Dec. 2, 2011
Better than: Listening to the Weakerthans alone in your room while drinking a whole bottle of wine.
For die-hard Weakerthans fans, the concept of a four-night run wherein the band plays each of their four studio albums in chronological order, straight through, is a fever dream. It's personal, and designed for the obsessed: a chance to relish each keyboard riff, each deliciously melancholy lyric, just as you've memorized them. Depending on how long you've been following Winnipeg's unsung heroes, you might have doodled those lyrics in your binder in high school algebra. It's fair to hypothesize that there were very few casual Weakerthans listeners at the Independent during the Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 run.
But in reality, for this typical fan, there's a caveat to these kinds of shows: Looking around, you're forced to admit that John K. Samson -- with his lopsided smirk and his freakish ability to make you feel like even the dumbest things in life are incredibly sweet and weighty and meaningful -- is not actually singing specifically about, nor for, you.
Friday's show, designated for the Weakerthans' third album, 2003's twang and steel pedal-heavy Reconstruction Site, saw a sold-out room full of people who seemed both a) blissed out to be singing every single one of Samson's meandering lines right back at him for two hours straight, and b) vaguely uneasy that there were so many other people who knew them all, too.
The cumulative effect felt something like a call-and-response at some kind of religious gathering, only instead of "amen" we were all trying to out-shout each other on lines like "Buy me a shiny new machine that runs on lies and gasoline/ And all those batteries we stole from smoke alarms," and then looking around sheepishly to see if anyone else had that same idiotic grin plastered on their face. Everyone did.
The band, playing as a five-piece for this tour, sounded reasonably tight, with a few exceptions. The lilting slide guitar on the title track and on "A New Name for Everything," the album's most triumphant moments, threatened to uplift everyone for days to come. Sure, they dropped a verse on "Our Retired Explorer," but very few people seemed to mind -- especially not the one guy near the front row who seemed to be fist-pumping at that song's mention of Derrida. For a band whose genius often lies in nerdy, nostalgic, misanthropic and/or plainly depressive writing about breakups, aging, alienation, and illness, exuberance was in no short supply.
"I spent some time with Occupy SF today," said a downright jolly Samson at one point, to a massive cheer from the audience. Later he gave a shout-out to a local curling club and was met with an identical response. This, not long before launching into the second of three sonnets about death and hospitals that make up of the framework of the album. Here is a guy who has written two songs from the point of view of a cat, and still manages somehow to not be cloying. He's a poet. It's getting harder these days to remember that he was ever a punk kid jumping around the stage during anarchist battle cries with Propagandhi, which is kind of sad, but he's arguably at his best almost 20 years later.
They closed with a few singles from all four albums, including "Night Windows," a lullaby that lets bassist Greg Smith (who was, by far, the danciest of the bunch) shine. But the night's high point came earlier, when they brought a young audience member named Max up during "Wellington's Wednesdays" to play a solo. He killed it, and no one onstage could stop smiling.
Neither could Max, who appeared to be getting hugged by approximately 30 friends at once on the street following the show. He seemed like one of the die-hards, and it's safe to assume that -- like a good portion of the crowd -- he would be back the next night, ready for a very personal show in a room holding 500 people.
Quote of the night: "Tonight's going great, right? Not the singing so much, but the playing." - John K. Samson
My plus-one's observation: Walter, the new Muppet in the new Muppet movie, bears an uncanny resemblance to John K. Samson.
Personal bias: John K. Samson.