Photo credit: Kelly Miller
There are bands that I like. There are bands that I really like. Then there are bands that just plain make me want to jump up and down. These bands, when I see them play or listen to their records, give me that burning feeling in the put of my belly that equates to “maybe the world’s an OK place after all if people can make music like this.” The Weakerthans, if you hadn’t already guessed, are one of the latter bands. John K. Samson’s songs have that rare combination of extraordinary lyrical acuity and huge, memorable hooks to drive the words home, that, in total, make his music virtually impossible to ignore. He’s certainly come a long way from being the bassist to Propagandhi, that’s for damn sure.
4 May 2002: The Crocodile Cafe Seattle, Washington
Certainly, someone hearing the Weakerthans’ poppy, thoughtful rock and Propaghandhi’s speedy, pissed-off politico-punk for the first time would be hard-pressed to draw any connection between the two. On closer examination, however, it becomes apparent what’s happened. Propagandhi wear their politics on their sleeves, spending most of their time ranting in exquisitely pissed-off punk rock fashion about the wrongs of the world. With the Weakerthans, Samson has internalized these politics, and combined them with personal and geographic images to create something approaching a unified whole. He has ditched the punk posturing in favor of a sturdy post-punk sensibility mixed with a good dose of prairie roots. The band runs the gamut from full-fledged rockers like “Diagnosis” and “Aside”, to slower and longer, but no less intense pieces such as “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” and “Exiles Among You”, to exquisitely languid ballads, like “Elegy for Elisabet” and “Slips and Tangles”.
Live, the band exhibits all of these qualities, sometimes simultaneously. They open their set with the title song to their last LP, the sublime Left and Leaving. The song is a slow, considered statement of purpose—an explanation of how emotions are sometimes inextricably intertwined with places. “The city is still breathing, but barely it’s true/ Through buildings gone missing like teeth/ The sidewalks are watching me think about you/ All sparkled with broken glass.” The utterly disarming, plainspoken way that Samson phrases things has a way of making his insights all the more startling.
Without missing a beat, the band then tears into “Aside”, bumping up the tempo a few notches from the recorded version, and generally bringing the roof down. “And I’m leaning on this broken fence/ Between past and present tense/ And I’m losing all those stupid games/ That I swore I’d never play/ And it almost feels OK,” sings Samson, his voice simultaneously vulnerable and confident. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, Samson’s voice. It’s one of those infinitely expressive things that virtually defines the word “poignant.” If he’s seldom ever outright declamatory with his singing, he nonetheless gets his point across in a most effective fashion.
Songs like “Letter of Resignation” and “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” were storming, with Samson anchoring the band as Carroll and bassist John Sutton cavorted across the stage. The slower songs found the band digging in deep, Samson’s voice as expressive and emotional as anything ever was. There was never a dull moment—the band knew well enough to not overdo it on the slow songs, and mixed it up with faster tunes to prevent things from getting too sleepy.
In addition to choice selections from their existing two LPs, the band also debuted some stellar new material this evening (culled from a record that, according to guitarist John Sutton, came out last week, although they didn’t have any for sale, and there’s no mention of a new LP on the band’s website…hmm…). Although there were a few rocked-up-ravers in the roll call of new material, the majority of it was of a kin with the slower, more languid material from the first two records. The difference was that these songs found the band easing into their slower, more songwriter-ly material with more grace than they have previously. Not that any of these songs have necessarily been clumsy, but there have been times on a Weakerthans record (and I’m thinking of the second half of Left and Leaving here) when you wished there was just one more peppy rock song to balance out the slow, melancholy tunes. However, the new songs that the band played sounded like they would be right at home anywhere they chose to stick them on a record.
The Weakerthans are simply one of the best bands out there who are still beating the stuffing out of the old indie rock horse. Their music proves that there is simply nothing that substitutes for the inherent beauty of the human voice. Singing one’s heart out will always touch a chord that no quantity of fancy electronics will ever be able to reproduce. The Weakerthans channel this knowledge into every facet of their music. It’s honest, smart, moving, and beautiful—and it gives you that burning feeling in the pit of your belly. Maybe the world’s an OK place after all of people can make music like this.