April 11th, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio

Psychedelic Bands Blowing Minds & Rockin’ Out at Brooklyn’s Bell House

Rishi DhirI had fun Wednesday night at a live rock show with three self-described psychedelic bands, one of whose music, Montreal’s Elephant Stone, I already knew well and whom I had written about last year. The other two groups–Allah-las from Los Angeles, and The Black Angels from Austin–also on the bill, were new to me. I was probably the only fan in the house who was more familiar with Elephant Stone than the others. Still, I was glad to see many in the crowd had arrived early enough to hear the opening act. Beforehand, I chatted with a couple who didn’t know anything about Elephant Stone, and said to them that they sound like “the Byrds with an Indian influence.” For his part, frontman Rishi Dhir has playfully dubbed their sound ‘Hindi rock.’ The quartet’s mind-blowing sound collage is driven by bright and jangly twelve-string guitar, sitar, and thumping bass, the latter two instruments played by Dhir (pictured at the left). They’ve recently released a new self-titled album (shown at right), released by Hidden Pony Records, a label that also features the great band, Rah Rah, another favorite act of mine. Elephant Stone lp

I’m pasting in a video below of Elephant Stone playing the Osheaga festival live in 2011. Some of their personnel have changed since then, but this video is still a good indication of what they’re like to hear live. The sitar kicks in at around 4:30 of the seven-minute clip.

I enjoyed hearing Allah-Las and The Black Angels for the first time, but the real highlight of the night for me was listening to Elephant Stone once again. Dhir bantered from the stage about how pleased he was that local radio station WFMU is playing songs from their new album, so I’m hopeful that over the past week–when Elephant Stone played a total of three live dates at NYC venues–they will have gained a much larger audience for their dynamic sound.

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October 23rd, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio; Urban Life & New York City

CMJ Music Marathon–a Treat for Devoteés of Live Music

For the second year in a row I attended a bunch of live rock shows during the annual CMJ Music Marathon, Oct. 16-20, going to hear live music at a handful of different Lower East Side venues.

Wednesday night, for the showcase mounted by Canadian Blast at Arlene’s Grocery, I heard Two Hours Traffic from Prince Edward Island, a place that produces great musicians, belying its status as Canada’s smallest province. This 4-piece played an infectious chord-driven guitar rock with bright pop vocals by frontman Liam Corcoran, who looked like he could be the brother of actor Toby Maguire. Next up was Elephant Stone, an exciting psychedelic quartet from Montreal with Rishi Dhir’s thumping bass and sitar at the center of their often mind-blowing sound collage. They’re about to release a new self-titled album, their third, on Hidden Pony Records. Foam Lake of Saskatoon played next, leading off with “True Hearts,” which has a rousing chorus I recognized from hearing it on CBC Radio 3, the hub of indie rock in Canada. Later, in front of Arlene’s, on Stanton Street, I met a musician I recognized from earlier as Two Hours Traffic’s bassist. Nathan Gill’s his name. Late though it was, he was planning to be up in a few hours for a morning for a flight to Nova Scotia, where he’d be playing the Halifax Pop Explosion with another band of which he’s a member.

Thanks to Cara Wodnicki of BMF Media Group, who accommodated me and the guest I’d invited to join me this night, Torontonian Peter Evans, CEO of Speakerfile, the company I consult for that connects conference organizers with authors and other experts who do public speaking. Like me, Peter really enjoyed Two Hours Traffic’s efficient, tuneful set.

Before closing out my Canadian Blast evening, I also ran into members of Rah Rah, a band I have blogged about before, and of which I’m a big fan. They weren’t performing on this bill, but would be playing four times over the next few days, including Thursday evening at Bowery Electric, a gig I would be attending, not far from where legendary punk venue CBGB’s operated until 2006. Rah Rah’s new album, “The Poet’s Dead” has just been released and it’s terrific, with a great lead song, “Art and a Wife.” I recommend you listen to it at their website. It’s one of their best set of lyrics yet, striking themes about what a maturing artist wants from life and music. Rah Rah played a pleasantly raucous and spontaneous live show in the basement room at Bowery Electric, with players swapping instruments with one another, and grabbing drum sticks to make percussion sounds on any available hard surface, from amp cases to brick walls. The anarchic vibe encompassed Rah Rah’s Jeffrey Romanyk, who alternated between acoustic guitar on some songs, and drums on others–he weathered a broken string on one song and a toppling drum kit on another. But no mishap could snap the spell of the band’s great performance, with its fun, uninhibited vibe. The finale included inflated mylar letters spelling out R-A-H, bouncing over the heads of the audience, and an exploding confetti cannon. Low-tech fun. Afterward, I spent time visiting with Romanyk, as well as his bandmate Leif Thorsen, and Leif’s wife, photographic scholar, Alison Dean. Out in front of the club, lead singer Marshall Burns showed me their big touring van, with its Saskatchewan license plates, and huge lock on the back door protecting their instruments and equipment from thieves, a potential bane for all touring bands.

Friday offered a rare afternoon opportunity to hear live music, like a day baseball game. A showcase from noon-6 at Pianos on Ludlow Street was put on by music marketing and radio promotion outfit Planetary Group, featuring shows by Hot Panda and The Orwells, as well as Australian bands Sun Cisco and Twerps, and again, Elephant Stone and Rah Rah. Just as Rah Rah was sliding into place on Pianos’ raised stage, a friendly fellow sat on the stool next to me. This was Wilson Lemieux, who works as music director at KWTS radio station in Canyon, Texas. They have “Art and a Wife” in heavy rotation, he told me, but he’d never heard them live, until today. I assured him he was in for a treat. It was great hearing Rah Rah again, as they played a largely different set of songs than the night before. During this relaxed afternoon I met Planetary Group’s Greg Khaikin and Oscar Zubia, and their boss, Chris, all very welcoming and articulate about the bands they were promoting. During a break between sets I had a chance for pleasant chats with Hidden Pony’s Mike Renaud, his wife Natasha, and Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir, and bandmates Gabriel, Steven, and Miles, nice guys all. It’s always fun talking with Canadians in NYC, who are so appreciative of Gotham’s charms. Out on the sidewalk dodging the cigarette smoke, I also met the members of Kiven, a 4-piece outfit from Los Angeles whose music I’m now eager to hear via their bandcamp page.

I really enjoy music from the rich francophone scene in Quebec, so I was excited that the last showcase of Friday, back at Arlene’s Grocery, was to be put on by M for Montreal, hosted by their ebullient programming director, Mikey Rishwain Bernard. Before the music got underway, he invited us to enjoy a dish of poutine, the Quebecois speciality of french fries, gravy, and melted cheese curds. It really hit the spot at that point in the late afternoon–hot, salty, and savory, a mix of smooth and crunchy textures. Mikey, who I heard do the same MC duties last year, introduced each band briefly, a small but key act of curation that I really appreciate even though it’s become infrequent these days, with acts just appearing on stage unannounced. (I don’t think this nonchalance is good for indie music, and I’ll have more to say about it in a post I’m preparing.) First up was dynamic female artist, Ariane Moffat, who fronts her band singing in French and English, playing keys, and beating on a stand-up drum. Moffat’s music featured intense vocals, on such songs as “Walls of the World,” amid a swirl of electro-pop that was easy to like on first hearing. Next, Mikey introduced Senegalese-born singer and guitarist Karim Ouellet, now living in Quebec City, who formed a tight duo with his drummer. I was glad to discover Ouellet and listen to his music for the first time.

While the stage was being re-set for Plaster, a trio from Montreal, I met some great folks in the audience, most of whom work in music, also in Montreal. These were Kelly Belfo, world music director, and Brian Joseph, program director, at radio station CJLO 1690 AM, at Concordia University; Julien Bindar, in charge of licensing for Editions Avalanche/Sound Publishing; Etienne Roy, coordinator of web radio for AudioGram, an outfit that works with Ariane Moffat and Peter Peter, a solo francophone artist I enjoyed at M for Montreal’s CMJ showcase last year; and Jonas Edvinsson, a publicist also working with Moffat.

One of the bands I had hoped to hear during CMJ was Bend Sinister, but I somehow missed their shows. Fortuitously, while in the Arlene’s Grocery basement, waiting to use the men’s room, I fell into conversation with a fellow who introduced himself as a member of Bend Sinister. This was keyboardist Dan Moxon. I told him about The Great Gray Bridge and he handed me a card with their web info and a complimentary download so I can listen to their latest album “Small Fame.” When I got back upstairs, Plaster had just hit the stage. I was impressed by this keyboard-heavy instrumental trio. They played a propulsive, head-banging electronica. Looking at the lead keyboard player’s rig, and taking a picture of it, I was struck by how technologically savvy some musicians have to be nowadays. Mikey next introduced Royal Canoe, a six-piece whose catchy song “Kasparov” I always enjoy hearing on CBC Radio 3. They didn’t play the hit on this night, sticking with more recent repertoire, which wove a cool wall of sound around the attentive audience.

I was glad to see that the New York Times covered CMJ throughout last week, and again in this wrap-up yesterday. Below is a selection of photos I took at all of the CMJ shows I attended last week. I look forward to more of the CMJ Music Marathon next year.

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August 14th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Jeremy Fisher, True Troubador

Jeremy Fisher isn’t a big person, but the singer-songwriter sure makes a big sound. It’d be hard to imagine more music coming from any other solo player. Along with his voice, his primary instrument is a weathered Gibson LG-2 guitar from which he punches out a great, full sound. His bright singing voice offers a lot of welcome contrast with that percussive Gibson, since I suspect it falls somewhere between the tenor and alto range. The lyrics he sings are deeply felt declarations that carry a personal, even existential quality.

I highly recommend all of Jeremy’s music, and particularly, his latest album, “Mint Juleps,”  a recording with five originals written by Jeremy and  covers of seven songs by such artists as Gordon Lightfoot, John Hiatt, and Greg Brown. Fisher makes each song his own in such a way that until I studied the album sleeve, I wasn’t sure which songs were his and which were the covers. “Spin, Spin, Spin” is a rare Gordon Lightfoot song, in that it hasn’t been sung by lots of other artists already. In a recent phone interview, Jeremy told me that was one of the reasons he chose it for the record. He said he wanted songs to which he knew he could add something new. That is certainly the case with Greg Brown’s ode to the bounty of summer, “Canned Goods,” about the pickles, tomatoes, and fruits his dear grandma put up for canning when he was a boy.

One of the highlights of attending the North by Northeast (NXNE) festival in Toronto in June was finally hearing Jeremy perform live. I had heard him on CBC Radio 3 many times, enjoying such songs as “Shine a Little Light” and “Jolene” (not Dolly Parton’s song of the same name) but I was unprepared for how bright, funny, and charismatic he is as a live performer. That week I heard him play at the Dakota Tavern showcase** hosted by his label Hidden Pony, and at the picnic hosted by CBC Radio 3 host and author Grant Lawrence, where I took this outdoor photo.

The title of the new album is not meant to remind listeners of the Kentucky Derby, or anything about America’s Old South. This Canadian composer wanted to evoke lazy summer days, or as he told me, “the kind of record I’d like to listen to while making brunch on a Sunday morning, or having a drink on a Friday afternoon.” He said he’s been playing other people’s songs ever since he started joining bands as a kid, playing songs by Canadian super-groups Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. and later Beatles and Motown covers. They were the “starting point” for him as a songwriter. For the new album he played solo versions of the songs he’d decided to record and emailed the sound files to the musicians he’d asked to accompany him. This group included such standout Canadian musicians as Joey Wright, whose 2011 album “Hatch” I enjoy a lot. Adding a nice tough here, Wright plays guitar, mandolin, and tenor guitar. Based on his rough work-up, Jeremy told his musical recruits, “this is the feel I want, but I want fresh ideas every take. . . . I wanted the personalities of the players to shine through.”

The new album was engineered my Mark Ouimet, who also plays percussion and sings on several numbers. Among many favorite songs on the album, I’m especially enjoying “If It’s Alright With You,’ written by Gene MacClellan, which sports a great harmonica riff played by Jeremy himself. Listening to Jeremy Fisher’s latest recording of his favorite songs during this sweltering summer of 2012 one is left with an unmistakable impression of hearing a latter day Buddy Holly, a forgotten sibling to the Everly Brothers, or maybe Paul Simon. Even with all those classic rock and pop associations, which are not a stretch, Jeremy’s an original talent with a great feel for song–I recommend you listen to him for yourself.

**That Dakota showcase where I heard Jeremy Fisher also featured Erin Passmore, the Danks, Elephant Stone, and Rah Rah, each also clients of Hidden Pony. All five acts–including Jeremy who followed Erin–played great that night. Click here to view 15 of the photos I took during the showcase.


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June 16th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Coming up–Day 4 in Toronto at NXNE

Evening update: The unofficial Radio 3 picnic this afternoon was a blast. Grant Lawrence arranged for a fabulous group of musicians to play in the leafy setting of Trinity-Bellwoods Park. We were treated to three-song sets by Portage & Main; Emperor of the North; Jeremy Fisher; Ian Foster; and The Matinee. Close to 100 people showed up for the bucolic blend of music, food, and conversation. Afterward, I walked with R3 friend Matt to hear Kathleen Edwards play an outdoor set as part of the Luminato Festival. She and her terrific band played a great set as fans swayed under the hot sun. Edwards gave a shout-out to all the great culture in Toronto this weekend, and said she’s going later tonight to listen to Richard Ford talk about his new novel, Canada, which I have loved reading.

In a few minutes I’ll be off to the night’s activities–the CBC Radio 3 showcase at the Horseshoe Tavern, with Yukon Blonde playing. Later, I’ll head over to Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street for Matt Mays and his band El Torpedo.

Following on yesterday’s tour of CBC HQs and the fabulous showcase featuring Hidden Pony musicians at the Dakota Tavern, with Erin Passmore, Jeremy Fisher, the Danks, Elephant Stone, and Rah Rah, Saturday promises to be another great day of music and friends.

At noon we have a CBC Radio 3 picnic in Toronto’s leafy Trinity-Bellwoods Park, coordinated by R3 host and author Grant Lawrence, with what I’m sure will be great guest musicians. Also this afternoon is a free outdoor concert with Dan Mangan and Kathleen Edwards, as part of the city’s Luminato festival. Tonight will be the NXNE CBC Radio 3 showcase at the Horseshoe Tavern including Yukon Blonde, Also tonight is a personal fave, Matt Mays with his band El Torpedo at Lee’s Palace. It’s going to be a great day!

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June 15th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Friday in Toronto–Speakerfile and Day 3 of NXNE

I began today by taking the Toronto subway crosstown from my hotel over to Yonge and College Streets where my new client Speakerfile has their office in a handsome old brick building that used to be an Odd Fellows Hall (who were those odd guys, anyway?). I met several people I’d been working on the phone since I began working with Speakerfile last month; it was good to put faces to names.

CEO Peter Evans had asked me to speak to his colleagues a bit about how Speakerfile can answer a need in the wider author/publisher space, so I explained that in an age of diminished shelf space in brick & mortar bookstores, and less print space for traditional book reviews, the discovery of new books by the reading and consuming public is among the greatest challenges that authors and publishers face in marketing their work. I’d bet that a comprehensive Web search for the use of the word “discoverability” would probably shown it’s multiplied many times over the past year or two–it is one of the watchwords of our business.

After our informal meeting, I made a few calls to Speakerfile prospects I’ve identified, including one Toronto literary agency, and headed off to my afternoon and NXNE activities.

An hour from now, members of the informal CBC Radio 3 blogger and enthusiast community will meet at the CBC building, and be given a tour of the CBC broadcast facility by radio producer Pedro Mendes. After the tour, we’re going to do a group photo in the CBC building atrium, and soon after head off to a group dinner. The musical highlights tonight will include label and management company Hidden Pony’s showcase at the Dakota Tavern featuring their bands and artists Rah Rah, Jeremy Fisher, the Danks, Elephant Stone, and Rah Rah’s Erin Passmore. Other music tonight which will challenge my ability to be in two places at once include the Rheostatics’ Dave Bidini current outfit, the Bidini Band, and blues-soul performer Andre Williams playing with the great band The Sadies. And outdoor, at Yonge-Dundas Square Plants and Animals will be playing, along with the Matthew Good Band.

It’s been a good day already, and it’s only going to get better aat the CBC and the Dakota Tavern. Running off now, don’t want to be late!


March 20th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio

Bonding with Shotgun Jimmie & John K. Samson at the Bowery Ballroom

I love one-man bands, those musical artists who can stomp, holler, and play licks while animating a whole set entirely on their own. Soloists like this captivate an audience with talent, musicianship, and personality. Last Thursday night’s show at the Bowery Ballroom offered ample pleasures like these, with the fresh and funny Shotgun Jimmie opening for master singer-songwriter John K. Samson in a show for the ages. Jimmie was charming, talented, playing kick drum with his foot, ripping on his Fender electric, and singing his quirky songs of striving and nerdy romanticism, maintaining despite all disappointments a cockeyed optimism. Even the title of Jimmie’s latest album suggests wit and wordplay: “Transistor Sister.” Here are some lines from the opening track “Late Last Year.”

Oh my darlin’ the legs under this table/are independently bumpin’ in to mine/They’re on a mission dispatched to disable/My defenses and they’re working just, fine

Like the Canadian rockers Library Voices, John K. Samson’s lyrics exude a literary quality, filled as they are with learned allusions to explorers, the classical world, and existential reality. He’s co-founder of a publishing collective in Winnipeg called Arbeiter Ring Publishing, a sort of Workmen’s Circle for books, which recently brought his Lyrics & Poems 1997-2012. As a book professional myself, I am intrigued with this rocker who also has a big footprint in the book and publishing camp. I see that Vancouver writer Steven Galloway, whose novel Ascension I published in 2002, has articulated what’s special about Samson’s work:  “John K. Samson is one of Canada’s finest living writers. He creates a world with a phrase, devastates with a word and restores hope with an image. Many novels do not contain as much humanity and emotional resonance as one of Samson’s lines. As a writer I am torn between admiration and jealousy; as a reader I am enthralled.”

Samson had played the same venue last December with his band The Weakerthans in a unique residency that saw them sell out the Ballroom four consecutive nights, playing each of their four albums in succession. Much as I loved the show then, when Rah Rah was the opening act, last week’s performance offered a more intimate connection with the artist for the couple hundred fans who had come to hear him, including for me. Even with a few side players on most songs, including Shotgun Jimmie who came back after a break to accompany his more senior partner, I had the sense of Samson bonding deeply with his audience over the melodies, words, and themes of these heartfelt songs. It was like listening to the Weakerthans, unplugged. He was serene and by the end just soaking up love from the crowd, as we felt it coming back from him. He played three encores including “These Are My Favourite Chords” and “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure,” for which he stepped out from behind the mic stand, playing to us as if this were a house concert and we were all his close friends, which by then we were. I felt full and happy when the lights came up following the finale, in which the unlikely feline narrator Virtute expresses its animal longing for affection, touch, and closeness.

When the winter took the tips of my ears
Found this noisy home full of pigeons and places to hide
And when the voices die
I emerged to watched abandoned machines
Waiting for their men to return
I remember the way I would wait for you
To arrive with kibble and a box full of beer
How I’d scratch the empties desperate to hear
You make the sound that you found for me.

After scrapping with the ferals and the tabby
Let you brush my matted fur
How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping
Shallow breathing made me purr.

Apparently, the warmth that I felt after the show had been prevalent throughout the Ballroom, because as I was starting to make a final trip to the merch table and then call it a night, a young couple came up to me, Brittany and Kevin, a pretty brunette and her winsome Australian boyfriend. They wanted to tell me that from Shotgun Jimmie’s opening act through the last notes of John K. Samson’s set they had noticed me appreciating the music and grooving to it and they just wanted to tell me they were grateful to me for this. I was pretty exhausted from the long night of standing and swaying and moving to the music, and a bit stunned by what they said, but quickly gathered my bearings and thanked them for approaching me, glad that my enjoyment had provided even more enjoyment for them. Kevin asked if I wanted a drink which sounded great, so we sat down and chatted for a few minutes. I shared some musical reminiscences, they told me about their hopes and dreams, and when we’d sipped our last, I took their picture for a sweet coda to a memorable evening.

Update: For the setlist to John K. Samson’s set please see this write-up at Brooklyn Vegan, with terrific photos by Tamara Porras.


December 14th, 2011

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio; Urban Life & New York City

Songs about Speeding Arrows & a Disgruntled Cat

Rah Rah's Marshall Burns (l.) & Kristina Hedlund

The show at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom last Friday featuring The Weakerthans with Rah Rah was special in many ways. Before anything is even said about the music and the performances, consider that it was the seventh night of what by any measure must be considered an extraordinary bi-coastal residency that The Weakerthanshad undertaken over the previous two weeks. Talk about ambitious!

Though they’d done this residency last year in their hometown of Winnipeg, this time they did it in entirely in the States, starting in San Francisco, then moving on to NY, playing their four studio albums for live audiences on consecutive nights in each city. It was an affirmation of the band’s accumulated popularity. Tickets for the NY shows had gone on sale last summer, and were sold out by October. Some people went all four nights, or multiple nights, or like me, one night. With the Bowery Ballroom’s capacity of about 400 people, you can figure that the NYC shows attracted between 1200-1600 fans, and even more than that in SF, where the venue was larger. That strikes me as a helluva lot of fans in the States for a band hailing from the Canadian prairies.

With the Weakerthans playing their third night in Gotham, there was quite a cohesive vibe to the crowd, perhaps owing to the presence of folks who had already been in the club the previous two nights. Most of the crowd seemed to be New Yorkers, or at least Yanks. There were also Canadians in the crowd, but not a predominant contingent. It was reminiscent of when I heard the veteran Halifax rock outfit Sloan during their 20th anniversary tour at the same venue last summer. Being used to Canadian shows that often don’t draw a full house, I was surprised to see the big U.S. crowd that night sing along to every Sloan song. The same would prove true this night.

I had met and heard the members of opening act Rah Rah in October when they played a 35-minute showcase during the CMJ festival. I was eager to re-connect with these friendly folks and hear them play a full set. The six young musicians from Regina, Saskatchewan had since remained in Brooklyn, writing their next album and beginning to record it. Before the show kicked off Friday night, I joined a conversation at the center of the ballroom floor that included Rah Rah guitarist Leif Thorson; keyboard player Vanessa Benson; their manager from Hidden Pony Records, a nice fellow with the handle Parkside, who not only works with Rah Rah, but also the amazing bands Said the Whale and Imaginary Cities; and producer, Gus Van Go, who’s worked on albums by The Stills and Hollerado. Lief and Vanessa were very relaxed, and showed no nerves at the prospect of opening in a few minutes for the Weakerthans.

Just before Rah Rah struck their first chords, a fellow near me–clearly on hand for the Weakerthans and impatient at having to wait through an opening act–asked me if I was familiar with the openers. I assured him they were great and that the Weakerthans had curated everything about the week’s shows, including the choice of opening acts for each night. He seemed placated, at least for the moment.

In a pleasant change from the male-dominant norm, the six pieces of Rah Rah are divided equally among the genders–with three women and three men variously playing their two guitars, bass, keys, violin, and drums. And at key points, four or five of them began creating homemade percussion, banging with drum sticks on spare amp surfaces and tom-toms. They deftly moved across the stage, handing off instruments and parts to one another with great alacrity. Benson, on keys normally, slid way over to the other side of the stage to pick up the bass which Joel Passmore had been playing. Joel then took a seat at the drum kit while his sister Erin, normally the band’s drummer, moved over to the keys. In another well-choreographed move, fiddler and accordion player Kristina Hedlund moved to the keys and Erin played bass and sang lead. The two members who didn’t change up much were Thorseth, a gentle giant of a lead guitarist and the angular and interesting Marshall Burns, who on many tunes sang lead vocals. Though Burns often took the vocal lead, on many songs he was joined by virtually all his mates who would sing a verse on their own or comprise a full-throated chorus. The band makes rapid starts and stops with abrupt changes of tempo. Among my favorite Rah Rah songs is “Arrows,” with its great, purposeful, optimistic chorus: “I feel just like an arrow/I feel just like an arrow/Shooting high, shooting high and away”. Another favorite is “Duet for Emmylou and the Grievous Angel,” with its memorable chorus “It’s fashionable to be single in big cities but not in small towns/In Regina Saskatchewan I fell in love with her frown.” These are fun songs for them to play, and fun songs for a crowd to listen to and sing along with.

Rah Rah are a boisterous band on stage, full of animated gestures, quick moves, knowing looks and nods out to members of the audience. They have a lot of fun on stage, and it transfers directly to the crowd.

The latter moments of their set featured two neat bits of showmanship: first, they unleashed balloon-like mylar coated letters in the letters R-A-H, which bounced above the heads of the crowd; second, fiddler Hedlund bashed a pinata suspended above the heads of the band and candy splashed all over the audience. My floor neighbor who hadn’t known of Rah Rah fifty minutes earlier was clearly bowled over and flashed me a thumbs-up before he headed to the merch table to buy their CD, where I later went myself.

(l. to r.) Vanessa Benson, Leif Thorseth, Erin Passmore, Marshall Burns

Marshall Burns

Marshall Burns (l.), Kristina Hedlund

Marshall Burns (l.), Kristina Hedlund

Marshall Burns (l.), Kristina Hedlund

Vanessa Benson (l.), Leif Thorseth,

Marshall Burns (l.), Erin Passmore

Marshall Burns

Kristina Hedlun, with pinata just overhead

The interlude was brief and the Weakerthans were soon on stage, launching into the songs from their 2003 album, “Reconstruction Site.” Lyricist and lead vocalist John K. Samson is a published poet and has helped start a progressive publishing house. He writes songs that carry a deceptively light touch in melody and words, while actually packing a hidden wallop. A good example is the song, “Please from a Cat Named Virtute,” surely the only rock ‘n roll song I’ve ever encountered whose narrator is a feline personality. The cat is perplexed by his owner’s lassitude, even depression: “Why don’t you ever want to play? I’m tired of this piece of string. You sleep as much as I do now, and you don’t eat much of anything. I don’t who you’re talking to–I made a search through every room, but all I found was dust that moved in the shadows of the afternoon. And listen, about those bitter songs you sing? They’re not helping anything. They won’t make you strong. So, we should open up the house. Invite the tabby from two doors down. You could ask your sister, if she doesn’t bring her basset hound. . . . . All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV, and frankly that doesn’t really interest me.” Samson revisits the cat in another song, “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” Virtute reminds me of the notable cat in Don Marquis’s classic book of comic verse “The Adventures of Archy & Mehitabel”; Archy is a streetwise cockroach and Mehitabel is a cat convinced she was Cleopatra in a previous lifetime. There’s a definite existential bite to Samson’s songs.

Instrumentally, the Weakerthans are a guitar-based five-piece, with Samson playing rhythm; Stephen Carroll on tasty lead and pedal steel; Daniel Ledwell on guitar and keyboards; Greg Smith on bass; and Jason Tait drumming. Samson’s mates left the stage briefly when he played the signature song “One Great City!, with its oddly upbeat lament, “I Hate Winnipeg.” The crowd sang it with him, as if they all came from Manitoba, though I’m pretty sure they hailed from parts much farther south. As the Weakerthans launched into their second encore, I threaded my way through the packed floor and found the members of Rah Rah relaxing downstairs. We shared some drinks and the night wrapped up as it began, in friendly conversation.

(l. to r.) Stephen Carroll, John K. Samson, Greg Smith, Daniel Ledwell

John K. Samson

Jason Tait (l.), John K. Samson

John K. Samson

John K. Samson, Greg Smith, Daniel Ledwell