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.

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #4 Rich Aucoin – Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

(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.)

Rich Aucoin live at Bluesfest 2012

Artist: Rich Aucoin
When: Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
Where: Electro Stage at 9:00pm
Context: If you’re ever in the mood for a party, I would definitely recommend seeing Rich Aucoin.

I wasn’t sure what to think while watching him set up the stage beforehand because I had never heard anything about his live shows. His debut album, “We’re all dying to live”, was released the previous year and was so big and bombastic but it looked, based on the set up, like there would only be two people performing. I really didn’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t the all out party that unfolded once things got going.

First, Rich Aucoin came out on stage by himself to thank everyone for coming and then, explained how all of his songs were all meant to be performed against images from “old” movies (some weren’t that old). Hence, the large screen behind him and then, the other two performers, a drummer and a bass player, came out to join him. He started off with a vocal warm up to the 20th Century Fox jingle and encouraged the crowd to join in. In fact, audience participation was practically mandatory throughout. He put up the lyrics of the chorus to each song before performing and ran through them a couple of times to ensure everyone knew the words. He jumped into the crowd to dance with his fans at every opportunity, leaving his band and his keyboards to do the work. At one point, he brought out a parachute and asked the audience to make room so that they could play a game reminiscent of elementary school playgrounds.

Rich Aucoin had the crowd in a dancing frenzy all the way through. The crowd was just as much a part of the performance as those on stage. He finished his uplifting set with “It”, as I figured he would, and then put his personal cell phone number up on the screen for audience members to text him so that he could send them his music. What a wild ride.

‘Congrats on being alive’
‘We’re all dying to live’
‘Ottawa is awesome’s capital’
Rich’s brother, Paul Aucoin on bass
Joel Waddell on the drums
Rich Aucoin dancing the crowd

Setlist: (unfortunately, not available)

Live music galleries: Ottawa Bluesfest 2019, day four – James, Psychedelic Furs, Ashley MacIsaac

(Since I’ll be too busy attending Ottawa Bluesfest over the next week or so to continue with this blog’s regularly scheduled programming, I thought I would do a special ‘live galleries’ series this week to share some pics from some of the sets I am enjoying.)

James concert T-shirt

Artists: James, Psychedelic Furs, and Ashley MacIsaac
When: July 7th, 2019
Where: Lebreton Flats Park, Ottawa

James… in Ottawa!

Some words: When the lineup for this year’s festival was announced months ago, I had to blink and wipe my eyes and do a bunch of double takes: James?!? One of my favourite ever bands, James? Sure enough, it was them and not some other group or artist with the same moniker. Pass purchased.

Those of you who have been following along with these pages for a while will know that I’ve been a fan of the Manchester-based, hit-making alternative rock collective for a while and that they are also one of my wife, Victoria’s all-time favourites. The two of us drove to Montreal to see them in a small club back in 2008 (still one of our favourite ever shows) so the drive downtown from the suburbs was a much quicker trip. James is amazing live and yesterday’s afternoon set was just more proof of that. Their big sound is definitely conducive to the festival concept and frontman Tim Booth is just as engaging with the bigger crowds. Of course, at just an hour it was way too short but they still managed to fit quite a few classics in with their new material, rousing even non-fans with their only hit to cross over to North America: “Laid”. (And as evidenced above, I did buy a concert tee, the first I’ve owned in over a decade.)

Unfortunately, the line Victoria and I picked for food after James’s set was the wrong one. The meal when we finally received it was tasty enough but the purveyors were so disorganized, the close to one hour wait wasn’t worth it. This also meant we listened to almost half of The Psychedelic Furs‘ set from said queue and by the time we were done eating, we were never ever to get very close to the stage for all the young fans that were arriving early for The Killers. The Furs, who are currently touring North America with James, put on a good enough show, playing all their 80s hits and any other songs I would’ve wanted to hear. My wife didn’t think too much of them, though, and didn’t remember any of their stuff.

Afterwards, we navigated through the amassing crowds for a spot to watch the main stage headliners and Victoria wondered when The Killers got so big. We had seen them almost fifteen years before at a tiny club in Ottawa, just before they struck it big and while reminiscing about that, we realized that neither of us were tied to seeing them again. So we extricated ourselves from the masses and headed for the Bluesville stage to catch the side stage headline set by Ashley MacIsaac (yes, that Ashley MacIsaac). We found a seat on the bleachers and enjoyed some crazy celtic folk fusion by the award-winning Cape Breton born fiddler and percussionist Jay Andrews. It was quite the civilized way to end the evening.

Andy Diagram of James
Adrian Oxaal of James
David Baynton-Power of James
Mark Hunter of James
Saul Davies of James
Tim Booth in the crowd
Tim Butler and Amanda Kramer of The Psychedelic Furs
Rich Good and Mars Williams of The Psychedelic Furs
Richard Butler and Paul Gariston of The Psychedelic Furs
Ashley MacIsaac and Jay Andrews
Jay Andrews
Ashley MacIsaac