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Tunes

Best tunes of 2003: #21 The Weakerthans “One great city!”

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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.

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Live music galleries

Live music galleries: The Strumbellas [2019/2022]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts page.)

The Strumbellas live at CityFolk, 2019

Artist: The Strumbellas
When: September 12th, 2019 and June 24th, 2022
Where: CityFolk Festival, Lansdowne Park and Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, Mooney’s Bay Park, both in Ottawa
Context: I know, I know, two of these ‘Live Music Galleries’ posts in a row (and this one’s a bit different to boot*) but I just couldn’t help myself. I finally got out to see some live music this past weekend, the first in over two and a half years, and in a crazy bit of symmetry, it just so happened that the first headlining act I got to see was also the last one that I saw before the pandemic put a monkey wrench in things. Things have changed somewhat in the years between these live sets by Canadian indie folk collective, The Strumbellas. Their frontman, principal songwriter, and founding member Simon Ward stepped away from touring duties earlier this year and was replaced by Jimmy Chauveau. The rest of the band is still intact, however, and as lively as ever. I actually I think I enjoyed Friday night’s show more than I did when I saw them in 2019 and it’s not just that I lived the realization of how much I missed the rush of live performances, though that was certainly a factor. I actually became more familiar with the band’s catalogue in the intervening years and could easily sing along with all their huge numbers… and sing along loudly I did. Now, I really can’t wait for Bluesfest.
Point of reference song: Spirits

Original lead singer, Simon Ward
New lead singer Jimmy Chauveau
Jon Hembrey, 2019
David Ritter and Darryl James, 2022
Isabel Ritchie, 2019
Dave, then
Dave, now
Jeremy Drury, 2019
Isabel Ritchie and Jimmy Chauveau, 2022
Isabel Ritchie, Jeremy Drury, and Simon Ward
The Strumbellas live at Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, 2022

*This gallery is a mixture of the two different concerts, two a half years separating them. And yes, the older photos are much better. This is because I, myself, was having a hard time standing still enough to take clear photos at this past weekend’s show.

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Tunes

Best tunes of 2012: #1 Of Monsters And Men “Little talks”

<< #2

What is it with Iceland, this tiny island country with a population hovering between 300,000 and 400,000, that keeps producing not just talented, but groundbreaking musicians? Is it something in the volcanic ash or all those dang waterfalls? First, it was The Sugarcubes and Björk in the late 80s, followed by Múm and Sigur Rós in the late 90s, and then, in 2012, Of Monsters And Men were suddenly the darlings of the indie rock world.

The group formed in 2010 when singer/songwriter, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir decided to flesh out her sound with a full band and flesh it out she did. By the time they were signed to Record Records in 2011, they were up to six members and typically added a couple more on stage for good measure when performing live. Their debut album, “My head is an animal”, was actually released in 2011 in their home country but it wasn’t long before they were generating buzz outside the small island’s borders, mostly on the back of the song that is the reason for today’s post. I’ve included “Little talks” as my number one favourite song of 2012 (despite being released the year before) because this is the year it was officially released in North America and just a few months earlier was when I came across them and quickly fell for them.

I actually have work colleague, Jean-Pierre, to thank for turning me on to Of Monsters And Men*. He mentioned their band name one day as we passed each other in the office hallway, as we were wont to do, back when we were actually working in the office. Indeed, we often shared the names of bands and especially, the names of songs to which we were currently listening and typically, name dropped other band names as points of reference. In this case, The Decemberists and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros set off alarm bells in my head so I made a mental note and set about investigating later that night.

As I already hinted above, “Little talks” generated tons of buzz with the indie hipsters, on the net, in blogs everywhere, and on college radio. And with very good reason. “Little talks” is one of the catchiest pieces of pop gemstones that you might ever hear. It definitely benefitted from the surge of interest at the time in indie-folk music, mostly generated by bands like The Decemberists, The Lumineers, and Mumford And Sons. “Little talks” shared some of the qualities of these types of acts (“Hey!”) but the female/male vocal interplay also had me drawing comparisons to The Beautiful South and the varied instruments and big sound was reminiscent of Arcade Fire.

It’s a beautiful, whimsical, and uplifting song. It’s happiness. It’s magical. It’s timeless. It’s love.

“Though the truth may vary
This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore”

Amen.

*Although, given how big they became, I’m pretty certain I may have noticed them eventually.

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