The band comprising Peter Moren, Bjorn Yttling, and John Eriksson is one of the biggest surprise success stories of this past year. Formed in 1999 in Stockholm, the trio released two albums of ’60s-influenced sunshine pop that garnered significant critical praise but little in the way of sales. The band’s third release, Writer’s Block, seemed destined to suffer the same fate — until “Young Folks,” the record’s lead single, was featured in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. So, with Writer’s Block having dropped stateside in January, the band’s May shows had to be moved from the intimate confines of the Mercury Lounge to the significantly larger Webster Hall.
The trio took the stage on May 2 to the canned accompaniment of “Sitar Folks,” a bonus track off the U.S. release of Writer’s Block featuring Moren playing “Young Folks” on the Indian stringed instrument. The musicians assumed their places behind their respective instruments and immediately struck up “Roll the Credits.” It’s a curious choice for a show-opener because it is among the most melancholy songs on Writer’s Block, but it’s a beautiful piece of music and sounded fantastic.
The band went into “Let’s Call It Off,” and it occurred to me just how much credit Yttling deserves for his production work. These songs sound fine on their own merits, but it’s the small touches and in-studio creative emphases that really give the songs their idiosyncratic character. These touches range from tubular bells that provide the majestic drone on “Roll the Credits” to the steel drums that pop up between verses on the single-mix of “Let’s Call It Off.” Live, many of these details are impractical or cannot be replicated, and they’re sorely missed.
Most of the set consisted of songs off Writer’s Block, with only a few selections from the previous albums. Onstage, the band members hammed it up, joking between songs and practicing their amusing stage-banter. The loudest applause of the night was reserved for “Young Folks,” but perhaps the highlight of the show was a touching acoustic rendition of “Amsterdam.” This was one instance in which removing the song from its studio context worked brilliantly. Stripping it of its synth-pop production gave the lovely melody some well-deserved breathing room, abandoning, if only for a moment, its modish sonic accoutrements. I was also pleased to see that the band worked the acoustic “Poor Cow” into the encore.
Fujiya & Miyagi opened the night and again proved itself to be one of today’s best live acts. The usual arm-crossed, motionless, downtown-hipster set was rendered helpless to the exuberance of the music, and the audience members at least attempted some sincere dancing. The band’s material sounds great on record, but the live performance is without question a fuller experience.
Peter Bjorn and John’s songs are so well-crafted and enjoyable that whatever was lost in texture and atmosphere was more than made up for through the performance itself. In a way, the hype surrounding the band almost does it a disservice; Peter Bjorn and John’s songbook is too good to be cast aside after the buzz dies down.