While many consider the vast, untamed Canadian landscape a hefty source of inspiration, for touring bands this very same terrain can be tough going. The Rolling Tundra Revue saw gritty art-rockers Constantines and the literate folk-punkers Weakerthans travelling over 7,000 kilometres in well under two months. And when the buses pulled into Vancouver, one of the tour’s last stops, it was clear that everyone involved was pretty tired.
The pride of Canadian indie rock were reuniting after the original Rolling Tundra Revue, which took place in 2005. That wildly successful tour captured the Weakerthans at the height of their fame and Constantines on their rapid ascent to the very ranks the Weakerthans inhabited. In contrast, this tour found the Weakerthans treading water, calmly carving their niche as cult, indie heroes after releasing 2007’s fairly well received Reunion Tour. Constantines, on the other hand, are still touring behind Kensington Heights, which the Associated Press proclaimed best rock record of 2008, as well as Too Slow for Love, a recently released EP featuring stripped down versions of older tracks. I only mention these recent releases because in the live environment both bands varied little from the sound they have achieved on record.
Constantines took the stage promptly, though the decision to have them open was questionable at best. Gone was the wild, carefree, and spirited approach to their live set in favour of a terse and poignant take on their tunes. “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song” was caged, yet still a forceful opener, despite lead singer Bry Webb ditching his guitar and adopting a nervous, Michael Stipe-esque stage presence. Constantines showed very early in their set how this Canadian tour had affected them, keeping their heads down and focusing on the task at hand throughout “Hard Feelings”. They turned this swirling track into a stomping punch-up, trading solos and noticeable harmonies for a socialist, all-for-one marching ethos. “We work hard and we want you to know it” was the slogan which the band’s opening slot aimed to broadcast to those in attendance.
They showed their depth when guitarist Steve Lambke took a turn up front; Lambke applied his soft, nasal-heavy voice to “Shower of Stones”, a rising, rhythm-heavy confused take on love. Though the set relied heavily on Kensington there were attempts to highlight their back catalogue, including a swampy “Nightime Anytime” from 2003’s Shine A Light. After witnessing the clouds of smoke that started to appear at the end of Constantines’ set, you could argue that the band was just beginning to warm up as their hour-long set came to an end.
Crafting delicate folk-punk tunes requires a balance of paying homage to one’s surroundings and, in turn, influencing the world around you. Evidence of this can be found in the Weakerthans’ records, which are laden with a permanent state of wonder and an obsession with escaping. But if you were a music fan who enjoys seeing a band attempting to escape their “studio sound” then tonight was not your night.
Over the course of an hour and a half set, the band seemingly exhausted every tune they’ve ever written. It was appeasing, but it also felt like the band was attempting to stuff too many thoughtful lyrics down the collective gullet of the Commodore. “Sun in an Empty Room”, an aptly named, soft-stepping smile-fest, had infinite possibilities to grow onstage after no doubt being played night after night. Instead, lead singer John K. Samson rushed through beautiful couplets such as, “Hands that we nearly hold with pennies for the GST / The shoulders we lean our shoulders into on the subway, mutter an apology.”
Travelling upwards of 10 hours through Canada’s untameable climates would render even the most hardened traveller slightly weaker than when they started. For rock and roll bands north of the 49th parallel, this is a way of life. It’s impossible to find fault in both bands for likely exercising their bravery earlier in the tour and treading on comfortable ground as the dates wore on. Constantines sounded tight and focused yet unwilling to really let their hair down. The Weakerthans sounded as pleasing as they do on their records, but nothing more—proof, perhaps, that the vast Canadian landscape can be as tiring as it is inspiring.