When indulging in commentary around Norwegian folk-pop duo Kings Of Convenience, context around their unlikely rise to prominence and their place in the sphere of pop music is king (please forgive the pun). It is impossible to dive right into the core of a review of their concert at Webster Hall in New York City  on October 24 (2023) without this. If you are well aware of the band’s story, feel free to skip ahead by clicking HERE.

The early 2000s marked the beginning of the end for the glory years of mass pop culture – especially as it applies to the American music scene. The percentage of music listeners sharing a sonic backdrop had started to decline rather rapidly. Some of this stems from the deregulation of terrestrial radio in the US – the most powerful pop/rock music gatekeeper of consequence (at least until the year 2010). This dynamic (that dates back to the mid-90s) concentrated the ownership of most of the US terrestrial (i.e. over the air) radio stations in the hands of a few powerful conglomerates (e.g. Clearchannel). It also led to these conglomerates taking away the programming function (i.e. playlist curation) away from radio DJs in favor of “centralized programming” across all radio stations of a specific format or genre owned by them. Ever wondered why you heard the same narrow selection of songs on every pop/rock radio station? This loss of curatorial autonomy for radio DJs led to a geocentric bias as it applies to American radio airplay (especially for music released post-1996). As a result, the percentage of European artists/bands on the US music charts started to plummet quite dramatically and the dream of cracking America (the world’s single largest consumer market for recorded pop/rock music) was starting to become even more illusory. With the dominant phenomena such as overproduction, loudness, and the staggeringly unoriginal “rent a rapper” trend (which involved featuring a guest rapper on a song as a commercial crutch to sound mainstream enough for the US market), it seemed borderline rebellious, revolutionary, and commercially risky to emerge with a sonic aesthetic that was the antithesis to the path to commercial success in the music business – especially in the US. This is what Kings of Convenience, the duo from Bergen (Norway) did when they first surfaced in 2001. “Quiet is the new loud”, the title of their debut album was more than a hint of the minimalism that defined their sound. Their sparse soundscape is shaped by acoustic guitars and their intertwining vocals. Their songs occasionally benefit from string section embellishments, but the core of the music has always been out on full display, as opposed to being draped in a cloak of studio gloss/production. It seems almost quaint that the sound of their stylistic rebellion would be one characterized by the tranquility of a cozy living room. Against all odds, this approach has worked spectacularly well. While they may not have dented the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts (a very debatable indicator of music quality these days), they have been able to build and nurture a loyal and ardent fanbase in America.

Post-2010, it appeared that the life of the band might have come to an end despite there being no official announcement of a split between band members Erlend Oye and Eirik Boe. Furthermore, in this past decade, Erlend has been devoting a lot of time to his side-projects – which include both solo endeavors and musical output with the musical group The Whitest Boy Alive (their most recent single “Serious” saw the light of day in 2020). His inherent wanderlust led to him moving out of Norway to live in Sicily. Hence, when the duo resurfaced, seemingly out of nowhere in 2021 with the irresistible “Rocky Trail” (the lead single from their fourth album titled “Peace Or Love”), fans (us included) were beyond elated. Their return offered a momentary escapism from a chaotic world dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Peace Or Love” is most likely the catalyst for the return of the duo after many years to American stages. Needless to say, the patience of fans that attended their second Webster Hall concert (the first being on October 23, 2023) in New York City was richly rewarded.

The first manifestation of this reward was the fact that there was no opening act for the concert – which means that the audience did NOT have to wait until 9 pm or later for the duo to enter the stage. The second noteworthy element of the concert is the unadulterated beauty of the exquisite sonic tapestry that can be woven with just two guitars and two vocals. In a music business that has been putting a premium on glossy production for decades, this approach that creates musical richness from minimalism is nothing short of stunning. It truly puts the possibilities of “less is more” into perspective. In fact, it defined the template for most of the concert. For over half the song set, it was just Erlend and Eirik on stage seemingly extracting every feature of their guitars to create a sound that they had meticulously architected just for a live environment. This included them occasionally tapping on their guitar frames to create a percussive effect. The performances that captured this aesthetic at its best are those of the achingly beautiful “Rocky Trail”, “Cayman Islands”, and “Mrs Cold”. In fact, on “Rocky Trail”, they did the seemingly impossible by delivering a spritely guitar instrumental (blending arrangements from both Erlend and Eirik) to compensate for the lack of the wailing cello – a defining ingredient of the magic of the song’s studio version. It made the song’s outro a happier one in contrast to the melancholic undertone of the song’s original version.

The duo’s on-stage dynamic is also a rather unconventional one. Unlike with many duos, where there is an unofficial frontman, that is simply not the case here. For Erlend and Eirik, theirs is a creative democracy in every sense of the word – including their propensity towards banter with the audience albeit reflecting very different personalities. Erlend’s quirky sense of humor is laced with more than a hint of sarcasm while Eirik’s overtures to the audience have a more serious tone but delivered in a light-hearted manner. Their dynamic is a competitive one fueled by a quest for perfection. This was best captured when Eirik and Erlend could not seem to agree on what year the United Nations was born (despite the day of the concert being the birthday of the United Nations). Eirik tied this argument to the first time he met Erlend in a class in school where the two argued about the height of Mount Everest. It was a heartwarming glimpse into the beauty of an enduring friendship between the two – the bedrock of their creative chemistry. Their flavors of assertiveness also seem to be quite different. In terms of commandeering the audience to offer backup percussion with hand-claps and snapping of fingers, Erlend held the reins – especially on their performance of “Misread” – when he asked the audience to clap “like they do in Spain”. The other noteworthy element of their on-stage dynamic is the fact that for long stints, they would move close together and play their respective guitars while standing right in front of each other as opposed to next to their microphones – which were placed far apart on stage. It gave the impression that they were feeding of each others’ sonic aura. Their banter (between themselves) in Norwegian also made some of us wonder if they were improvising elements of the show as it progressed through the evening. Their poise in the face of interruptions is also exemplary. Twice in the evening, a couple of people in the audience fainted because of the heat in the indoor venue. Both Erlend and Eirik called for help without being remotely rattled and at the same time NOT trivializing the seriousness of the situation.

Despite an unwavering commitment to musical sparseness and the quiet sound that emanates from it, the gentlemen of Kings Of Convenience appear to understand that their songwriting does have a pop sensibility to it. This quality of their music has more than a little to do with the breadth of their appeal across the world. Furthermore, why else would so much of their music be featured on our 24/7 online music radio broadcast? After all, they do not share a musical heritage with any of the artists and bands that we feature on Radio Crème Brulee’s (yes, we are an online music radio station in case you had figured that out yet!) broadcast – and yet, their music fits seamlessly along the rest on our playlists. Fortunately, the duo acted on this understanding. They appeared to be cognizant of the limitations of minimalism in the pop music context, and hence brought on a bass player and drummer to accompany them for songs towards the end of their set. This marked an inflection point in the evening that took the concert from being great to being beyond euphoric. They had already leaned into this concept with their poptastic “I’d Rather Dance With You” in a studio album context on their sophomore album “Riot On An Empty Street”, but they took this up a few notches on stage and in addition gave us two more stunning and unexpected musical highlights – namely “Rule My World” (from the “Declaration of Dependence” album) and “Fever” – the second single from their most recent “Peace Or Love” album.

In his review of the Kings Of Convenience album “Declaration of Dependence” for Pitchfork magazine, writer Marc Hogan describes “Rule my world” as having the “bouncy upswing of French house”. But how is this possible? Doesn’t French house require a pulsating beat? For anyone with more than an iota of imagination, they could easily envision an uptempo beat-centric version of this song being part of a playlist catered for a beach party along the Mediterranean Sea coast. Bass player Jorge and drummer Paco Aguilar went a long way in transforming this imagination into reality by helping Erlend and Eirik bring this uptempo rendition to life. One can only hope Kings Of Convenience releases a remixed version of this fantastic song. The performance of this song was one of the most goosebump-inducing moments of the evening.

This brings me to the concert’s big surprise – “Fever”, a song that I have considered “pleasant but not earthshattering” based on its studio version. The combination of bass guitar and drum gave this song a sonic bite that I did not think it could have. The hypnotic guitar solo towards the end was replaced by Eirik leaving his guitar to play that section on a hand-held keyboard. This sent a wave of enthusiastic cheering right through the audience. To the uninitiated, this was a facet of Eirik Boe that was largely unknown – and who doesn’t love surprises like this? The icing on the cake was Erlend Oye breaking out into this trademark quirky dance moves towards the end of the song – something we see in the music videos for “Misread”, “I’d rather dance with you”, and “Rocky Trail”.

To the musically jaded (me included), evenings such as these offer a rare moment of optimism and gratitude. In general, I cannot help but think that the gatekeepers (contrary to popular belief, they still exist and have immense opinion-shaping power) of the US mainstream have an inexplicable tendency to prop up and patronize a lot of musical mediocrity and in the process of doing so, they sideline artistry – which ought to be a foundational element of music stardom. Hence, seeing an American crowd sing the words to every song on this concert’s setlist makes me hopeful that there is still a thriving market for good old-fashioned artistry without the circus of promotional stunts and manufactured controversy as a vehicle for furthering pop stardom. Kings Of Convenience was clearly not attempting to rehash the listening experience of the studio albums on stage. They undoubtedly aspire for so much more. Frankly, I think they have barely scratched the surface of the spectrum of concert formats they can explore with their stellar back-catalog. One format that comes to mind is something their fellow country-men a-ha did over a decade ago at the Royal Albert Hall in London. They played their first two albums in their entirety along with the Oslo Philharmonic. This format could translate very well for Kings Of Convenience – especially for songs (which were conspicuous by their absence in this concert) such as “Toxic Girl”, “Failure”, and “The Girl Back from Then” (Riton’s Uber Jazz Mix) that truly benefit from lush string arrangements. I can barely wait to see what Kings Of Convenience does next. Their creative well is far from dry so I hope we don’t have to wait another decade for their fifth album. As performers, they still have the youthful spunk that helped them cut through the clutter in the early 2000s and make a name for themselves against all odds. I wish them the best!

STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars


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