Forgive me for taking so long to write this post; I've been suffering from a bad case of malaise since I saw the Weakerthans show on Friday night. My heart has been ground into paste and my eyes are sunken into my head. I feel like I witnessed the death of something pure.
Having scored some great seats--upper gallery, left side of the stage, right beside the Bose speakers--my pals and I were expecting a tour de force. Although we hadn't heard the two opening bands before, I was hoping that the mystical ability of John K. Samson would inspire the openers to do something magical. First up were a band from Winnipeg. The lead singer was very chatty and explained that he got the gig because he grew up with the Weakerthans. Tragically, the Paperbacks turned out to be a rehashed Sum 41/Dashboard Confessional purveyor of pop-punkisms. As the lead singer hopped around like a one-legged penguin, my friend Gen kept repeating "these guys suck." Although I wasn't ready to condemn them quite yet, it was only a matter of time.
Although their tunes are pleasant, the Paperbacks lack the heart and soul to be real punks. Instead, we have a singer who croons about how no girls love him, a bass player who thinks that he's in Limp Bizkit, a lead guitarist who hides in the background and tries his best to remain stoic while the ship is sinking, and a pretty good drummer. Yes, the man on the skins was the only one in the band who belonged up there; he actually looked like he had something to prove, bellowing into his microphone while keeping the beat, and that is the one saving grace of the Paperbacks.
When your drummer overshadows the rest of your band, it is time to start thinking about going into the insurance business. Another option for these guys is to give up the punk pretense and stick to soft rock, or perhaps start a record label and give their equipment to the first band they sign.
Next up was the local band Trailer. "Don't worry," I told Gen, "I'm sure these guys are going to rock." She nodded and sipped her Boreale Blonde. I could see the doubt in her eyes. According to the Pop Montreal site, Trailer play "(a) perfect mix of blues sensitivity and pop bliss." They sounded more confident than the opening act and their instrumentation was more diverse. Not unlike Wilco at some points, I must say that their countrified psychadelia was very well received by the crowd and I was digging their sound.
At one point, the violin player sat down at the piano and her voice reminded me of Ani DiFranco or possibly Tori Amos. Although their songs began to blend together into a seamless whole, I was fairly happy with their set, at least until the bizarre ode to Jesus and his saving graces in the last song (which was good but made my skin crawl--I don't respond well to preaching, unless it is from the Violent Femmes).
Then, the Weakerthans took the stage. The place was full by now and the crowd was elated, applauding wildly. I sat on the edge of my seat and waited for rain. I'm still waiting.
Before the show, I was ranting to Gen and Nick about how John K. Samson is a true poet. "He is the second coming of Leonard Cohen," I told them. I was ready to deify the poor guy. To their mutual annoyance, I rambled on and on about the way "Elegy for Elsabet" made me cry the first time I heard it. With a build-up like that, it is no small wonder that we were all let down.
John K. was chewing gum flippantly and playing as if he had punched a clock. I clenched my teeth and hoped that this was just a stumble. "They're just warming up," I thought. The first few songs were fast and hard but something was missing. The Weakerthans sound so humble and brave on their albums that I expected to hear something wonderful and anthemic at their live show. Instead, I had speedy pop-punkisms and a couple of older songs thrown in to pacify the rowdy fans in the back who didn't want to hear the new material.
"Aside" sounded fairly good but it didn't colour outside any lines. It was a connect-the-dots hit song, played efficiently like a German symphony, but without any chutzpah or joy. I flailed my head wildly, hoping that this song would be the beginning of a raucous second half of the set. Instead, it was the high-water mark of the show, and everything dribbled downhill from there.
Although I stayed for both encores, I felt a deep sense of loss by the end of the night. The shrine I had built to the Weakerthans in my head had been smashed by barbarian invaders. Live, they underwhelmed me. They're not hungry anymore. Sampson seemed bored and closed up on stage. Although his bandmates trudged on through the songs, he didn't seem to show any signs of joy, except maybe during the encores. Secretly, I wished that I had gone to the Unicorns show instead. It isn't enough to play your songs; you have to display them with passion, or pride, or something, anything except ho-hum consistency. The fact that I was sober was even more damning, because I didn't have the artificial flavouring of drunkeness to camouflage the awful taste in my mouth.
Maybe this was only an aberration; perhaps Samson was just having a rough night. Still, I have this sinking feeling that I should have seen them when they weren't famous, when they weren't getting stunning reviews in Exclaim; I can't go back in time but I wish I could. On Friday night, one of my favourite bands was stolen from me and replaced with a cynical, loveless group of imposters, incapable of changing the world. I expected more from the Weakerthans and that is why I got burned. I think I'm going to drink a bottle of whiskey now.