Best tunes of 2012: #24 John K. Samson “Heart of the continent”

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With apologies to my youngest brother Mike*, I didn’t really get into and start appreciating the songwriting of John K. Samson until somewhere between the time of The Weakerthans’ last record and when they went on the extended hiatus that continues to this day.

It’s not like I didn’t have my chances. I actually saw them live twice. The first time was in 2001, when I hadn’t yet heard of them at all. They were the opening act on a card supporting Billy Bragg and The Lowest of the Low in Toronto, the latter of whom I recall Samson claiming were a huge influence on his own songwriting. The second time I saw them was in 2008 and they played in the afternoon on the second day of Toronto Island’s Virgin Fest. I was much better prepared this time, having brushed up on pretty much all of their records, and even finding a few favourite tunes on these. Yet still, though I enjoyed their set quite a bit, I wasn’t quite as into it as was my friend Mark, though truth be told, his enjoyment might have been enhanced by the bit of cannabis he had partaken in just beforehand.

What really did it for me was a couple years after that second show when I happened to be in Winnipeg around the time of their renowned Folk Festival. One of the sets that I managed to catch there was an afternoon songwriting workshop that included members of Jon And Roy, Works Progress Administration, and Swell Season and which was led by a genial fellow that I thought looked familiar right from the beginning. It turned out that it was local legend and the unofficial poet laureate of Winnipeg, John K. Samson, and of course, the theme that afternoon was on writing about home.

This is something Samson does often. His hometown of Winnipeg and other bits of Canadiana often entered the conversational tone of the lyrics of The Weakerthans’ songs. And there is no good reason why he would change his thinking when he released his debut solo album, “Provincial”, in 2012, which is the host of today’s song, “Heart of the continent”. Indeed, the title of today’s song is Winnipeg’s slogan, which is why many consider it like a sequel of sorts to The Weakerthans’ “One great city”, which was, of course, Winnipeg’s old slogan.

“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says welcome to
(Bienvenue à)
But no sign to show you when you go away“

It’s a lovely tune. Samson’s lyrics take the front seat, his now recognizable voice all soft and wistful, while his fingers brush and pluck away at the strings of an acoustic guitar. It’s like he’s busking on his favourite street corner (perhaps on Memorial), complete with his foot stomping on the kick pedal drum. Little by little, the people passing to and fro join him in the chorus, perhaps there’s another guitar and snare that make their way out from the abandoned building in front of which Samson sings, his hat still empty in front of him.

Yep. With this tune and this album, I became a full fledged Samson fan.

*My youngest brother Mike is a pretty big Weakerthans fan and was behind “One great tribute”, a tribute album to the band that was released last year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2002: #12 Hot Hot Heat “Bandages”

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Through several posts in my Best tunes of 2001 series, I mentioned the beginnings of an indie rock renaissance, one that was intrinsically tied to a garage rock and post-punk revival. This will become a common theme that I have and will likely continue to touch on through this series on my favourite tunes of 2002 and onwards through future series for 2003 and 2004. They say that everything is cyclical. Who ‘they’ are is still a mystery but you can almost see how the indie rockers of the early 2000s were raised on a steady diet of Joy Division and Bauhaus, perhaps not directly, but even through older siblings constantly blasting the tunes on their record players in their bedrooms. But it didn’t stop there. The indie rock scene evolved just as it did the first time, slowly through the dark dredge of post-punk into the jittery freneticism of the new wave.

I remember being fascinated as I started to hear new music that was oh so familiar to me, sounding very much like the music of my youth. One of the first of these, borne of reflections of Elvis Costello and Talking Heads through blurred and foggy mirrors, a young Canadian quartet sported this same restlessness and angsty geek rock. This was Hot Hot Heat.

The band formed in 1999 in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. The best known lineup of Steve Bays, Dustin Hawthorne, Paul Hawley, and Dante DeCaro stabilized in 2000, were signed to SubPop in 2001, and their debut, “Make up the breakdown”, appeared a year after that. The first single to be released was, of course, this synth heavy number called “Bandages”. The drumming and bass line kept a simple beat and the guitars angular and staccato, almost ska-like in feel, while Steve Bays yelped and rasped up nonsense.

“These bandages are anonymity
I’ve been shaking from making an awful decision
I’ve been running and running
Feels like my head is spinning round and round, around, around, around, around, around“

“Bandages” clocked in at 3 minutes and a third but felt only a third that long. It was catchy and danceable and despite all the retro feels, was as fresh as a hot shower and a mint pillow. And man does it leave you breathless. I can only imagine what it did to dancefloors around that time.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #7 The Reverb Syndicate – Saturday, July 11th, 2015

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

The Reverb Syndicate live at Bluesfest 2015

Artist: The Reverb Syndicate
When: Saturday, July 11th, 2015
Where: Canadian Stage at 3:15pm
Context: One of the great things about Ottawa Bluesfest is the focus that organizers place on promoting local talent. It’s a great gig for the bands and artists because they get exposure to crowds that they normally wouldn’t draw and they are able to attend the festival for every day after their own performance. And it’s also great for the audiences who take the time to be treated to inspired performances by local acts. Every year that I have gone to the festival, I have seen some excellent local acts and there are a great many that I could’ve chosen to include in this series. In the end, I went with an afternoon set by surf-rock outfit, The Reverb Syndicate, not just because I work with the drummer of the group and it was super fun seeing someone I knew up on that stage but also because it was like the end of an era for the band.

Over the course of the year leading up to that set, I had seen them live for the first and second time and had purchased their latest album, The Odyssey, on vinyl. The Reverb Syndicate was at that point becoming one of my favourite local bands. As it would turn out, that set at Bluesfest was their last show as a four piece, since guitarist James Rossiter departed for England shortly afterward. I seem to remember that the band acknowledged the occasion at the outset and called for a drink in his honour.

Hours afterwards, I ran into Michael, the aforementioned drummer, milling about in the crowds and he complained about how many errors he had made but from where I was standing in the audience, it was a flawless performance. The Reverb Syndicate were joined on stage by a pair of “go-go dancers”, a nice touch given the genre, and whom, if I remember correctly, were partners of a couple of the band members. These two dancers had their work cut out for them because the one hour set was a lively one, electric, and with barely room for rest.

On top of playing both sides of their newest record, “Odyssey”, which in themselves work out to almost twenty minutes a-piece of tiring madness, the quartet played a handful of upbeat tracks from older albums, plus a cover of a classic Ventures number. There was plenty of sweet guitar work and impressive, spot-on drumming, all accompanied by some incidental bleeps and bloops by an honest to goodness Commodore 64, “not a prop”, but an instrument used frequently on the aforementioned “Odyssey”.

Good times indeed.

Mike Bradford of The Reverb Syndicate
James Rossiter of The Reverb Syndicate
A fuzzy Michael Sheridan with glasses
Lauren Hart and Jeff Welch
Mike Bradford
A clearer Michael Sheridan without glasses
Katie Bonnar, Jeff Welch, and James Rossiter

Setlist: (not available)