The dirty little secret is that I do research before I write these things. Generally it's to check facts concerning song titles, musicians' names, and the like. Sometimes it's to confirm an assumption that I think may border on the insane unless I can find some corroboration. During such a hunt, I occasionally stumble upon a review of a show from the same tour, whereupon I furtively (as if I'm copying my homework) read through that writer's thoughts. Generally I'm happy to see that the region stacks up well against other markets, at times I'm jealous by the guests that seem to pop up at shows in NYC or LA, but sometimes I'm saddened by exactly how similar shows are from one city to the next. In the case of the current First Aid Kit tour with Dylan LeBlanc opening, nearly every night seems to be identical – from the set list right down to the scripted collaborations, banter, and encores. I know touring is a rough gig, but this level of homogenisation is still disappointing. And furthermore it makes the task of writing about the particular show that I witnessed seem utterly pointless. Why not simply link to the show write up from Atlanta several nights ago, if only the date and venue names have changed? With that dark cloud hanging over me, let's see what I can recall about this show.
At 8:00 sharp, Shreveport, Louisiana native Dylan LeBlanc took the stage. I know this, as I was constantly staring at the clock on my phone, watching the minutes tick away while I waited for my credentials to be approved. Kate and I arrived at 7:46; Dylan LeBlanc started at 8:00; the guest list was delivered to the ticket booth at 8:14. Once inside I got my first glimpse of formerly-disembodied LeBlanc, but it was through the heads of two hundred fans who had entered during the thirty minutes we were delayed. Soured that my photographs would suffer, I leaned against a rail at the crowded club and listened for a while. Thankfully, there was a lot to hear.
LeBlanc's songs are just as likely to be compared to the stories of Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner as they are to the songs of Townes Van Zandt. He's conscious of his Southern Gothic leanings, and embraces that unease in his music and lyrics. Much is made of his age (he's only 22), his early entrance into professional music, and the pedigree granted to him by his father, James LeBlanc (you've spelled the surname two ways - which is correct?), a Muscle Shoals session musician and songwriter. Certainly it's a sensational backstory, but, again, LeBlanc's history is something that he has adapted and made his own. It's apparent listening to his music.
LeBlanc roamed the stage wearing a black button up shirt, black jeans, boots, and a big black Gretsch hollow body guitar. He strummed through the guitar, stamping the few leads he took with his signature country picking infused with a muscular soul. His pedal steel player took few leads, but instead contributed haunting atmospheric squeals that would please any Jeff Buckley fan. Drummer Jeremy Gibson kept a simple quiet beat as to not overshadow LeBlanc – often so transparent that he was drowned out by the clapping audience.
Midway through the set, LeBlanc dismissed his backing band, picked up his acoustic guitar, and invited Klara Soderberg (of First Aid Kit) to join him on stage for "If the Creek Don't Rise" from his debut album (Paupers Field, Rough Trade, 2010). While Emmylou Harris originally provided the beautiful harmonies, Soderberg was a natural replacement, and the two performers made the collaboration look effortless. Although LeBlanc has the ability to harmonise and blend his voice with nearly anyone, his vocals are curiously swallowed in that Morrissey/muppet sort of way. Thankfully he can push them out of that somewhat befuddling tone, into a richer, soulful range as exemplified during his cover of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."
At 8:35 LeBlanc finished his set, with many of his appreciative fans calling for an encore that never happened – always a good sign for an opening act. While the Granada was crowded at 8:15, by 8:45 it was packed as tightly as I had seen it this year. Simply moving from one side of the room to other in an effort to find a better photographic vantage point involved a symphony of apologies and patient shoulder taps. Ultimately clear vistas were few. A bit frustrated, I returned to my earlier post against the rail and waited for the headliner. And waited. While the stage was readied only minutes after LeBlanc's set ended, the headliners would not begin for 40 minutes. A scan of Twitter revealed that I was not the only patron befuddled by the delay.
At 9:15, the First Aid Kit's Klara and Johanna Soderberg were welcomed to the stage by a primed audience. Since her appearance on stage an hour ago, Klara Soderberg had changed into a epic, psychedelic, flowing kaftan, and enticed older sister Johanna Soderberg to do the same. Under all that fabric and all those folds, were two small Swedish sisters barely out of school, but with five years of touring and recording behind them. More importantly, the duo have mastered fifty years of folk music, and updated it for a new time, place, and purpose.
Klara Soderberg played an acoustic guitar throughout the set, picking and strumming timeworn patterns. Johanna Soderberg played keyboards in a variety of changing tones, only occasionally abandoning her Nord synthesiser for a bright autoharp. Joining the duo on drums was Mattias Bergqvist. Like the drummer who played before him, Bergqvist's contributions rarely came from a pounding full kit, but rather from light brush strokes, cymbal rolls, and assorted shakers. While he also added backing vocals, the tight harmonies of the sisters certainly held the foreground.
Curiously, it was these vocals that turned out to be a bit of a litmus test for the audience, though not in the way Joanna Newsom's love-them-or-hate-them vocal quirks might divide fans, but rather who should sing them. Only several songs into the set the duo approached the front of the stage, intentionally bypassing their microphones, for a intimate performance of "Ghost Town." When the girls asked the audience to sing along (as if they could have stopped their rabid fans), a minority of groans rose from the crowd. What is the proper live experience, the clarity of beautiful voices in a hushed room, or the inclusive interaction of hundreds of like-minded fans singing (often poorly) in unison? First Aid Kit obviously embraces the folk tradition of the latter, which left those who preferred the former a bit frustrated.
Throughout the evening, younger sister Klara Soderberg acted as frontwoman, addressing the crowd in casual English with only a slight Swedish accent. Although never loquacious, her banter came easily, with the only snag occurring as she announced a song from the recently-released special edition of the The Lion's Roar (Redeye, 2012). After awkwardly admitting to her inability to "sell" the repackaged album, the audience erupted in pandering encouragement of all stripes, including one nauseating cry of "No you don't sell it, you are just you!" Things quickly dissolved from there, until she astutely began the tumbling guitar intro to "Marianne's Son," hushing the crowd.
Ultimately, the band's hour-long set balanced selections from both of their albums, as well as adding in a few oddities such as a cover of Fever Ray's "When I Grow Up." First Aid Kit's version traded the cold electronic sheen of the original for the warm roll of acoustic guitar, mellow organ swells, and punchy tambourine. When it was time for the foregone-conclusion of an encore, the sisters turned another cover – this time of Simon & Garfunkel's "America." Although the band has played this song countless times – and recounted the story of performing it for Paul Simon just as many – the duo's harmonies were simply spellbinding.
The night ended with reciprocity; just as Klara Soderberg had stepped in for Emmylou Harris earlier in the evening, LeBlanc would now step in for Conor Oberst during a performance of the rousing "King of the World." Klara Soderberg danced across the stage, while Johanna Soderberg repeatedly whipped her long blonde hair against the keys of her synthesiser as fog rolled in from an unseen machine at the back of the stage. This energy isn't a hallmark of the band's sound, but its careful sprinkling into the set created pleasant and memorable contrast.
At 10:15 the smoke cleared (literally), and the house lights came up signalling the end of the the night. On the drive home Kate and I discussed the show, marvelling at how nice it had been, how the sisters were able to harmonise so sweetly with only stage monitors, and how wonderfully it had all gone. After my research I now understand that the show is simply a repeatable, robotic process, but in the immediate afterglow, it seemed seemed organic and genuine. I'm not sure it's spoiled anything for me, but to quote Bob Seger, "I wish I didn't know now, what I didn't know then."