First Aid Kit – Albert Sessions: Live at the Royal Albert Hall

September 26, 2014

Country music, perhaps more so than any other genre, is frequently shackled and scarred by deep-rooted stereotypes and prejudices. Bedevilled by disparaging caricature, it is invigorating that Swedish sensations First Aid Kit have breathed fresh air into the form. In doing so, they have introduced the style to a new audience and the fact that they have been able to do so without tampering with the formula or reinventing the wheel is something to note.

“Five years ago, our manager turned to us and said that we’d sell out the Royal Albert Hall in five years’ time. We didn’t believe him…” vocalist/guitarist Klara Soderberg gushes to the crowd. She says no more. The night itself is testimony to this epithet of premonition.

Taking to the stage in support of their 2014 release, Stay Gold, they face the crowd with charming industry, personable frontage and sweet songs of heartache. These are songs imbued with laments over lost time, departed shores and the ravages of absent love. With each of these sore sentiments, there is the coda of hope that shines through; penetrating through the dark clouds of pain. It is clear that this is a potent concoction judging by the ever blossoming popularity of this endearing pair.

Whilst the Soderberg sisters, Klara and her fellow vocalist and keyboardist Johanna, stand out at the front of the stage, behind them is a dynamic band doing their best to add colour and congruence to the songs. Consisting of a string quartet, a drummer and a lap steel player, this is a tasteful set-up.

Opening with the title track of this year’s record, the lushness of their sound is marred by a foggy sound mix. Underneath the blur of instruments, the root sound can be made out – and it is a lovely sound at that – but it is a struggle to separate the instruments. The acoustic guitar is lost in the mix; the strings are indecipherable.Things improve as the set unfurls. Either that, or our ears become adjusted to the balance of imbalance.

The songs sweep and swoop as the band rattle through the furthest reaches of their catalogue. ‘King of the Road’ is handclap happy with its jumpy guitar. The wilt of ‘Waitress Song’ and ‘Cedar Lane’ are pleasing, but it is the mid-set run from ‘Ghost Town’ through to ‘Wolf’, with a stop-off at ‘My Silver Lining’ in between, that really resonate.

In fact, for the aforementioned ‘Ghost Town’, the two state that they are going to sing the song without microphones (scroll down for video). They step to the lip of the stage and proceed to sing the song with the sole accompaniment of Klara’s guitar. How precious are those gig-going experiences where you want to freeze the moment in time and be locked in its embrace to replay over and over again? For music lovers, it is the drug that keeps us returning. It is the dealer’s dose that keeps us at its mercy. This was one such moment. The attendees in this vertically-generous building erupt post-song. During the song, there is a reverent silence/awe.

The gig never quite hits these heights again. Concluding the main set with the beautiful ‘The Lion’s Roar’ from their 2012 album of the same name, it is a sturdy finish. When they re-emerge for the encore, they dip into cover territory for the second time of the evening (following an earlier take on Jack White’s ‘Love Interruption’) with Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’. It is not quite on a par with the Polar Music Prize rendition, sadly. They sit a little sharp on the melody and the performancedoesn’t quite hold a candle to their previous endeavours.

With the cover resting in time past, the duo pull out the anthemic ‘Emmylou’ to round-off the evening. Sung back at them by a willing capacity crowd, this slice of country pop is so immediate and familiar, you’d be forgiven for the assumption that it’s a traditional song from the annals of time.

Upon conclusion, the sisters leave the stage for good. It is fair to say that this was a gig of some variance in terms of satisfaction. Some songs palled slightly as a consequence of similarity (an unavoidable net result of the limitations of the country genre), but others were absolutely astounding. In terms of singular moments, the microphone-less ‘Ghost Town’ might stand as this writer’s best gig moment of the year. It also provided heft to the adage, ‘sometimes less is more’.Unforgettable and stunning, It was worth the ticket price alone.

By Greg Wetherall (@gregwetherall)

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