I'm not exactly sure why, but for some reason I've always regarded listening to the Weakerthans' music as a rather private and personal experience. Perhaps it is the way the band's lyrics are like a concentrated Alice Munro story or the fact that John K. Samson's voice always retains a tender tone. Either way, my only other experience of seeing the band live -- while good -- was a rather alienating event given it was in a festival-like setting on my university campus. Rightly or wrongly I came into the show looking for something that was ying to the yang of what happens every time I slip on my headphones to Fallow or Reunion Tour.
Christine Fellows, who I believe is of intimate relation to Mr. Samson, kicked off the night with a short set. She played piano and sang a gaggle of good-humoured folk-pop songs and was backed by a fiddler and a percussionist as well as the Weakerthans' rhythm section for a portion of the set. It appeared as though the guys from the Weakerthans were learning as they went song from song, which helped to create an informal and inviting atmosphere.
After a quick setup, Jenn Grant and her band took the stage. I wasn't familiar with her music previously but her quite rocking folk stylings made me a fan before long. Her voice also reminds me a bit of Jolie Holland, which is a plus any way you look at it. The most interesting aspect of the set was how she used the twinkly music from a music box in their opening song. Chemistry between the band members was fluid and professional and they garnered decent crowd response and involvement even if it seemed not too many other people were that familiar with her. One aspect of their set that struck me was Jenn's often awkward stage banter about ladybugs, amongst other things. This could be quite a problem for some bands but this night it came across as adorable and quite endearing (grumble…grumble…sexist! grumble…grumble). I definitely recommend checking them out if they come to your town.
Judging from the response sparse guest spots of the headliners garnered in other sets of the night, I had a feeling there was some very excited members in the crowd that night. When the Weakerthans' gear had been setup and the lighting was adjusted -- even before the band took the stage -- the crowd acted like you do in elementary school when the power goes out. The band chose to open up with "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call," which I thought was strange because I figured they'd pick a more upbeat number; from the great sing-along that occurred, I guess it made sense though. This was indicative of the rest of the night where it seemed as though the majority of the crowd really sunk into the material from Reconstruction Site. When the band performed "Benediction," Christine Fellows joined them onstage. Although her vocals were somewhat inaudible behind the band, I then became aware that the quality I had been searching for was there. The family atmosphere between all the bands on the bill and the respectful exchange between those there to play and those there to enjoy made me -- and I'm guessing many others -- feel remarkably welcome and included. Unlike some bands where you only go to watch the front-person, the Weakerthans all showed considerable showmanship, especially during "Aside" when Greg Smith ran up to Stephen Carroll and they held their guitar and bass above their heads in a ferocious dual attack.
After they finished their set, the band waited a courteous amount of time before returning to play the encore, much to the crowd's delight. For "Bigfoot," a trombonist was brought on stage (who returned to play trumpet I believe) and from the pleased crowd reaction and "tromboner" joke, I gather there must have been a few third wave ska rejects amongst the hipsters and other gentlefolk in attendance. After the band finished their encore, people slowly started to filter out but the rest of us stayed and cheered for more, and the band decided to oblige us in kind. Samson announced that he would be playing a Replacements cover much to my shock, and they proceeded to play a surprisingly worthy cover of "Swingin' Party." As we were leaving the show I told my friend that I creamed my pants when they played that song...she said she could tell…
All in all, the show far exceeded expectations, and they gave an even distribution of their last three releases. Even if they only threw one bone in their set list to fans of Fallow like me, the night served to show just how strong their entire body of work has been. Already delightful aspects like the bassline to "Night Windows" are simply transcendental live. From the night I learned that being sober helps you remember things a lot better, people really seem to hate the Peg, Jennifer Jason Leigh is just as fun to sing out loud as it seems, and John K. Samson is quite the dish with a beard (grumble…grumble…sexist! grumble…grumble).
Set List (complete/in order):
- Psalm for The Elks Lodge Last Call
- Civil Twilight
- Our Retired Explorer
- Benediction [w/ Christine Fellows]
- Reconstruction Site
- Night Windows
- Relative Surplus Value
- Sun in an Empty Room
- Left and Leaving
- Tournament of Hearts
- The Reasons
- Time's Arrow
- History to the Defeated
- Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
Encore the 1st:
- One Great City
- Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist
- Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure
Encore the 2nd:
- Swingin' Party [Replacements cover]
- Everything Must Go