What could be better than a night of beautiful and powerful Americana performed by a 19-year-old from London with a name like a green feathered creature and followed by two sisters from Sweden with a moniker that better suits a collection of medical equipment?
While the question may sound more than a little facetious, it is meant as intended. There was serious buzz from the audience at Saturday night’s First Aid Kit show at Stubb’s.
(See my separate review of Jade Bird’s opening performance here: http://frontrowctr.com/acl-music-fest-jade-bird/ )
First Aid Kit named themselves “in acknowledgment of the healing power of song.” When viewed in this context, it becomes clear that the name serves them perfectly. Their voices blend in a way that only sibling voices can, with vaulting harmonies that wash over you with invigorating goodness.
Sisters Klara (with the dark hair) and Johanna (with the blond) Söderberg hit the scene in 2008, after making a bit of an international splash with their YouTube cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Three albums and two EPs later, they have built a fervent fan base that only grows with each performance.
Many in the audience had seen them for the first time the previous weekend at the Austin City Limits Festival and jumped at the chance to see the Scandinavian duo in the intimate setting of this ACL late night show.
The sister act was joined by three additional band members who spanned the back of the stage, laying a strong foundation that both supported and expanded their sound. Klara’s acoustic rhythms and Johanna’s tight basslines propelled songs that can best be described as indie-folk-Americana seasoned with pure country flavor.
FIRST AID KIT PHOTO GALLERY
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The multi-generational crowd greeted their opening number with an enthusiastic welcome as drummer Scott Simpson’s dancing tom-tom rhythm launched the sisters into “Wolf” off of their 2012 album, “The Lion’s Roar.” The song allowed them a chance to exercise their stellar harmonies and ease into the evening with an extended instrumental break that featured lonesome pedal steel runs that echoed the vocals.
They seamlessly followed with “Master Pretender,” a lilting tune from their 2014 album, “Stay Gold” that had the audience bouncing and singing along as Johanna and Klara traded vocals. The sisters have a way of writing that, while steeped in musical tradition, feature lyrics that are a bit more current and direct. During this song, for example, Klara sings “shit gets fucked up and people just disappear” leaving no ambiguity as to what she means to say.
Throughout the evening, First Aid Kit sang of happiness, heartbreak, and romanticism as they told their stories to an ever-appreciative audience. Throughout each number, their vocals remained true and beautiful. They were at once folky and ethereal, glorious and gutsy.
A highlight of the evening came mid-set with the uncharacteristic sound of a song they wrote in response to “that awful rape case at Stanford University” a short while back where the convicted rapist was given an extremely lenient punishment because he “had a bright future ahead of him.” She explained that he had written a letter where he blamed the incident on “the youth culture” and “on alcohol.” The title of the song basically lays it out – “You Are the Problem Here.”
The song had a much harder edge than anything else that was played this night, with buzzsaw guitar rhythm and extremely pointed lyrics. Klara’s face transformed as she defiantly sang “I hope you fucking suffer . . . Do you really expect anyone to feel sorry that you ruined your own life . . . You did it when you thought you had the right to put your entitled hands up her thighs.” Pretty damn direct.
As Klara explained the origins of the song and its inspiration, someone in the audience shouted, “and Harvey Weinstein.” This seemed to further empower Klara as she readily agreed, “Yeah! And Harvey Weinstein!”
Two songs later the sisters were back with another tune that shouted empowerment, yet this time had a more celebratory treatment with Steve Moore playing a whimsical trombone line (yes..trombone!). The audience sang along with the lines “I’m nobody’s baby, I’m everybody’s girl. I’m the queen of nothing, I’m the king of the world.”
The set closed with a song that many in the audience were obviously waiting for, with cheers erupting from the moment Melvin Duffy played the opening pedal steel melody. The crowd unabashedly sang along with the chorus “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June . . . If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too . . . No, I’m not asking much of you, just sing little darling, sing with me.” The song pays homage to two of their favorite songwriting partnerships – Emmylou Harris with Gram Parsons and June Carter with Johnny Cash. It is a celebration of the power of music, and the audience embraced this triumphant observance.
The sisters returned for a three-song encore that included George Harrison’s “Behind That Locked Door” and summed it all up with “My Silver Lining,” another crowd-pleaser awash in the things that exemplify First Aid Kit: hopeful lyrics, strong rootsy arrangements and a rhythm that is fresh, yet familiar.
This was a night of beauty and wonder, discovery and warm familiarity . . . and a beautiful way to lead into the final day of the Austin City Limits Festival.