Tuesday night at the Republic Bar and Café, I arrived an hour before his show was going to start. I secured a three-quarter view of the stage and had a cold Stella in hand. The condensation off the glass dripped slowly onto the Hobart music scene journal I was reading. Half an hour past eight, the pub started to come alive. In a moment of panic and enlightenment, I realized I had no money to blow on Jens’ fantastic merch. I had to sacrifice my seat to hit an ATM around the corner. I came back and nearly all the chairs were gone, including my prized seat. I took a seat on the floor, and I eavesdropped several conversations. “It’s pretty busy for a Tuesday night,” one man said. Most people in the pub had little knowledge of Lekman, and being such a small town, they were there for the music and the social aspects. I found this the makings of a perfect evening.
Bear in mind that Jens Lekman is very well-known back in Sweden.* He’s earned Swedish grammys, and his albums have ranked high on the charts. Here, most people didn’t much more of him than the free mp3s they scored off his website or because his name was written in huge yellow letters on the wall outside.
The concert began with an opening act, Link, who was of the standard singer-songwriter style. Nothing extraordinary, but the bar manager asked him twice to extend his set. I gathered that he was buying time for Jens Lekman, even though I had saw him a few minutes earlier. As I sat perched on a barstool, Jens walked mere inches in front of me on the way to use the bathroom. I grinned as he strolled casually to the bathroom anonymous to the pub patrons.
Jens has been playing recently with the likes of Erlend Öye of Kings of Convenience, Architecture in Helsinki, and Guy Blackman. This evening, he took the stage alone, donning a shirt that said “Sing a Song, Fighter!”
He quietly approached the mic. “I’m sick. If I fall over, will someone call my mother? Her phone number is in my back right pocket. She can help.”
Link had bought him time because he was sick and losing his voice. His extensive Australian tour was catching up with him. He said he was going to play a short set to save his voice for the rest of the tour. I braced for a letdown, but I didn’t have to. His show never had a low point. When he wasn’t singing, he was telling stories. When he was singing, he was at his best with the room laughing so loud it competed with the music. He delivers lyrics with dry, quirky wit and a crooning voice. Several times in the middle of a song, he would explain the back story. Those were the best moments, particularly in ‘Nina’ where he sang, “Nina, I can’t be your boyfriend, so you’ll have to go back to your girlfriend.” If I recall correctly, the song was based on a night where Nina asked Jens to pretend to be engaged to her so her dad wouldn’t disown her for being a lesbian. He described the dinner where he went to the house and met her father, and in the excitement of the moment, her father put one of Lekman’s CDs in the stereo because he already knew who Jens Lekman was.
In another song, Lekman sings about the riots in Gothenburg. “You probably won’t know the story behind this song, but it goes back to a visit from George W. Bush. My girlfriend at the time wanted to protest his visit, so I went along. In the crowd, I lost her hand, and we were split apart. After we reunited, I thought we would hug and everything would be fine. When she came back, something was different. It was over.”
“George Bush is ruining my love life.”
He played a handful of instruments: an undersized acoustic guitar, a ukulele, a harmonica, and a synthesizer box. He also whistled and clapped, at some moments, saying, “You can whistle along if you’d like.” I think his instrument choices are intentionally cheeky. After a lumbering harmonica solo, he said, “I’m not very good at the harmonica.” As he played, it was quite apparent that not one of his instruments was ‘cool’ in a scene of self-conscious, broken-hearted Indie rockers. Lekman is a musician. He is not up there because of the scene, the fame or the money. He’s up there because he loves what he does and enjoys people joining in. He made a handful of t-shirts and CDs that all sold out early in his Australian tour. “Sorry that I don’t have any more shirts. I’m not much of a business man.”
I feared that because I hyped his show so much I would be let down. After all, I had just flown to Tasmania specifically to see him, and now he was sick and his set was nearing an end. Despite the circumstances, if I had only seen him play that evening, it would have been worth the trip. I was blown away by his voice (even being sick), sounding better in person and acoustic than on CD. And it wasn’t just because I was an overzealous crazed fan from the States.
“I have to stop or I won’t have a voice in New Zealand. If you want, afterwards I will sing you a few songs in person. If I lose my voice, I can whisper in your ear.”
He left the stage to a long ovation, and then we all stood waiting for more denying that the moment was over. The crowd stayed locked in place for a few minutes. You could count on one hand the people who left the floor.
“Do you think he’ll play more?” I heard someone say. “Was he kidding when he said he was finished?” No one tried for an encore because we could see he was clearly exhausted.
A few minutes later, he quietly walked back onto the steps of the stage with a small stack of CDs in hand. I was able to score an autographed copy of a “Oh You’re So Silent, Jens.” He sold out of his CDs quickly. We all stood around to listen in on conversations he was having with the fans and to see what he would write or draw on whatever people put in front of him. His requests for more songs were obliged. He grabbed his guitar and sang a few more verses from other pieces. I got a spot in queue and snapped this killer picture with Jens.
One of the Tazzies I chatted with afterwards said, “He’s just so down to earth; like you know who he is on stage is who he is off of it.” If you listened to his CD, you probably wouldn’t be blown away by it in today’s overproduced, commercialized music scene. He doesn’t have the emotional crescendos of a Coldplay song or the masterful guitar riffs of a U2 song. You have a down-to-earth Swedish musician who loves to play and write beautifully strange songs about his life or that which he imagines is his life.
As we all slowly filed out, a few people who couldn’t purchase merchandise tore posters off the wall and snapped last minute pictures. The feeling in the room was that we had all just made a new best friend, and we wanted just a few more minutes of him singing or talking about his life. He’s a charming, random, off-beat, quick-witted bloke with an amazing love for music. His songs are strange and hilarious, blending optimism, cynicism and the kitchen sink. On CD, his brilliance is subtle: if you don’t listen with care, you’ll miss how much time he puts into his samples and the power and originality of his voice. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll overlook his profoundly ridiculous humor. I eagerly await his return to the States.
*Edit: I’ve read interviews with Jens Lekman that have called him “famous” and “a celebrity” in Sweden. He’s been in Swedish magazines about music and pop culture. However, last night in Byron Bay I met someone from Sweden who knew who he was, but said he wasn’t very well known. Take that as you will.