The Weakerthans were last in the UK late last year, playing some shows in support of what was the then-newly released, and since 'critically acclaimed' album Reunion Tour. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to attend any of these few shows, and so when I found out by chance a few weeks ago that they would be returning once again for four small shows in England I couldn't believe my luck. I promptly booked my ticket for the 720-mile round train journey, reserved a bed in a back-packer hostel, bought my ticket, packed some fresh underwear and off I went, smiling all the way!
Luckily, it turned out that the venue was just round the corner from the place I was staying, so I found the place easily and managed to get there just as the doors were being opened. The venue, The Barfly has a capacity in the region of 400-500 people, and by the time Christine Fellows took to the stage, there couldn't have been more than 80 people in the place. As a result there was a distinct lack of atmosphere during Christine's set, but she dealt with it well, bantering between songs and even commenting on how awkward she was feeling. I was relatively unfamiliar with her solo material, and knew of her only through her association with the Weakerthans. However, this had no bearing whatsoever on how much I enjoyed her performance as she was excellent. Completely alone with only her keyboard for company, Fellows' powerful yet fragile voice managed to fill the venue from top to bottom; the way in which her poetic lyrics were delivered made me think that if John K. Samson was female, this is how he would sound…which is apt, considering she is his wife!
Next up was New York duo Dawn Landes, who were totally new to me. The easiest and most obvious way to describe them would be to say that they are like the White Stripes reversed i.e. with Jack on drums and Meg on guitar and vocals -- but then, that would be a terrible, lazy description, for there are no similarities between them beyond the fact that they are a guitar-and-drum, girl-boy duo. Musically, Dawn Landes are pretty hard to pin down -- there were elements of folk, rock, bluegrass, indie and even jazz, with the tempo varying, sometimes dramatically, from one song to the next. Dawn herself proved to be a good frontwoman -- energetic, charismatic and clearly full of confidence. I'd definitely make the effort to go see her/them perform again, and once I get some cash together I'll be adding their latest effort Fireproof to my list of CDs to buy. Check out the songs "Bodyguard," "Straight Lines" and "Twilight" for a brief introduction. If you dig the Weakerthans I'd say the chances are you're gonna like Dawn Landes.
By the time the Weakerthans were due to appear, the venue had filled out a bit but was still only around half full -- however, as the band took to the stage I don't think they could care less if there were 25 people in attendance or 25,000; they just looked genuinely happy to be there. A grinning Samson offered a brief "hello" before launching into unexpected opener "Bigfoot!." The 720 miles suddenly became completely insignificant, and I felt like I would have travelled another 7,020 just to be standing were I was. That's the effect the Weakerthans have on me. Their sound was flawless, and the band, who have been touring pretty much non-stop since the release last year of Reunion Tour, were as tight as an air-lock on a NASA space shuttle -- and that's tight! They rattled through classics like "Manifest" and "Our Tired Explorer" along with crowd-pleasers such as "Aside" and "Left and Leaving." I had bumped into Samson before the show at the bar, and I told him I had travelled from Scotland to see them -- he seemed humbled by this, but little did I anticipate that he would then go on to dedicate "Tournament of Hearts" to me, explaining that the song is "about curling" which "was invented in Scotland and Canada at the same time -- but both entirely independent of each other." At this point, one member of the audience, amazed by Samson's sporting knowledge, shouts "you know a lot about curling!" to which he responded "I sure do!" before beginning the song. By now, I just couldn't stop grinning -- to the point that I felt a bit like Joker from Batman (minus the sociopathic, murderous inclinations). And it only got better.
New songs were mixed with old, as we were treated to "Virtue the Cat Explains Her Departure," "Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist" and "Night Windows" -- which was introduced by Samson as "a song about all the dead people in your lives." The band were clearly having fun. I couldn't help but notice that they were constantly smiling at each other and joking on stage -- bassist Greg Smith and drummer Jason Tait were at one point playing a game where Greg would play a discreet run or fill on his bass in the middle of a song, and Jason would grade it good or bad either by giving it the thumb up or thumb down; to do this he would hold a drum stick in his mouth whilst playing with only one hand, using the other to 'grade' with his thumb. We were also treated to a brilliant version of "Elegy for Elsabet," for which Stephen Carroll got out his 'Whirly-wind' -- and that's not a euphemism for something more sinister -- which was visually amazing to watch. During the final song before the encore, "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute," there was another grin-inducing moment as Samson was heckled by the band's soundman/engineer to "play a solo" before the final chorus; he dutifully obliged, before members of the crowd then demanded a "drum solo!" followed by "bass solo!" followed by "other guitar solo!" Each request was comically responded to with a deliberately duff solo, before Samson decided enough was enough, launching back into the song's finale.
The band left the stage to massive applause, with Samson returning moments later on his own to perform the fantastic "One Great City!." The rest of the band then returned to bring the evening to its conclusion with the massive sounding "Without Mythologies" and left the stage all smiles to rapturous applause. Everyone was stoked. I wanted to press rewind and re-live the whole thing again -- it really was that good. I think it would be safe to say that this show made it immediately into my 'top 3 shows ever' list, and I staunchly recommend that if you have the chance, go see the Weakerthans on this tour. You won't regret it.
Here is the set list. It's from memory so it's not exact. I think I've remembered most of the songs that were played; however, the order is probably jumbled. If you were at the show, feel free to correct me!
- Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michael Foucault in Paris, 1961)
- Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call
- Tournament of Hearts
- Relative Surplus Value
- Night Windows
- Reconstruction Site
- Civil Twilight
- Left and Leaving
- Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure
- Sun in an Empty Room
- Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist
- The Reasons
- Elegy for Elsabet
- Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
- One Great City
- Without Mythologies