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“And up above us all, leaning into sky
A golden business boy will watch the North End die
And sing I love this town
Then let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim
I hate Winnipeg”
The last time I was in Winnipeg was in 2010. It was my third visit to the central Canadian town but the first time for pleasure. My wife and I went there to visit friends of ours who we had met in Ottawa but who had moved back home a few years prior. It just so happened that our visit coincided with the annual folk festival held in Birds Hill Provincial Park, just outside of the city, and it didn’t take much to convince our friends to bring us out to experience it.
We attended two afternoon songwriting showcase workshops, one of which was on ‘writing about home’, featured the likes of Jon and Roy and The Swell season, and was led by Winnipeg’s unofficial poet laureate and Weakerthans frontman, John K. Samson. The festival organizers couldn’t have picked a better moderator for such a topic, given The Weakerthans’ penchant and talent for highlighting the best and the worst of life in Canada, especially from their particular section of it.
“One great city!”, track number ten on the group’s third full-length album, “Reconstruction site”, is a prime example. The title is taken from Winnipeg’s former town motto and this, set against the song refrain of “I hate Winnipeg”, belies a certain love/hate relationship that Samson, and likely, most of the city’s residents, have with the place that they live. The instrumentation is simple enough. The sound of two sets of hands plucking away at two acoustic guitars, the pacing even and insistent. They share the space equally with Samson’s vocals, instantly recognizable as Canadian, sounding like a cross between Neil Young and Gord Downey.
But that’s not to say Samson is not his own man. Indeed, it’s his songwriting and lyricism that has won over so many hearts to the Weakerthans’ cause. His three minute portrait is shown through the spotted and smudged glasses of a dollar store clerk and the grimy windshield of a city bus and its driver. It is echoed in the stomping feet of commuters in the underpass. It invokes the storied name of long broken up bands and folded NHL teams (though this latter has since returned) and the wistful and beautiful sadness of historic buildings abandoned and boarded up. It is a rom/com in the absurdist vein of Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman. It is a faded and creased polaroid in the pocket of both Winnipeggers that long for home and those who have never been there but hear in Samson’s words stories of their own hometown.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2003 list, click here.