Maybe the reason that so much good "American" pop and rock music comes out of Sweden nowadays is that Swedes are genetically predisposed to having more fun when they pick up guitars or get behind drums. They charm, rock like monkeys and radiate goodwill and humanity. It's been true with every Swedish act I've seen here over the past two years, including the Shout Out Louds, Jens Lekman and the Perishers. Also, each of them has stuck around to meet the audience and even sign autographs -- which, in the case of last night's act, is pretty impressive, considering the indie credentials this band has seized over the past year.
It's trite to credit a band with playing to a small house just as energetically as if it were a packed arena, but last night, the Swedish guitar-pop trio Peter, Bjorn and John treated the half-empty Madrid Theatre like it was a sold-out Tiger Stadium. Though their breakthrough album, Writer's Block, came out overseas sometime in the middle of '06 (making many top-ten lists last year, including mine) it didn't see stateside release until early this year, coming with a push that included a heroic performance at SXSW, which I was lucky enough to catch.
You tell 'em, Bjorn.
The night's opener was also kickass. Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, the Besnard Lakes are a hiply unkempt fivepiece comprising three guitarists (one of whom doubles on keys) a chick bassist and a drummer. All of the musicians except for one of the guitarists provide vocals, the leaders being the bass player girl and her co-frontperson, a long-haired Steve Hydelike fellow with an impressively high-ranged voice. The band's music was dynamic and richly orchestrated, a kind of bombastic, psychedelic chamber rock. Very few vocal lines didn't come with a harmony part, and when the guitars weren't dueling, they were going at in a grinding three-way. If the Swedes have more fun, then the Canadians practice their instruments more.
"Hey, Kelso, check out this sweet riff."
When the lights came down and an Indian folk music version of "Young Folks" began playing, there were enough people there who were familiar with the band to raise a respectable cheer when John the drummer's bald pate appeared over the drums. On the kick, the label read "PETER BJORN AND JOHN BASS DRUM" (PETER BJORN AND JOHN T-SHIRTs available at the merch table). Clad in slender mod suits, Peter the lead singer and guitarist and Bjorn the bassist emerged and launched into "Let's Call It Off," one of Writer's Block's grooviest tunes.
Then they turned to their previous record, Falling Out, for "Far Away, By My Side," another sparse jam with a sharp guitar hook. I turned on the video. (Note how, around 0:55 in this video, Bjorn plays a wrong note and Peter looks over at him.)
PB&J are purveyors of the deceptively simple. From the outset, their music is lighthearted, fuzzy and catchy -- and sure Bjorn hit that wrong note and Peter's voice is easily overstretched -- but then you realize how many notes each of the guys is responsible for.
Perhaps most impressive is John, who not only lays down the 4/4 but also sings all of at least one song "Start to Melt" and triggered a lot of the synth parts (chimes, effects) from a pad connected to his drumset.
Peter is the showman: a guitarist-singer of Elvis Costello flare and insuppressible boyish energy. For "Young Folks," the famous whistle-hook song, Peter played only the shaker, bouncing around, singing both boy and girl parts (the latter sung on the original recording by Victoria Bergsman, formerly of the Concretes), and executing the whistle with surprising accuracy.
Bjorn is your boyfriend. You wish. Grizzly and slender with a low voice and a persistent look of incredulity upon his face, the handsome devil is the band's studio mastermind and the group's straight man. Though he does like to get down, as he did with P&J at the evening's smashing end, an encore bashout of "Up Against the Wall."
More rock closer to ground.
And then, after Peter did the quick change out of his sweaty concert shirt and into a short-sleeved plaid button-up (I swear the dude's 14 years old), the boys joined Besnard Lakes at the merch table for a refreshingly cheerful and warm meet and greet. I guarantee most other bands of this stature from America or the UK wouldn't even bother, especially at a show this sparsely attended. But to Peter, Bjorn and John, it's all part of the joy of being in a band.
"Come visit us in Sweden!"