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: #3 Jenny Lewis – Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

(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.)

Jenny Lewis and her band and a sea of umbrellas at Bluesfest 2014

Artist: Jenny Lewis
When: Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
Where: River Stage at 7:00pm
Context: Another of the pitfalls of outdoor music festivals is inclement weather. Of course, Ottawa in July is particularly fun for the wild weather and it just seems to get more unsettled as the years roll on. I’ve weathered more than a couple storms in the middle of concert crowds, whether during sets or waiting for them to begin. It’s gotten so that dollar store ponchos have become a regular fixture in my pack whenever I head out to a festival. Others bring umbrellas and to them I say: “Leave them at home!” They often blow open and break in strong winds and they block the views of anyone unfortunate enough to be behind you.

But enough of that.

Back on the Tuesday night of the 2014 edition of Bluesfest, the skies opened up, exactly as forecast, and drenched the diehards awaiting the arrival of indie singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis. The rain was such that they delayed of the start of her 7pm set and it just seemed to get worse and worse, until the rain seemed endless and we started to think that the River stage would be washed away, along with our hopes of seeing Jenny Lewis live. She finally did go on at 7:40, leaving only twenty minutes remaining of her originally scheduled set. I stuck it out because I’d been following her since her days with Rilo Kiley and had enjoyed quite a bit of her solo work. And who knew if she’d ever make it back to Ottawa?

Jenny Lewis and her band only performed a total of six songs: a couple of Rilo Kiley tracks, a couple of tracks from her album with the Watson Twins, and the brand new single off her upcoming album, “Just one of the guys” (see full list below). She came out wearing a colourful outfit (similar to that shown on the aforementioned new album cover), playing a rainbow coloured acoustic guitar, and projecting a like mannered disposition. For the final song, “Acid tongue”, her backing band, dressed in whites and blacks, gathered behind her, choir-style to sing backup, while she serenaded us quietly on her acoustic guitar. It was a lovely set and I’m grateful that we got the chance to see her, even though it was only a short performance, but one can’t help wonder what else she would have played had the rain not altered the schedule.

Afterwards, wandering away from the stage, I overheard Lawrence Gowan (!) on one of the main stages cracking a lame joke about double rainbows. I looked up and sure enough, there was a magnificent rainbow that again matched Lewis’s garb and guitar and that seemed to end at the foot of the River Stage on which she had just performed. Coincidence?

Rain parkas and umbrellas
Jenny Lewis
Natalie Prass and Megan McCormick
Jenny Lewis, Macey Taylor, and Joshua Adams
Jenny Lewis and her rainbow guitar
The rainbow ends at the River Stage

Setlist:
Just One of the Guys
Silver Lining (Rilo Kiley song)
Rise Up With Fists!!
You Are What You Love
A Man/Me/Then Jim (Rilo Kiley song)
Acid Tongue

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #2 Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Friday, July 8th, 2016

(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.)

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds live at Bluesfest 2016

Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
When: Friday, July 8th, 2016
Where: City Stage at 9:30pm
Context: One of the problems with multi-stage music festivals is that, invariably, you run into situations where there are multiple artists that you want to see playing at the same time. It’s happened to me more than a few times over the years and I’ve had to make a decision on who I wanted to see more, weighted based on whether I had seen the acts before and the chances that I’d have to see the act again. One of the most grievous scheduling conflicts I ever had to negotiate was on that Friday back in 2016 when I had to leave an incredible set by Swedish singer/songwriter The Tallest Man on Earth only a few songs into it in order to get a good spot to catch Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds.

My wife Victoria joined me that night (as she does on occasion), just as she did the last time I saw Noel Gallagher live, back when he was performing with Oasis at the 2008 V fest on Toronto Island. A few of you might recall how that one turned out. Some drunken, middle-aged hooligan had hidden himself under the stage, climbed up in the middle of the set, and pushed the elder Gallagher brother from behind, cracking a few ribs in the process. After the fracas and some confusion in the crowd, the band came back out and performed a handful of songs but it wasn’t a complete set. So although we can say we saw Oasis live, we always felt like we were cheated, knowing there were songs they could have played but didn’t.

Eight years later, Oasis had of course broken up and Noel Gallagher had at that time put together two solid solo albums with a new band. I’d always thought Noel more talented than his younger brother Liam and though Victoria doesn’t agree, I’ve always felt that he had the better voice. Don’t get me wrong, Liam is a great frontman, but his force is his attitude and confidence, more than his talent. Nonetheless, seeing Noel Gallagher live again was too good a chance to pass up and it wasn’t hard to convince Victoria to join me.

Out of a set of twenty songs, exactly half were songs that Noel wrote during his days with his original band. He dutifully played the hits – “Champagne supernova”, “Wonderwall”, and the perfect closer, “Don’t look back in anger” – to all of which the crowd was pleased to help him with the vocals and he welcomed it, stepping back from the mike while we sang the choruses. What I found really cool, though, is that he also dug deep into the B-sides, playing some of the more popular (“The masterplan”, “Fade away”, “Half the world away”) but also the not-so-popular (“Talk tonight”, “D’yer wanna be a spaceman”). And it wasn’t for any reason more complicated than that those were some of Noel’s favourite Oasis tracks.

The other half of his set was dedicated to the songs he has written with his new band, The High Flying Birds, and these are no less excellent. Tracks from both the self-titled album and the previous year’s, “Chasing yesterday”, were well-represented and though, some in the crowd were less familiar with these songs, they were well-received. And why not? Some of these tunes, like “Ballad of the mighty I” and “AKA… what a life!”, are far better than some of the tunes he wrestled together during his time with Oasis. In the High Flying Birds, Noel is calling the shots. He doesn’t have to contend with his brother’s ego and he has just as fine a backing band. The five-piece were on fire, assaulting us with a wall of guitars and waves of organ, sometimes augmented by a three-piece horn section, and they played straight through to just before 11 o’clock, not bothering with the whole encore charade, opting instead to play as many songs as possible.

About a third of the way through the set, I think it was during “Champagne supernova”, I looked around at the joyful reaction and attentions of the crowd and turned to my wife and said, “Now why would he want to get Oasis back together?” It was pure rock and roll, Noel style.

Noel Gallagher and Russell Pritchard
Tim Smith, Mike Rowe, and Chris Sharrock
Russell Pritchard and the horn section
Noel!!!
Mike Rowe on keys
Noel Gallagher with Russell Pritchard, Chris Sharrock, and Tim Smith
“We love you, Noel!!!”

Setlist:
Everybody’s on the Run
Lock All the Doors
In the Heat of the Moment
Riverman
Fade Away (Oasis song)
The Death of You and Me
You Know We Can’t Go Back
Champagne Supernova (Oasis song)
Ballad of the Mighty I
Talk Tonight (Oasis song)
D’Yer Wanna Be a Spaceman? (Oasis song)
The Mexican
Half the World Away (Oasis song)
Listen Up (Oasis song)
If I Had a Gun…
Digsy’s Dinner (Oasis song)
The Masterplan (Oasis song)
Wonderwall (Oasis song)
AKA… What a Life!
Don’t Look Back in Anger (Oasis song)