Live in Vancouver, BC (02/02/17)The Commodore Ballroom - Vancouver, BC
By Bobby Gorman
John K. Samson is the king of the understated.
Honing his chops with Propaghandi before breaking off to form one of Canada’s most beloved indie rock bands The Weakerthans, John K Samson has already cemented his name in the annals of Canadian music history.
For several years he’s be traveling and performing under his own name and it was that tour – in support of last year’s Winter Wheat – that saw him and his supporting band hit up the Commodore Ballroom Thursday night in Vancouver; and right from the start there was something magical in the air. Magical and understated.
“Thanks for coming out to see a middle aged soft-rock band” he mumbled into the microphone as the quartet walked onto the empty stage. There was no grandiose entrance, no pulsating lights, no thundering intro music. They walked leisurely onto the simplistic stage, void of even a backdrop, and proceeded to croon to the audience for an hour long set that included two (somewhat unnecessary) encores.
There was a bare bones simplicity to the evening that reverberated even in the historic and massive ballroom. The four huddled together in the centre, leaving most of the stage completely empty. There were no matching outfits or color schemes and the lights were constant throughout. No flashes, no strobes, each song had a color delicately illuminating the black curtains behind that faded to red to white to green and blue between songs.
Instead of over the top showmanship and bombastic stage set ups, John K Samson strummed his guitar and let his soothing voice take center stage. There was no barrier, no distance between him and the crowd. When he needed to put his guitar down to try and sing a song with his hands free, he politely asked someone in the front row to hold it for him. No stand, no roadie running to grab it – just “hey, can you hold onto this for a second?” and it all felt right.
Despite touring in support of Winter Wheat, Samson relied heavily on his Weakerthans material as well – alternating between his solo material and his former band’s greatest hits almost every song. You could tell that would be the structure when the second song of the night was Sun In An Empty Room sandwiched between Select All Delete and Post Doc Blues.
There were times his Weakerthans material got the biggest cheers – One Great City and Plea From A Cat Named Virtute are iconic Canadian anthems at this point, hearing them live will always garner a cheer. However, that’s not to say his solo numbers didn’t go over well – they did. When he stood up alone playing 17th Street Treatment Center, it gave you shivers down your spine as the passion and emotion seeped through the speakers and into everyone in attendance. Vampire Alberta Blues, dedicated to “all the people protecting water rights”, was greeted with jubilations as was The Last And from his 2012 album Provincial.
John K Samson, a middle-aged man wearing a plain gray tshirt and drinking green tea on stage, isn’t the type of person you’d associate as the headlining front man of a major touring rock band. Yet it’s that understated simplicity that made the evening so memorable, so jovial, so… Canadian.
It’s like the quote from Miriam Toews that he references in the final verse of Winter Wheat: “We know this world is good enough because it has to be.” The line stood out last night and I smiled because when you’re listening to John K Samson, the world is good.