Lykke Li learns the value of theatrics in latest performance

Production values. Theatrics. Costuming. Hard to believe these are the bare bones of a live concert review at Vancouver's legendary Vogue Theatre. But if Sweden's Lykke Li puts her mind to something, she wants either all or nothing. Her last appearances in Vancouver, at Richards on Richards (RIP) and The Commodore Ballroom, respectably, were quick sets filled with a flash bag of hits off her debut, 2008's Youth Novels. Both sets shared one thing: Li's undeniable capability to charm an entire room.

At the much larger, and filled-to-the-brim, Vogue Theatre, Li made her return to Vancouver for the first time in a few years, in support of her sophomore, and significantly goth-esque release Wounded Rhymes. For those who missed her the first two times around, and for this writer lucky enough to see her in this third incarnation, the ability to see an artist in her creative and artistic incline is really a rare treat. Rhymes was an early contender for album of the year, with critics raving about it right across the board. The disc is chock full with emotional-oozing ballads, percussion standoffs, and a handful of the catchiest indie pop this side of The Strokes. But transferring such a dark cloud of an album into a live experience is a teeter-totter of a thin line that is quite difficult to pull off. Lucky for Li, her artistry moves beyond just a powerful voice and songwriter edge. The live experience of Rhymes is arguably even more powerful than its recorded counterpart.

Elvin opener Grimes, clearly a disciple of Li, performed a short set of breathy vocals over overbearing House beats. Her high octave voice, which she looped and overdubbed with pedals, became a bit much, and almost unwatchable beyond the first few songs. Thankfully, we had other talent to look forward to.

Emerging on the stage in a literal cloud of black smoke, Li immediately had her capacity crowd in the palm of her hand before she uttered a peep. With an array of eerie ceiling length draperies blowing around on-stage, matched by invasive police search style lighting, the set invoked an image of an abandoned forest in the midst of a crime scene. The intensity of the atmosphere brought an undeniable dimension to Li's set, showing each aspect was for once carefully thought out and articulated without coming off overcooked or clich├ęd. Li stood and hovered over her crowd while an extended introduction of harsh industrial music jeered the crowd, provided by Li's impressive and sizable backing band. And as the strobe light made its final flickers, Li in her flowing black curtain-esque smock, greeted her crowd with one of Rhymes' most heartfelt numbers, "Jerome". With her bare legs juxtaposing her loose, baggy outfit, Lykke Li glided across the stage like nothing I've ever seen. Gone were the heavy oversized gold chains and head thrashing of her earlier performances, replaced here by elegant modern dance and smooth arm gestures spelling out additional visual lyrics to the already emotion-wrought set.

Much of the set consisted of Wounded Rhymes material, with Li seamlessly sliding the somewhat lighter and more eclectic favourites from her earlier disc. In Novels' "I'm Good I'm Gone" Li was backed by a male vocoder, while she wielded a spare drum stick on a nearby cymbal, like a wizard conducting spells out of her wreckless wand. Li's stage presence and atmosphere really matches up to the songs themselves in that it all appears to be a metaphor for letting a bit of light into an otherwise dark exterior. Like the shy bit of leg poking from under her garment, the odd lyric of hope in an otherwise hopeless track, and the black curtain draperies rarely exposing some backlighting, the cohesiveness of the entire experience was live music perfection.

Though the crowd had a hard time keeping its collective mouth shut, Li managed to overpower them, despite a coy and mostly demure presence. But there were the loud moments, too, making most of the set feel like the calm before the storm. In "Dance Dance Dance" the entire stage erupted in a spastic percussion breakdown, including Li's kooky kazoo solo. During a rowdy take on "Silent My Song", Li crouched like a focused hunter, stalking her prey, before bouncing up, hovering about, appearing like a blood-thirsty boxer. Complimenting all of the loud moments were the beautiful and delicate ones, particularly on "I Know Places", of which the band left Li solo onstage under a dreary spotlight, if even just to show the wide sweeping range of her vocal promise. On the set closer "Get Some", she told the crowd to "continue the party", equipped with a crescent-shaped tambourine and a megaphone.

With a bombastic version of her hit "I Follow Rivers", and a quickly done take on her debut hit "Little Bit", Li showed that it was her non-singles that take the best shape live. The art direction and lighting in some of the interludes were among the evening's best moments, with red smoke slowly seeping into the air following "Rich Kids Blues", like a punctured bloody wound underwater. The short burst of red lighting was the only colour onstage all evening, with white lights and black wardrobe dominating the majority of the performance.

Even Li's encore was carefully calculated, beginning with the tongue-in-cheek "Youth Knows No Pain”, in which Li performed some of her notorious interpretive dancing, before the track led into a looped sample of Kanye West's "Power." She then led the crowd through a campfire-style singalong in the form of her Twilight soundtrack gem "Possibility”. The track essentially oozed teardrops out of each instrument, reeking of sadness and despair. The crowd thinned out a fair bit, but Li was not ready to give up. With her entire band belting out the chorus of "My Love Is Unrequited", the beautiful song took extra shape with the extra voices.

Whether swinging her cape around shyly, or aimlessly holding her hand above her head for an entire song, Li is confusing but beautiful, invoking the magic and allure of a beautiful sorceress. Some things require a comparison that specific, and Lykke Li deserves to be given as much as she gives her crowds.

//JJ Brewis,
Summer Arts and Culture Correspondent

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