After “sandwichgate” we got into the space just in time for Stornoway who began their very soft and flowing folk-pop set with the lovely ‘Cold Harbour Road’, and something like ‘I Saw You Blink’ filters a ghostly hand of doo wop and surprisingly, elements of The Postal Service. Brian Briggs is such a pleasingly rag-taggle, endearing frontman, making quips about performing in the old slaughterhouse, “we play a lot of slaughterhouses”, and leading his merry band to quite soaring places. They performed new song ‘Farewell Appalachia!’ which was a fitting way to close their set; reminiscent of Midlake’s ‘Head Home’ in parts, and their sound is such a melding of musical bric-a-brac that at different turns they can sound like Beirut meets Fleet Foxes meets Mountain Goats.
One of the real reasons for coming to Paris was to see the wonderful Jens Lekman who finished up his European tour with his performance here, in the wake of his new EP An Argument With Myself (though he said he is hopefully going to do another tour next year once his next record is completed), and hopefully play Dublin (the last time was August of last year, to a busy crowd and rapturous response). I sometimes feel that people get him wrong, even people that like him, misunderstanding his lightness of touch with a kind of flightiness, while he actually creates work of real intelligence, emotional depth and musical wizardry. This was my fifth time seeing him, and it was the best of all – just him and the wonderful drummer (and generally brilliant musician) Addison Rogers. He mentioned that this was the last stop on his tour, so asked us to not “disappoint” him.
He moved between the Spanish guitar-infused ‘Another Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill’ to many songs from his new EP such as the title track and the very amusing ‘Waiting for Kirsten’, and throughout the whole performance you couldn’t help but think of people like Morrissey, and Stuart Murdoch (who is someone Jens has stated he admires) – and there is an obvious sympathy with strong, idiosyncratic lyricists. At one point, he even seems to fall down the rabbit hole to a Paul Simon-like land, and mixed up a kind of ethereal, operatic soundscape, mingling the kind of realistic, everyday lyrics that tend towards real poetry, for example on something like ‘Julie’- in one breath he sings “meet me by the vending machine” and then later he sings if they “forget to pray for the angels,/ then the angels make sure that our hearts are devoured/make us jump from the Eiffel Tower“.
Though he has specific influences, he creates a world that is entirely his own – a kind of “Jens Step”. He can be sincerely moving on something like ‘Cowboy Boots’ or cheeky, on the reggae-infused ‘So, This Guy at My Office’ and make it all work so effortlessly. He peppered the set with little anecdotes that ranged from stalking Kirsten Dunst (a real Jens fan) to his hatred at “waiting for stuff”, revealing that to be the reason behind him making lots of golden keys (that he gives out to people), a funny response to “purity rings”.
The highlight was probably the brilliant ‘The Opposite of Hallelujah’, with The Chairmen of the Board’s ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’ as a kind of coda. It began with Jens creating the most swirling, epic of soundscapes from a sampler, and ended with him going off mic towards the crowd with a tambourine, eventually disbanding that to play air glockenspiel that made everyone in the room glow with happiness.
He went on to cover Ten City’s ‘That’s the Way Love is’, once more making use of his sampler, with the heartwrenching violin acting as a romantic metronome, something that Lekman is himself, keeping time in the twisting nature of love’s difficulties, something the song explores, as well as more dubby terrain, but the lyrics themselves could have been written by Lekman, though when he sings that “in love, nothing’s for certain” you can’t help but think that he doesn’t really mean it, since his entire impulse comes from a place of believing in True Love, with all the complexity and difficulty that can bring. And, as if he sensed what I was feeling, he ended on ‘Sipping on the Sweet Nectar’ which brought in driving seventies soul – at one point Addison was having such a good time he nearly fell off his seat. And though we were all standing, we fell too, swooning with Lekman’s sense of life, and like him, we were “sipping on the sweet nectar of …memories” – and he’s right, “every heartbeat needs a reason“.
Unfortunately Lykke Li didn’t ride of the crest of Jens’ wave, because what followed was something of a maudlin performance that seemed somehow inauthentic. A lot of people enjoy her work, but her performance here was strained. She said that she was going to do an acoustic set, which didn’t suit her; she referred to everyone being very “still”, but even her new arrangement of “Dance Dance Dance” failed to take off. It was all very muted, and at one point someone shouted “louder!” However, one thing that did resonate a little was her cover of The Righteous Brother’s ‘Unchained Melody’, with the refrain of “to the sea” as a particularly lovely moment, making great use of the harmonies that are obviously within her band.Unfortunately, it was a strange cul-de-sac of a performance.
Moments later Justin Vernon, more widely known as Bon Iver, took to the stage, replete with eight other musicians. including two drummers. In a candystriped shirt, Vernon was on good form, and seemed genuinely thankful to be there, and quite humbled by the entire endeavour. One thing that radiates from Vernon is an acute sense of musicality, and collaboration, and his band ably aided the kind of atmosphere that he wanted to create. “There are a lot of thank you’s” he said, as he leapt into a set that was as much heavy rock as it was ethereally electronic, and the heavier aspects were truly complimented by his vocal that flows easily from a deep baritone to a soulful falsetto. ‘Minnesota’ is one of the heavier arranged songs, that then flowed into ‘Holocene’ which made use of the great rhythm section, and the percussive brilliance served to remind how the act of creating music is a joyful thing in itself – and the multi-instrumentalism of Vernon and his band is astonishing; they are obviously as much in thrall to the music as we are.
‘Blood Bank’ compounded the percussive theme, and ‘Beach Baby’ was quite tender, and strangely reminiscent of sean nós, and the singular violin, and prerecorded effects that he layered on, lent the song a huge emotional power. Then, bent over what looked like a musical toolkit (sampler, and various other bits) his baritone went wild on the minimal ‘Hinnom’ that built to a choral accompaniment that was all glassy and echoey loveliness, leaving an almost sacred space for ‘Wash’, which seems like a distillation of Bon Iver’s music somehow. The icy nature of the piano had a mesmerising effect of quiet grace, his dove-like voice sounding light as a feather, and almost surreal because of it. With his eyes closed, Vernon could have just as easily been at home alone in Wisconsin, singing to himself, since this lullaby sounded so achingly private and intimate.
You can see how Vernon’s musical influences range from the barest folk to the heaviest of hip-hop, with his side project Gayngs as a great example of that, and he has taken some of that looseness and expansiveness and put it into his solo work, the live aspect of which is genuinely thrilling. Mostly his work sounds like a primal scream for survival, and if he survived the grief explored on For Emma, Forever Ago then perhaps there is a chance for future happiness. It seems fitting that this particular act of survival and redemption took place in an old slaughterhouse, since emotionally he died several times on stage.
There is a real poise on ‘Calgary’ and the man beside me takes out his own harmonica to accompany the song; perhaps that is what Bon Iver does so well, he makes you feel part of something bigger.
The encore comes too soon, yet almost two hours have elapsed as if in a dream, but ‘Flume’ simply sounds like an ocean of love, a cascading song, that makes great use of mournful brass, and acts as a kind of coda to everything, with its melancholy air and poetic lyrics about the frightening nature of love – “Only love is all maroon/ lapping lakes like leary loons/ leaving rope burns/reddish rouge“. This howl of pain turns into a tale of regret, but defiance on the majestic ‘Wolves’, where he rejects the microphone as if the memory of the song is too painful.
Pleasingly he comes back for another encore, which descends into something of a jamboree, showing off the musicianship of his band, before finishing on ‘For Emma’ which remains a startling, old-fashioned broken ballad, and which contains Bon Iver’s ultimate impulse – “seek the light“, which seems quite poignant, considering all that has passed, especially that he finds himself singing that very lyric in the City of Light.