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First Aid Kit Makes Grand Rapids Debut At Meijer Gardens

The band, led by Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, played a set that began with high energy and ended in transcendence.
First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit /Raph_PH

In 2008, a slightly grainy video appeared on YouTube. In it, two teenage girls, one holding a guitar, are sitting in the woods. The one holding the guitar says, “So, um, this is for you, Fleet Foxes. It’s a little gift from us. OK, here we go.”

If her spoken voice is a variation on Ordinary Teenage Girl, her singing voice is something else entirely. Something carved from nature by nature, like a mountain worn by the wind. “Through the forest, down to your grave/where the birds wait, and the tall grasses wave/ They do not know you anymore,” they sing in stunning harmony.

Johanna and Klara Söderberg, 17 and 15 respectively, were already known in their native Sweden.However, their cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" let the broader world in on the secret. As First Aid Kit, the sisters have built a career of playing songs steeped in American folk music, country, and 70s rock. They have been embraced by critics, audiences, and the artists they revere. When they played Paul Simon's "America" live, Simon gave them a standing ovation. When they played their song "Emmylou" in front of Emmylou Harris, she wept.

On Friday, July 21st, they made their Grand Rapids debut at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. The Weather Station, fronted by Tamara Lindeman, opened. Lindeman has a pretty voice and the band is competent and sometimes interesting, but the music's subtleties proved too muted for the audience members near me (who talked loudly over the music in order to share that they were enjoying their drinks and thought Toronto was a nice city).

At 8:00pm, First Aid Kit emerged. Klara wore a floor-length, animal-print dress and white boots with chunky heels. Johanna wore a white blouse, black skirt, and white cowgirl boots. Backed by a crack band, they launched into "Palomino," the kind of yearning rock song Tom Petty might have written. It was a confident, energetic debut. Throughout, Johanna stomped her feet.

The setlist drew from their full catalog, from The Big Black and the Blue's lovely "Ghost Town" to "Everybody's Got To Learn" (which Johanna wrote recently for her daughter, now three years old). Their songs ranged in intensity from quiet and haunting (like their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird") to their own "Rebel Heart," which was fierce enough to convince you that rock and roll still matters. And when they're playing, it does.

See enough shows, and they lose some of their luster. Even the best can seem routine. But something happened to me during "The Lion's Roar." I kept tearing up. And it happened during the next song, and the one after that, and the one after that. Which struck me as absurd. I'm an adult, aren't I? What did it mean that this music had connected with something in me, something both nostalgic and yearning? That I felt, for a stretch of songs, that I could find what I'd been missing? Hadn't it seemed for some time that the past wasn't gone, but actually out there? That I could find it again? That I could do it right this time? Was I really going to get in my car and keep driving?

Wouldn't my children miss me?

The band left the stage, returning for a four-song encore. "King Of The World" was at least as joyful as it is on the album. The cover of Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again" did him proud. "My Silver Lining" ended the evening ("I don't want to wait anymore/I'm tired of looking for answers/Take me some place where there's music and laughter"). And then they were gone, as Sweden's National Anthem (Abba's "Dancing Queen") played over the speakers. 

We enjoy concerts or we don't. Transcendence doesn't usually come into it. As much as I'd loved First Aid Kit's music, I hadn't expected to find something eternal that evening. I hadn't expected to be struck like a bell. But there's just something to the way they harmonize. I'd explain what I mean, but I'm still ringing.

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