The house lights are down, and a serious hush spreads seamlessly through the venue. I look upwards to see a pattern of glistening blue stars, and just for a moment there’s a feeling as though I’m standing beneath the canvas of the Milky Way rather than the Manchester Apollo. It’s that little moment of magic where the real world is whisked away and you know you’re going somewhere beyond the ordinary. Klara Söderberg is first spotlighted on the stage, acoustically leading us into ‘The Lion’s Roar’ – moments later her sister, Johanna is lit up at her keyboards, carrying on the tale, along with some resplendent choreography courtesy of her own golden mane which she throws about with swirling passion, totally in tandem with the beat.

I mention the prelude of the blue stars because within minutes of the band appearing, I’m hit with the essence of their magnificent music. There’s a sense of the roof being lifted off the mundane world to expose the twinkling stars that we’re often too blindly busy, too overcast with thoughts to even notice, let alone loose ourselves in their wonder. The lines in ‘Waitress Song’ (also performed brilliantly tonight ) from their current album ‘Stay Gold’, allude to this - mentioning the awesomeness of the starry blanket of sky or the vastness of the ocean trivializing our human concerns, that nature can cause us to “not feel lost anymore” as we’re blissfully lost in it. When I listen to First Aid Kit on record, I frequently get that delicate balance between feet on the ground – ground which is surely either an American prairie or maybe Laurel Canyon juxtaposed with head (and hair) in the cosmic clouds. Quite early on in the set they humorously tell us it’s Friday night, so they’re going to play their party song ‘Blue’ “about a middle aged woman who hates her life!”

Throughout the night the sisters maintain a sense of humour that dances hand in hand with the deep intensity and questioning that is also part of their make-up. Despite their worldwide success over the last few years and endorsement from a number of rock and roll legends (who we hear about later), First Aid Kit come across as fresh-faced, feisty and thankfully free of pretentiousness. They banter about a concert poster which depicts the sisters slaying dragons and riding Unicorns, joking that this is what they do when they’re not making music. If anyone’s found a way via a bedroom wardrobe to Narnia it would probably be these two, so I almost believe them.

Halfway through the night I experienced something I’ve never witnessed in the Apollo before. The sisters announce they’re going completely unplugged – no microphones, nothing, just their bare naked voices. “But it will only work if everyone’s quiet, and that includes people at the bar,” Johanna warns us. Remarkably, it did work, despite the clunk and clatter sound effects emanating from the bar area. Two girls stand side by side, Karla strumming her guitar staring out into the auditorium which has become not only almost silent but totally motionless. They sing the stark and wistful ‘Ghost Town’ with the crowd providing a gentle, almost whispered accompaniment. The softness of the tone of performers and crowd together only accentuate the aching emotionality of the song and I’m sure tears weren’t far away from many of our eyes.

As has been widely documented in the press, First Aid Kit worked and played with Jack White not so long ago and they fondly recall hanging out with Jack in his backyard in Nashville, which they describe as “surreal” and tease the crowd with a few bars of ‘Seven Nation Army’ before launching into a first-rate cover of ‘Love Interrupted’. It manages to sound every bit as ragged and gut-wrenching as the original but switched more into rock mode than blues, and with their perfectly sympathetic harmonies the result is dynamite.

There’s a second cover during their three song encore which is equally captivating when they deliver an exquisite rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’. I’m not surprised when they tell us about performing this same song for Paul Simon at the Swedish Polar Award Ceremony - where the recipient of the award has a Swedish act play a cover of one of their songs. Paul Simon apparently “broke the rules” by giving the band a standing ovation at the end (you’re supposed to stay seated at all costs!) It’s easy to see why when I hear them sing that Kerouacian ballad of road roaming and pilgrimage to the promised land of America. They sing it with such love and sensitivity, wrapping their vocals around each other so that they merge like curling smoke. It’s no surprise either that they describe this record as their favourite Simon and Garfunkel song as it’s obvious they adore American culture, and, though their bodies, may have been born in Sweden their souls seem stuck in Tennessee. So, fittingly they finish with ‘Emmylou’ where they unapologetically profess their love of all things country and western.

Yet I don’t feel they’ve pigeon-holed themselves. Tonight they’ve given us fluttering folk, country, psychedelic rock and also a pure, soulful sensibility that just shines through everything they do. We float out of the Apollo to the sound of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, clearly a nod to the lyric in ‘The Waitress’ - “Girls they wanna have fun/And the rest of us hardly know who we are”. I can safely say there’s been a healthy dose of fun on stage tonight, but it’s impossible not to detect a sweet melancholy at the band’s core, an odd maturity and wisdom behind their playfulness which is beautiful, sincere and caught somewhere between the stars and the rustling cornfields.

Photos by Melanie Smith
www.mudkissphotography.co.uk

















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