Posted by: Necci – Oct 18, 2012
Before I made my way to The National last Saturday, I dropped by the Richmond Folk Festival to catch the festivities. It was a good time until one particular moment--a friend of mine had run into an acquaintance that provided him with a stack of tickets to the Jens Lekman show. It turned out that Lekman’s appearance at The National had undersold tremendously. This bothered me as a fan. It also bothered me in terms of whether Lekman would ever return to Richmond ever again. That was when my newfound mission dawned on me. I made my descent to Penny Lane Pub, where I sat at the bar for a reasonable amount of time, calling and texting everyone I knew. I had several tickets that I could provide for the show and I wanted my friends to experience it. Thankfully, a few people came through and the attendance for the show wasn’t terrible. It would have been great to see more folks there, but this didn’t detract from the performances that night.
The two openers were great, but I was distracted by my first opportunity to catch Lekman live. I had tickets to see him perform in a synagogue up in Washington DC last year, but I unfortunately missed the show. I caught the setlist afterwards and knew I would have loved every minute of it. I had seen M. Ward at the same venue years ago, and the setting is brilliant for this kind of artist. When I heard the announcement that he would be visiting Richmond, I knew I had to be there, and I’m glad I was. His set began with the opening instrumental from his new album I Know What Love Isn’t, then went into “Become Someone Else’s.” The set focused on his new record with a few nods to his last proper full-length, Night Falls Over Kortedala. An early showing of “The Opposite of Hallelujah” was welcome, as was the inclusion of a sample from The Chairmen of The Board’s 1970 hit “Give Me Just A Little More Time.” Both songs share a similar structure, which comes across as more of homage than an exact copy.
One nice thing that I have come to realize about Lekman as a live performer is his versatility. There is no way to guess what he might have in store for a particular show. He could just as easily round up a big band for a tour or simply perform with a ukulele and his voice. It’s a compliment to his material that it can easily be transformed to fit into the appropriate setting. For this show, four other musicians who supplied a succinct rhythm section, gentle harmonies, orchestral strings, and keys for his wide-array of material accompanied him. Lekman’s rapport with the audience as well as his stage demeanor deserves just as much acclaim as his songwriting. He comes across as humble and quick-witted, which makes the experience that much more engaging. At times, it even makes the experience of seeing him live feel somewhat heartbreaking, especially when you consider the subject matter that can be found on his newest record--songs like “The World Moves On,” “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” and “I Know What Love Isn’t.”
A few classic numbers found their way into the set; “Black Cab” and “Maple Leaves” felt right at home beside recent EP tracks “Waiting For Kirsten” and “An Argument With Myself.” That was the nice thing about the entire set--despite the distinct approaches that Lekman has taken on each of his releases, nothing stood so far apart from the rest that it felt jarring. Everything came together quite organically. It stated a strong case for his craft as a songwriter in light of his unique, at-times bizarre approach. With the two encores he had in store for the crowd that night, these instances further showcased Lekman as he delved into a personal favorite of mine “A Postcard to Nina.” My introduction to him was through a video of him performing this song solo with simply a ukulele and I couldn’t help but find it terribly endearing. It was nice to hear it, as well as a solo rendition of “Shirin” that followed soon after.
The night ended in a similar fashion to its beginning, with the closing track of I Know What Love Isn’t, the lyrically-moving “Every Hair Knows Your Name.” This was a perfect bookend for the set, as he explored the deep-seated manifestations of the devastation one can experience as a relationship comes to an end. With imagery ranging from a newfound penchant for exercise to keep your mind off a lost significant other to naming chords and declaring that they all sound the same, Lekman shines in these small moments, particularly when he twists the title of the song proclaim that “every chord knows your name.” This song digs further into the inherent depth of his sadness found on I Know What Love Isn’t. Even if he tried, though, he couldn’t bum this audience out, and everyone left feeling like they had experienced something truly grand.
Sure, it would have been great to see more people there. I would have loved to see the whole place sell out. But one thing has to be said--Lekman and his entourage of musicians showed that they were content to play for anyone who would take time out of their Saturday nights to see them perform. Attendance numbers aside, they played valiantly, producing one of the strongest sets I’ve seen performed all year.
By Shannon Cleary