Stephen King once said that the most brilliant ideas happen when two unlikely things come together. It is a common struggle for bands and musicians to find the right people to play with, capture the right sound they hear in their heads and make all of the little pieces align. Many musicians chase dreams of perfection; they practice and practice, trying to create sounds never before heard. But sometimes, this dream of perfection comes when least expected. It comes out of nowhere and all you can do is abide.
“It was last summer, I guess,” Bjorn Jacobsen said. “I was playing a set at the old tiki bar. And Francois was playing too. We’d gotten done with the show and were just hanging out, and Joe [Blevins] came up to us and just said, ‘You know, you two should really play a show together sometime.’”
Not even a year since Jacobsen and Francois Byers took Blevins up on the idea, the duo has already made a name for themselves; not only in the Triad, but up and down the East Coast. But there is something different about the duo. Rarely do they indulge in gratuitous self-promotion on social media and place the entirety of their energy on performing. A Bjorn & Francois show comes about, and most often, it becomes word-of-mouth promotion almost entirely; those who have seen the duo play before, share what has become the group’s most popular selling-point among fans: You just have to see it for yourself. And the May 24 show at the new Monstercade bar in Winston-Salem did not disappoint.
The walls of the tiny Washington Park bar are lined with retro arcade games — Street Fighter, Pac Man and others. Black lights shine down from the ceiling and everything glows ultraviolet.
Singer-songwriter Joe Blevins opened the evening, warming the crowd for what was to come. Blevins’ music ranges in style from a smooth Van Morrison-esque edginess, into more smoothly composed songs based around his fluent guitar skills. And as Blevins finished and the crowd disbursed for another round of drinks or a quick cigarette, Bjorn & Francois took the stage. The bar was mostly empty, most of the crowd talking and smoking with friends outside, as Jacobsen tuned up his ragged, road-worn guitar and Byers adjusted levels on his keyboard. And without announcement, it began.
Jacobsen’s croon carried through the bar and out of the open door, as smooth and startling as silk handkerchief being drawn from a pocket. As the duo played, cigarettes were stubbed out half smoked and the crowd filed in to watch.
Though some have compared his vocals to Tom Waits — a dark, gritty voice with the ease and power of a crooner — Jacobsen’s tone and style are formed from an entirely different mode.
“When I was living in New Orleans, I was busking on the sidewalks during the day to make some extra cash,” Jacobsen said. “And this Hispanic family walked past and the dad said to me, ‘You need more style, man, you need to be bigger. Play some reggaetón, man.’ And so I wrote a song about that and sort of found a style all my own.”
Self-described as “delta-gypsy-grass and theatrical-dark-folk,” the band lives up to the wild descriptor. In a vein similar to the Doors’ dark melodies, the group blends Byers’ classically trained piano style with that of Jacobsen’s traveling, “gypsy” melodies, soldering together two unlikely genres to make for a hypnotic and truly authentic sound.
“Yeah, I guess the two don’t really have anything in common on their own,” Byers said. “But they somehow do when their offspring meet, and I guess that’s what we’ve found.”
Song after song, the pair proved the expanse of their self-dubbed genre, taking pride in the ability to shatter the popular notion of remaining in a single, united pattern; a daring undertaking, yet one they have seemingly mastered.
While at one moment they showcased the guitar melodies and patterns that revealed Jacobsen’s early obsession with old Louisiana blues and the aggressive estam style of traditional Romani music, the very next moment held Byers’ beautiful, sad melodies which called to mind Chopin’s nocturnes.
The intimate camaraderie between the two musicians, while not overt, could be sensed in the music. Neatly crafted chords and layered melodies pouring out from the instruments, making both Jacobsen and Byers constantly aware of what the other is playing. The irony of this show was that, while the crowd was quite literally surrounded by video games and any number of distractions, all attention was held perfectly on the stage, as if a spell were compelling eyes and ears — only all was controlled by the music.
“Yeah, I don’t think about it all that much,” Jacobsen said, referring to the duo’s dynamic. “Since we started playing, it just clicked and we haven’t questioned it. Either Francois will bring a melody to practice or I’ll show him something I wrote, and it all comes about really easily. It’s never happened like that before.”