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.
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.