Taken By Trees
Monday, Nov. 5, 2012
Better than: Watching last-minute punditry.
Jens Lekman is onstage at the Fillmore, dressed like a Swedish man impersonating an American in a black sportcoat, white dress shirt, and a geeky blank baseball cap that covers up what seems to be a thinly-haired head. It's the night before the big election, and he's telling us a story from the last one -- Nov. 4, 2008, when Lekman was lonely and in D.C. and decided to search his fan emails to see if he'd ever been in touch with anyone in town. He had, of course -- and that's where the story of "The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love" begins, and just about where Lekman starts to play the song.
Who knows whether the results of tonight's election will be the kind that put broken hearts into hopeful context, like they did for Lekman in 2008. But last night was a lovely election eve to spend at the Fillmore, with this sweet-voiced Swede and his full band performing a long set of their smartly funny, heartwrechingly detailed folk-pop for an adoring, if light, crowd. Full-band Lekman shows are a thing to treasure: Many of his best songs float atop thick arrangements of strings, piano, and horns, and without them, the underlying rhythms just wouldn't be as enticing.
So the stuttering groove of "The Opposite of Hallelujah," when it came with a cheer from the crowd, got the masses swaying. This is one of Lekman's true gems, a story about going to the beach: "I picked up a seashell to illustrate my homelessness," he sang in a voice that never seemed to lose its sweetness or agility. "But a crab crawled out of it, making it useless." The song ends with Lekman's arms raised up into the air, plucking imaginary xylophone notes out of the air. For all the grown-up conundrums in his songs, Lekman's got plenty of kid-like whimsy, too.
The man treated us to most of the best songs off his new album, I Know What Love Isn't, and most of his best songs period, including "Maple Leaves," "Black Cab," and the set-closing "Sipping on the Sweet Nectar," during which the Fillmore briefly turned into a ballroom dance club. But of course any highlight of a show like this is going to be what gets said between songs, and last night was no exception. The funniest story might have been the prelude to "I Know What Love Isn't," where Lekman tells how he and a friend devised a plan to get married to he could gain Australian citizenship. There was just one problem, he realized: "I wouldn't be able to tell the story, because it's illegal, and that's really hard when you're Jens Lekman to have a story that you can't tell."
Humor, though, can be a sheath for intense emotions, painful or otherwise, and several poignant moments punctuated last night's set. The most striking was at the end, when Lekman returned for a second encore with just his acoustic guitar and began to play "Pocketful of Money." The recorded version includes a sample of Calvin Johnson's subterranean voice singing the line, "I'll come running with my heart on fire," and last night Lekman outsourced that refrain to the crowd. It worked -- stunningly: as Lekman's voice climbed back into its glassy upper registers, the Fillmore crowd sang along, audibly and mostly in tune, in a moment of true collaboration between fans and artist like few we've seen. Not many artists manage to elicit sure enough footing from their adorers to sing over. But of course if anyone could it'd be Lekman, the singer who, four years ago, went looking through his email to see if there were any fans in D.C. he could celebrate with.
Hey Neil: During the first encore, Lekman brought out openers Taken By Trees to help on a cover of "Lotta Love," the Neil Young song made famous by Nicolette Larson in 1978. It sounded pretty good with eight people onstage.
Big tunes: Lekman didn't have a huge band last night -- just drums, fiddle, bass, and keys -- but the difference between his last S.F. show, where he had just a drummer, was striking. Bigger equaled better in this case. For the final songs, Lekman also brought out a couple locals to play sax and trumpet.