[14 June 2010]
The Weakerthans’ 13th year has proven to be a lucky one, highlighted by their best-ever record sales and highest international profile to date. Founded in 1997 after frontman John K. Samson vacated his bass position in the populist shred-punk franchise Propagandhi, Samson coalesced the Weakerthans around the rhythm section of John Sutton and Jason Tait later that year.
Samson had previously shown a penchant for fare lighter than Propaghandi purveyed, releasing a solo cassette called Slips and Tangles and re-releasing five of the tracks in 1995 on a split release with fellow Canadians Painted Thin. The nascent Weakerthans released Fallow on the Propaghandi-run G7 Welcoming Committee label in late ‘97. Featuring two tracks that Samson had written for his previous group, Fallow proved to be a much more introspective proposition. Change of venue aside, populist sentiments were still paramount. Run by Propagandhi, G7 Welcoming Committee is driven by a desire to foster social change and radical thought, with all artists on the label donating a percentage of their royalties to local non-profits. Much of the Weakerthans’ canon is inspired by the rampant changes and development that has taken place in their home town of Winnipeg, but an equal amount are masterful snapshots of life, love, and loss. This duality has garnered the Weakerthans a devoted audience both home and abroad.
Adding ex-Painted Thin guitarist Steven Carroll (who had guested on Fallow) to the fold, the Weakerthans released their second record, Left and Leaving, in the summer of 2000. Cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, it showed the band taking full sonic advantage of the expanded lineup, incorporating bowed saw and plastic tubes to the tracks for textural subtlety. Canada fell hard, nominating the record for a Juno as Alternative Record of the Year the following year and later lauding it as the 6th best Alternative Canadian Record of all time in 2005. The buzz prompted a somewhat surprising move to Epitaph for their next release, Reconstruction Day. The heightened Stateside presence paid off, and the record’s thematic trinity of grief, regret and loss was met with much critical and fan adulation—enough that the Weakerthans moved to the arguably more prestigious Anti- arm of Epitaph for their next release.
Reunion Tour saw the band experimenting further with their sound. Greg Smith joined the band on bass and the band expanded live to incorporate Christine Fellows on keys and backing vocals. Fellows is well known on the folk circuit in Canada, and also happens to be Samson’s wife. Another coup was drafting multi-instrumentalist Dave Bryson into the fold. A huge talent with three solo records to his credit, as well as a regular supporting gig in the Kathleen Edwards band, his addition galvinized an already formidable live band. Expanding even further to include violin and horns, the band toured heavily behind Reunion Tour and scored a number one hit in Canada with “Civil Twilight”, a song that also tied for the longest run at #1 on the CBC3 radio charts and was eventually voted the #1 song of 2007.
“Civil Twilight” appears on Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre alongside 17 other chestnuts from the Weakerthans’ repertoire. Rocking a hometown crowd on the Reunion tour, the band brings their ‘A’ game with a set heavy on the latter half of their output—to a fault, longtime fans might argue. I understand which label is releasing the set, but I will get on my high horse and argue that the absence of “Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist” is a glaring one. Despite being short on early material, the CD/DVD set captures the expanded line-up in fine form. Bryson is absent, with Rusty Matyas more than holding his own, aided and abetted by Fellows and multi-instrumentalist Julie Penner.
While not unpleasant to look at, the Weakerthans are something of a sedate proposition on stage, save for Carroll and his propensity for proffering his guitar skyward to the gods of rock. The camera work often seems to overcompensate with jumpy video cuts as a result, which gets a little taxing at times. But that niggle aside, Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre is an engaging proposition whether you are an old fan or a newcomer.