Duffy (Guitar, Lap Steel, Mandolin, Dobro) and a Tuxedo adorned Niclas Lindström behind the kit. A modest set up no doubt, forgivably accompanied by some pre-recorded strings, the foursome created a sound both contemporary and nostalgic, with the neo-folk harmonies unique enough to create a fresh atmosphere for the audience whilst the occasional pine of a steel guitar harkened back to the glory days of the Grande Old Opry.
Commencing the night’s proceedings was warm-up act Jo Rose who had a difficult time even making it to the stage last night. Mid-set, the Mancunian singer songwriter almost apologetically explained that he had collapsed on stage the previous night in Glasgow. Likening it to the Crying/Llorando scene from Mulholland Drive, he revealed that he wrecked most of his stage lights and guitar (a 1957 Gibson acoustic if I heard correctly) leaving him to ply his trade on borrowed equipment.
In addition to this mishap the singer, who also acted as his own roadie for the night, had to contend with a microphone that in my mind was too low in volume to be fully understood by the audience. An artist like Rose, who procures in introverted and retrospective folk needs his voice to be heard above the din of the crowd so that he can both build a rapport and have his craft fully appreciated.
In light of all those issues it’s commendable that come his final two songs, he had started to win over the support of the crowd. However whilst I praise him for that and his earnest songwriting, he does need to build a better dynamic as a live act. In light of the headlining act’s performance it would be easy to forget Rose’s contribution. Perhaps in a live arena his sincerity is his downfall as the songs played were difficult for the audience to fully connect with, due in part to their somber tone.
Emotional and intellectual depth doesn’t always sit easily alongside a noteworthy live show. However, the craft and performances of First Aid Kit are surely an example of how such a balance could be struck. They opened with the title track of their new album, Stay Gold, which duly received a raucous welcome from the Belfast crowd. It’s hard to imagine any other interpretation or reference to Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, receiving such adulation in a music venue.
As the night progressed and the songs started to rack up, the feeling that I was watching the current generation’s incarnation of the Everly Brothers was becoming more apparent. With their voices so tightly wound in blood harmony there were times when discerning who was singing what became near impossible. When there was space between the two though, older sister Johanna’s harmonies demanded acclaim on both a visceral and a technical level, with her ability to switch between open voice and falsetto particularly impressive. Likewise Klara’s raw tone and delivery could give even the most banal of lyric integrity, and is the perfect remedy to her sister’s soaring harmony lines.
As cliché as it is to mention the harmonies of First Aid Kit when reviewing the band, the instinctive joy felt by the human ear when in proximity to such a hollowing swoon, renders you unable to discuss much else. An entire lexicon of superlatives could be dedicated to the power felt when hearing the band slowly build up to the waltzing crescendo of ‘Cedar Lane’.
In a live setting the band have so much more punch and energy than on record. Perhaps compression being a mainstay of modern recordings had desensitized me to the power of their vocals, but only live could I really experience the obvious talent they both possess. Songs are taken to another level in the live domain, an example being ‘Waitress Song’. After repeated listens to Stay Gold the track never really stood out, however live it sounds like a staple, and a jewel in their canon of work.
A cover of Jack White’s ‘Love Interruption’ was another standout from the evening, with the more rambling and roots rock accompaniment seeming like a natural fit for the band. Hopefully this is an avenue to be further explored on future efforts, as you get the feeling that they are only one big album (or even a single) away from making the leap to bigger crowds, and better venues.
This isn’t to slight the Mandela Hall, with its intimate setting allowing for the nights best moment. Seven songs in and the sisters seemed to appreciate that they had enough electricity in their voices to abandon their microphones. After silencing the capacity crowd (no mean feat in Belfast) the backing band exited, as Klara and Johanna stood close on the stage’s edge. What followed was a reverent appreciation from the crowd as they commenced into ‘Ghost Town’ from 2010’s The Big Black and the Blue. Bar one blood-curdling cry from an over-eager audience member, the crowd was silent, only daring to interrupt the calm by joining in on the songs chorus.
The band’s work from here on was essentially done; the crowd had been well and truly won over by such an innovative performance and singles ‘My Silver Lining’, and ‘The Lion’s Roar’ were played out to crowd thoroughly satisfied by the nights entertainment.
The night drew to a close with the bands signature track, ‘Emmylou’, a paean to the chemistry between country couples June Carter and Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. As the crowd filtered out, murmurs and mumbles of the songs chorus reverberated around the emptying hall, a calling card of a crowd pleased with what they had seen. Michael Madden, GiggingNI.com
Setlist: Stay Gold, Blue, King of the World, Waitress Song, Shattered and Hollow, In The Hearts of Men, Cedar Lane, Ghost Town, My Silver Lining, Wolf, Love Interruption, Heaven Knows, The Lion’s Roar. Encore: A Long Time Ago, Master Pretender, Emmylou.