Weakerthans should have been stronger

They’re still stronger than you, though.
They’re still stronger than you, though.
Journal File Photo / Andrew Norman

The Weakerthans @ Elixir Nightclub

It would be very difficult, almost inconceivable, for The Weakerthans to play a bad show. Their songs are too well-crafted, their playing is too proficient and their unity onstage is always intact—they are simply too good.

However, while having great songs and playing them deftly will usually make for a good show, it rarely makes for a great one. There are certain intangibles that must be present for a show to be memorable; a certain spontaneous energy must exist to assure the audience this is not just any another night—even though, to the band, it may feel like just that—no, they must perform as if this night is special.

At this show, unfortunately, the songs were great, the set list was well-selected, the room was full, but something was definitely missing. Despite my disappointment, this was by no means a bad show. In fact, it was a good show, but The Weakerthans are too good of a band to simply put on a good show at this point in their career. Fans expect much more. Before The Weakerthans arrived, however, the stage was set by Raising the Fawn and Jim Guthrie.

Sonic Unyon’s Raising the Fawn were up first, led by part-time Broken Social Scenester, John Crossingham on guitars and lead vocals, Scott Remila on bass, and Dylan Green on drums. They played enthusiastically throughout their set and drastically concluded with a mostly instrumental display of beautiful rock chaos. They left the stage sweaty, but adored by the handful of devotees clustered at their feet. Next, was Jim Guthrie, the namesake for Guelph’s wonderful Three Gut Records, and guitarist for one of that label’s flagship bands, Royal City. Guthrie treated the audience to his dreamy, lo-fi pop and charming lyrics.

Despite the understated tone of many of Guthrie’s tunes, his sound was lifted into orchestral dimensions by Hidden Camera-man Owen Pallet’s stunning violin, which dramatically alternated between sweetly melancholy and violently tragic. Also joining Guthrie were fellow Royal Citizen, Simon Osbourne on bass and Evan Clarke of Rockets Red Glare on drums.

Sadly, despite his charm, it seemed that Guthrie’s spacey, basement tunes were better suited for home-listening. Most of his songs merely provided background music to booze-soaked conversations—a misfortune that can, at times, similarly afflict Royal City.

“Comrades,” Weakerthans frontman, John K. Samson, greeted the crowd with typical humility and unassuming smirk, completely belying his position as one of the most literate and gifted songwriters this country has ever seen.

Samson and his fellow Weakerthans, Stephen Carroll on lead guitar, Jason Tait on drums, and Greg Smith, replacing a noticeably absent John Sutton, on bass, took to the stage modestly, without an ounce of pretense, despite the fact the Elixir was jam-packed to see them. Filling a club during Kingston’s summer months is a feat many bands are simply unable to achieve—a testament to the devoted and growing fan base The Weakerthans have built over the years.

The band was joined onstage for the entire show by Dave MacKinnon and Brian Poirier, the masterminds behind Toronto’s experimental twangsters, and former Weakerthans tour mates, The Fembots. Poirier added extra acoustic guitar, tambourine and some backup vocals. MacKinnon noodled on keyboards and the like, adding bits and bites, here and there. The additions filled out the sound nicely, without intruding on any song too much. The set was dominated by the band’s latest releases, 2000’s Left and Leaving and 2003’s Reconstruction Site, with only a couple nods to 1997’s Fallow. Aside from possibly disappointing Fallow purists, the set list was a good mix, properly varied with just enough somber tunes interspersed between bevies of rockers.

The band excited the crowd with fan favourites such as “Aside,” “Watermark” and “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist.”

Sarah Harmer joined the band once again, as she did on their Kingston tour stop last November, to sing alongside Samson in the lovely “Benediction.” Harmer delighted the crowd as well as the band, as her voice danced through Samson’s lonesome lyrics. The band seems to get a real kick out of playing with Kingston’s beloved songstress. This rare opportunity to recreate the recorded version of their duet is perhaps a major reason why Samson and Co. keep coming back.

The band was musically tight as usual, however, Samson’s naturally delicate voice seemed especially fragile on this night. He frequently fell in and out of key, and even adjusted some songs—most notably, the bridge in “Left and Leaving”—to compensate for his uncharacteristic inconsistency.

Returning for an initial encore, which included fan favourites “One Great City,” “This is a Firedoor Never Leave Open,” a revamped “Diagnosis,” as well as the waltzy “My Favourite Chords,” the band certainly went out on a high note.

However, the band returned a second time to deliver the explosive “Exiles Among You.” To be perfectly clear, this was not a bad show. It’s just that The Weakerthans have led their fans to expect more from them. If you had ever seen the band play before, it was unmistakable that a certain energy was absent on this night. It is a curse of their own doing that they have raised the bar so high that good is no longer good enough.

I’m sure this is a curse the band can live with, and one they will also ultimately return to overcome.

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