Review: First Aid Kit, O2 Academy Birmingham

First Aid Kit. Image Jørund F Pedersen

It’s been too long.

Three years to be exact, since First Aid Kit last played Birmingham.

Back then it was within the refined settings of Symphony Hall – an incredibly formal platform for their high-quality take on heart-warming, if occasionally heart-wrenching, folk.

This time around it’s the O2 Academy – a venue more usually reserved for sweaty rock ‘n’ roll bands – that hosts the Swedish sisters.

It’s an environmental change that instantly brings us closer to the Soderbergs – a reduction in room size that makes their neo-country songs more touching and more intimate. Better still, it’s a location shift that seems to reflect the heavier persuasion of their live shows and recent material.

The powerhouse drums, weeping pedal-guitar and cacophony of other instruments on display certainly bolster their tight, harmony-ridden sound, and the energy that pervades the evening is very much akin to a rock gig.

Bass-playing Johanna prowls forcefully into sister Klara’s path during a note-perfect performance of ‘It’s A Shame’ and tambourines are beaten in stereo on the drum riser at the song’s thundering mid-point.

‘The Lion’s Roar’, so often utilised until this tour as a slow-building set opener, now sits more fiercely down the setlist – its haunting magic soaring to a jubilant peak in an impossibly powerful acoustic outro. Klara even invites the audience to participate in the merry, faux-drunken chorus that bookends ‘Hem Of Her Dress’, and a rowdy crowd duly obliges.

The duo has come a long way from the mild-mannered folk-loving double act of yore.

It’s a journey reflected in the photo-heavy collage that backs an emotional rendition of ‘Master Pretender’, the melancholic, feel-good heart of 2015 LP “Stay Gold”.

‘King of the World’, a similarly fists-in-the-air anthem to self-development and happiness, also flies the flag for such acoustic-flavoured explorations of the personal.

Yet the songs that best define the evening are two of the pair’s newest. ‘You Are The Problem Here’ and ‘Ugly’, taken from an exclusive Record Store Day 7” and just-released EP “Tender Offerings” respectively, sees Klara swap her distinctive acoustic guitar for an electric model as the sisters embrace the traditional role of folk musicians as those who protest inequality and interact with the salient issues of the day.

The former, an angry missive on what the younger Soderberg later addresses as “rape culture”, snaps with genuine aggression and disgust. And such an instrumental change-up is a fascinating inversion of folk-rock history.

Where Bob Dylan turned to electricity to escape his “voice of generation” tag, the adoption of a heavier style seems to have enabled First Aid Kit’s political consciousness. Expect album number five to have some polemic clout.

With an embarrassingly-good back catalogue of gorgeous folk songs and politically-attuned rants at their disposal, picking a set closer can’t have been easy. But the sisters’ choice, ‘My Silver Lining’, seems the most apt in its devastating combination of elation and sadness.

One thing’s for sure, with musicians of First Aid Kit’s quality, we have our own silver lining in a world currently engulfed in uncertainty. Incredible.

Words: Dan Owens

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