Thursday, 8 November 2018

GIG REVIEW: First Aid Kit - O2 Academy, Birmingham. Wednesday 7th November 2018

Hare and Hounds to Symphony Hall to Academy is an upwards journey in terms of capacity, and one taken by First Aid Kit on their visits to Birmingham over the last eight years. Whether you consider the last two a progression is down to preference, but the numbers do not lie. The Söderberg sisters are certainly operating on a higher plane than when they brought the Stay Gold tour to the city in 2015. Sold out signs have flashed above First Aid Kit shows right across this UK segment of the Ruins World Tour and it would have been rude for Birmingham not to oblige. Inviting The Staves along to open the shows was also a smart move. This must have been a record for sisterly siblings on one night, further compounded when all five assembled around the single mic for a song during the main set. Harmonies ruled the roost for most of the evening and shining evidence radiated from the stage as to why First Aid Kit are currently riding on one enormous crest of a wave.

Moving into the realms of serious headline contenders, both on the festival circuit and venues just shy of arena status, has seen the band ramp up the live show, significantly raise the decibels and interject the usual trimmings of lights and backdrop. Some adjustment was required when catching the band earlier in the summer at the Cambridge Folk Festival, which in turn probably helped tune in better to what the sisters and their three-piece backing band presented on their own headline shows. For around an hour and half, they toyed with folk, rock, country and the occasional good old European drinking song, just a reminder that you can drench the person with American culture but you can never drain away the origin.

While wooing fans from the mainstream to join genre junkies who hooked up with them a while ago, the strength of Johanna and Klara Söderberg lies in an extraordinary ability to write and deliver the most compelling of songs. Just to name three from this set to absolutely pierce your heart were the stunning ‘Stay Gold’, ‘Emmylou’ and ‘Fireworks’. You will have to step up the gig count to hear such an esteemed trio dealt so crisply and evocatively to an audience hanging onto every line, note and vocal breath.

On the more upbeat numbers such as ‘Master Pretender’, ‘My Silver Lining’ and ‘You are the Problem Here’ the complete band sound takes full control with electric guitar adding fuel to heavy percussion and sparkling keys. My awareness of Melvyn Duffy on pedal steel pre-dates his involvement with First Aid Kit when he was a key member of Tex Mex band Los Pacaminos. He seems to have really found his feet now, adding occasional mandolin and electric guitar to his beloved steel, a sound he effortlessly drives to add a country touch alongside a general landscape feel.

A quick break to offer some thoughts on The Staves, a band that have flickered on my distant horizon for several years, reveals a trio rich in sound and the owners of some of the most delectable harmonies you could wish to hear. What has always held them back from penetrating my inner listening core is a series of songs that land a powerful punch. Whether that changes with the new album promised mid-way through their forty-minute opening set remains to be seen. Conditions are ripe for a breakthrough and any new material will get a fair hearing.

Powerful songs are not in short supply in the First Aid Kit locker. From the opening track, ‘Distant Star’, delivered by Johanna and Klara theatrically standing on a raised platform at the rear of the stage as the curtain raised, through to older numbers like ‘The Lion’s Roar’ and ‘King of The World’, it was one substantive song after another. The new album was moderately represented, although the adorable ‘Postcard’ has been disappointingly sidelined from the set list, possibly a little too country for a mainstream crowd. Never mind, it is a fabulous song already getting many personal plays, a trend likely to continue for a while yet.

From a spoken perspective, the girls were most vocal when passionately advocating their wholehearted support for culture change in how gender crimes are perceived. Cue Klara showing a steely pose while delivering the aforementioned ‘You are the Problem Here’ and the sisters fighting back in the song ‘Ugly’, recently released on a spill over EP of some folk orientated tracks omitted from the more commercially focused RUINS.

This whole performance from First Aid Kit was one of zest, panache and a classic exhibition of a band on top of their game. They successfully reach out from a core that will always retain a slice of folk ‘n’ country, while steering clear of any chunks of compromise. If anything, they are a breath of fresh air among artists pitched alongside in the channels of corporate marketing. A sold out 02 Academy in Birmingham would testify strongly. An arena next time, who knows? Success would not be begrudged and there is total faith that Johanna and Klara Söderberg will still effortlessly deliver their adorable songs in any setting.


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