Swimmers play buoyant set

The Great Lake Swimmers took the stage at Elixir on Jan. 12, playing a well-received set to a moderately-sized crowd.
The Great Lake Swimmers took the stage at Elixir on Jan. 12, playing a well-received set to a moderately-sized crowd.
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Vocalist Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers adds ghostly ambience to the band’s set.
Vocalist Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers adds ghostly ambience to the band’s set.
Photo: 

Concert Review: Great Lake Swimmers w/ Stephanie Leah Gora, Jan. 12 @ Elixir

Though it may seem an unlikely move for a club best known for its popular “Hump Night” on Wednesdays, last Thursday night Elixir made another attempt to establish itself as a viable live music venue with the performance of Great Lake Swimmers and Kingston local Stephanie Leah Gora.

Having already hosted other folksy music acts such as Craig Cardiff, Elixir should have been well prepared to provide an enjoyable experience for everyone who showed up. Unfortunately, sound problems plagued Gora’s opening set, causing an awkward delay to what was already a late beginning for the show. Perhaps waiting as long as possible to maximize audience numbers, Gora did not take the stage until 10:45, at which point a restless crowd all but ignored her.

During her very short set, Gora played a beautiful cover of Damien Rice’s “Delicate” and closed with her own song “Time,” whose melody sticks in your head long after Gora leaves the stage. It’s a shame that her vocals were frequently drowned out by chatting patrons—Gora has a great voice and fine guitar skills, but seems to lack the assertive onstage presence that opening in such a venue requires.

When Great Lake Swimmers finally took the stage the crowd inside Elixir had swelled to a decent size. Opening with a playful cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Cripple Creek,” complete with banjo, the band then moved on to their own particular brand of what lead singer/songwriter Tony Dekker calls “sad and depressing music.” Songs from their new album, including “Let’s Trade Skins” and “I Saw You In the Wild” were well received by the audience, and Dekker’s melancholy voice worked well with Elixir’s space.

Whether it was acoustic guitar, banjo or harmonica accompanying each song, the instrumentation was appropriately muted, allowing Dekker’s voice to remain the real focus. It is easy to understand why Dekker is so often compared to other great ’70s singers like Nick Drake and Gordon Lightfoot, but Dekker carves his own path with Great Lake Swimmers, producing a haunting sound that is all their own. The lyrics from Great Lake Swimmers’ new album are wonderfully simple and heartfelt, whether Dekker is singing about manic-depressive love in “Various Stages” or of finding spirituality in “Song for the Angels.” Audience members sipped wine and beer and nodded appreciatively to each song, especially crowd favourite “Moving Pictures Silent Films” (from the Swimmers’ self-titled debut album), whose heartbreaking refrain silenced the entire room.

What makes Toronto-based Great Lake Swimmers stand out from other alt-folk bands is the wonderful sense of atmosphere they create in the lyrics and instrumentation of each song. The band is famous for having recorded their first album inside an abandoned silo in Southern Ontario and their March 2005 follow-up album “Bodies and Minds” in a lakeside church, with both venues adding echoing emphasis to Dekker’s already ghostly vocals. Though some critics have labelled Great Lake Swimmers’ approach as “gimmicky,” the band’s ability to create a palpable aural atmosphere in a bar like Elixir is proof enough of their skill. While Elixir clearly lacks the romance and acoustics of an old church or grain silo, the sound quality of the band was greatly improved from Gora’s opening, and the audience didn’t seem to mind the occasional light buzzing feedback.

By the time the band neared the end of their set, with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” the mood in the audience was relaxed and jovial despite the somewhat depressing quality of many of the songs’ lyrics. It was clear that nobody at Elixir was there to celebrate Drunk Week, as Dekker had previously suggested, but as the band closed with “Imaginary Bars” from their new album, there was little doubt that everyone was happy right where they were. Elixir is certainly not a traditional venue for folk bands and blues singers, and the bar would do well to permanently correct their frequent sound issues. However, they must be commended for bringing acts like Great Lake Swimmers to Kingston and giving people the opportunity to learn firsthand what all the fuss is about.

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