At first glance, Shawnee, Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter Samantha Crain makes an unlikely front woman. She might not be a boho trendsetter like Johanna and Klara Söderberg, the sisters of Swedish folk-pop outfit First Aid Kit for whom Crain is currently opening. But, even alone on stage (except for her guitar), Crain quickly proves why she’s warming up the crowd on a string of sold-out shows. One of those shows was at The Orange Peel last night.
On poppy “Songs in the Night,” she had the audience singing along on the “whoa-oh-oh” refrain, and she introduced the bouncy, recognizable “Somewhere all the Time,” as something she wrote “during the commercial breaks while watching Convoy on TV.” She imagined the song as a sort of soundtrack for the ’70s-era Kris Kristofferson film.
Much of Crain’s catalog has a desperado feel to it — rhythmic but melancholy and conjuring long expanses of dusty road. “Devils in Boston” and a new song (played softly, with an almost Piedmont Blues-style of finger picking) both hit the emotional mark. “Churchill,” full of Crain’s trademark warm warble, recalled the uniquely distorted singing style of folk predecessors The Be Good Tanyas — though Crain is distinctly original.
She fished her set with “Lions,” a big song that throbs and aches and fills in space with a kind of resonant longing. The song, like so much of Crain’s work, seems bigger than the room and in need of light and wide-open spaces — a major accomplishment for a solo performer.
First Aid Kit took the stage swathed in blue light and gold dresses (their new album is Stay Gold). From opening song, “The Lion’s Roar” (a clever juxtaposition with Crain’s final song) was a power play of stamping beats and whipping hair. The song itself is an ambling country rocker, waltzing in time to the melodrama of the vocals.
Much of the band’s set drew from vintage folk updated by synthesizers and atmospheric percussion. Johanna and Klara’s harmonies on “Stay Gold” were understated but clear, supporting each other rather than trying to outdo each other with vocal acrobatics.
While a First Aid Kit show could probably rest on washes of steel guitar and emotive slow dances like “In the Hearts of Men,” the band picked up the energy and intrigue with poppier “Blue,” the brisk, dancey “Heaven Knows,” and a cover of Jack White’s dark “Love Interruption.”
From start to finish, the entire show was polished well-rehearsed. Though the Söderberg sisters are just in their early 20s, they perform like seasoned professionals. The kind of flawless stage presence they showed on, say, the “Late Show With David Letterman,” is the same kind of gloss they brought to The Orange Peel stage. They even took a moment to profess their love for Asheville and recount their previous shows at The Peel (including an opening set for Lykke Li in 2012). So much refinement, however, leaves little room for funk — for a blown note or improvised verse. And that might come with time. Then again, the band’s at-capacity crowds and high-profile concerts (Radio City Music Hall, Lollapalooza) suggest that fans are fine with purity. First Aid Kit’s sweet Americana tribute, “Emmylou,” a stunning way to round out a concert, doesn’t need any grit.
1. The Lion’s Roar
2. Stay Gold
4. King of the World
5. In the Hearts of Men
6. Waitress Song
7. Shattered & Hollow
8. Cedar Lane
9. Ghost Town
10. My Silver Lining
11. Love Interruption (Jack White cover)
12. Heaven Knows
A Long Time Ago