Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto
January was relatively bereft of quality album releases that really got the blood pumping, but there were a couple that thankfully made that longest of months a bit more bearable. Released on the same day, Van William’s Countries and First Aid Kit’s Ruins are almost like companion pieces considering the latter’s distinctive contribution on the former’s debut release. It made complete sense therefore for the thirty-three year old to tour with the Swedish sisters and tonight’s Manchester date is the first in Europe following a successful North American stint which ended just a few short days ago.
Despite the miles covered, Van William steps up to the mic energised and raring to go. Although Countries is his solo debut, you may be vocally familiar with the Californian; he formed the band Waters and was the frontman of the band Port O’Brien. The Country opens the show and is a great way to introduce his raison d’être; gentle acoustic tones swell to a glorious, uplifting chorus and this is followed by one of the best tracks off the record. Fourth of July is once again blessed with a joyous, upbeat intro that morphs into a singalong chorus that gets an unexpected second wind when it overflows in to an even more industrious and effervescent round that has Van and his bassist Kera whirling. It’s an invigorating opening that the remainder of his seven song set unfortunately can’t completely sustain, but there is still plenty to enjoy. Cosmic Sign is an opportunity to put the brakes on and this more reflective song demonstrates Van’s tender vocals which bare a striking similarity to Elliot Smith during the track’s delicate intro. After the ubiquitous apology which American artists make about their president, Van goes electric with Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl and album track Never Had Enough of You, which is again blessed with a big, lion-hearted chorus to sing along to. The album opens with Before I Found You and it closes the short set tonight in style. Van has stated that “Before I Found You is about that earth-shattering drug-like love-buzz you experience at the beginning of falling for someone. Its chaotic and intoxicating, but you know it has to end. I always thought the characters of Sailor and Lula in David Lynch’s turbulent masterwork ‘Wild At Heart’ reflected that dynamic, so I wanted this video to mirror their aesthetic.” For those that had already become familiar with the new album, Van’s departure signified a Revolution sized hole in the set list but this would be rectified a couple of hours later.
Klara and Johanna Söderberg emerge to rapturous applause from the venerable crowd in a packed Albert Hall. Playing here is perhaps a bitter sweet homecoming for Klara in particular; the new album was inspired by her broken relationship whilst she was living in the city, but the soft, pastel colours and ear to ear smiles on display do not suggest an evening of complete heartbreak. Opening proceedings is the wonderful Rebel Heart. Dark, enigmatic and poignant, it’s a wonderful way to start the evening. There’s a round of applause as the song reaches it’s deceptive mid-point but the conclusion is feigned and the intensity increases to exquisite levels as the trombone and percussion add to the redolent tones. It’s a Shame is next, following the order of the new record. This time it’s the pedal steel that contributes to the Americana vibe and this is a perception that is enhanced by the evocative images of the American landscape, projected on to a huge canvas behind the band.
Postcards allows Klara to go into full-on Emmylou Harris mode but hers isn’t simply a carbon copy. Within these relatively close confines, Klara’s vocals are a revelation. Utterly beguiling one minute and brutally lean the next. With such a tight backing band accompanying them, the whole experience is like a Claude Monet for the ears; Stay Gold and The Lion’s Roar are subtly expansive and emotionally expressive in equal parts but it is To Live a Life that pulls at the heart strings the most. More a English folk song than the country-tinged material that proceeded it and vocally comparable to Fionn Regan, Klara’s vocals are once again utterly bewitching. You Are the Problem’s arrival demonstrates that it is the black sheep of the Söderberg family. Klara introduces the song with a lengthy diatribe on the depressing degree of misogyny that they have faced in the industry and the timing of this track could sadly not be more apt; “support us!” she cries and and the song that follows is brutally outraged.
Emmylou is performed to perfection and receives the expected extended applause but the song before it is still a pinnacle for the evening and resonates the longest. Fireworks is a sweeping, honest ballad that captures the pain that this city must represent and it is a completely captivating experience.
Van William returns during a fun encore that finally includes his track Revolution, ably accompanied by the sisters’ lilting harmonies and it caps off an evening full of sadness, anger and tenderness but it has been presented in such a beautiful way, it’s difficult to stay despondent for long.
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