To paraphrase David Bowie: I’m afraid of Americana.
Not the music, per se, but the label, whose connotations inspires little faith in my mercurial critic soul. The name somehow screams authenticity and inauthenticity simultaneously. Any descriptor that could arguably include Uncle Tupelo, Johnny Cash, and the Eagles maybe doesn’t mean all that much.
Thank god, then, for First Aid Kit. They grasp the entire convoluted notion of Americana—the folksiness, the country twang, the lazy Bakersfield swagger, the discovery of the old-timey through artists whose roots lay firmly elsewhere, the need to give something a marketable name—and mostly chuck all those pretenses aside. Last night, in front of a sold-out crowd, against the backdrop and architecture of the Palace Theatre, Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg made a compelling argument for dropping the term completely. They’re two country queen superfans who make their love of the likes of Dolly, Loretta, and yes, as their song goes, Emmylou and June, the centerpiece of their music, regardless of what the music actually sounds like.
Throughout their 15-song set, First Aid Kit indulged in a far wider set of musical influences than the matching black Western-style shirts of their backing band would indicate. Their brand of American folk is a much bigger, and more rocking, tent than hearing a single in passing would lead you to believe. Steel guitar, mandolin, and country snare-brush shuffle shared space with keyboards, pounding beats, strobe lights and even classic overdriven Fender guitar sounds. And throughout, the unifying factor—the force of nature that defines them—is Klara and Johanna’s studied, perfectly crafted vocal harmonies.
Only First Aid Kit’s biggest songs (and most catchy) actually sound like country. The pair—ever sincere, convincingly happy to be on stage—even seemed to acknowledge this, finishing the twangy hit “King Of The World” and introducing “Postcard” as “the most country song we’ve ever written” early in the set. Compare this to “You Are The Problem Here,” a timely mass call-out of men both shitty and cluelessly flawed, which traded in twang for pissed and was introduced with the statement “We’re all sisters, and we should all have each other’s backs.” First Aid Kit isn’t interested in genres: Just because they love the country music queens doesn’t mean that they can’t play one hell of a cover of “Crazy On You” by their most unappreciated antecedents: Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.
Look, they aren’t perfect. A couple songs in the set felt musically uninspired, leaning heavily on their harmonies while musically reminding me of sub-par deep cuts from their fem-folk predecessors. (One of their trombone lines reminded me of the worst Ani Difranco song.) But the voices, dammit, the voices made everything OK. Throughout, they infused the show with a sincere joy. A charming minor lyrical flub here, a wacky backing band intro there (including leading the crowd in chanting each member’s name), the Söderbergs have pep in their step that only makes their songs about frustration and loneliness even more compelling. It screamed “fuck it, we’re here, let’s deal with our shit.”
For the encore, the two took the stage and led the crowd in an acoustic sing-a-long of “Hem Of Her Dress,” indulged friend and opener Van William in a version of his song, “Revolution,” and wrapped with “My Silver Lining,” possibly their most essential Americana track (next to “Emmylou”), and a fitting final showcase for their voices—proud, strong, and connected to a long history of amazing women doing amazing things. In a just world, June would have been right there next to Johnny having a late-era career revival. My only hope is that First Aid Kit continues on the path they’ve carved for themselves. I’d rather be hearing them cover Nine Inch Nails songs with Rick Rubin in 10 years than making bland pop hits.
The crowd: More women than men, but only slightly, although dudes still know how to push their way up front on the floor for a show. Sigh. Fake News Factoid: 71% of people at the Palace were wearing glasses.
Notes on the opener: “Adult Alternative”-charting Van William might be aspirationally positive as hell and besties with the Söderberg sisters, but at the end of the day he makes my point for me. Strictly Americana as ‘80s peppy alterna-pop: the slightest affectation of Bakersfield, every melody too reminiscent of a better song by someone else, in this case Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven/Housemartins. This could not have been clearer than when he returned to the stage with First Aid Kit to duet (“tri-et,” he joked) his song “Revolution” during their encore—the Söderberg were the best thing about it.
Random notebook dump: Is it weird to watch Swedes do an amazingly authentic version of Americana while America’s most fact-free leader is delivering his State Of The Union? Yes. Yes it is.
Overheard: Outside of “we love you!”s the crowd was incredibly silent and focused on First Aid Kit. Van William, on the other hand? “He acted like he was rocking harder on stage than his music was.”
It's a Shame
King of the World
The Lion's Roar
You Are the Problem Here
To Live a Life
Crazy on You (Heart cover)
Nothing Has to Be True
Hem of Her Dress
Revolution (with Van William)
My Silver Lining