BY IAN PARKER
Playing over 20 cities from east to west to north, in less than two months with multiple gigs in most stops, is a gruelling test for any band. But if the Rolling Tundra Revue has been a slog, it hasn’t dampened John K. Samson’s enthusiasm for the journey.
“It’s been great,” he says with conviction. “It’s going by really fast.”
Samson is lyricist, lead vocalist and frontman for celebrated Canadian indie band, The Weakerthans, who, along with fellow Rolling Tundra Review veterans and indie darlings, The Constantines, will soon be touching down North of 60.
*We emerged from youth all wide-eyed like the rest.
Shedding skin faster than skin can grow,
and armed with hammers, feathers, blunt knives:
words, to meet and to define.
It won’t be Samson’s first time in Whitehorse. He passed through with band mates Stephen Carroll, John P. Sutton and Jason Tait, on their way to the Dawson City Music Festival, in 2002, and then returned to the festival on a solo jaunt in 2006.
But this will be the first time The Weakerthans will ply its peerless brand of folk-rock on a Whitehorse stage. Samson seems genuinely energized at the prospect, “We’re really excited to be coming back to the North.”
Samson moves fluidly through a range of topics including music, literature, politics, social activism and the extremes of our Canadian climate. The experience is a bit like listening to a Weakerthans album.
Samson first found traction in the Canadian music scene with seminal punk band Propagandhi, which drew hard-core devotees during the punk explosion of the mid ’90s with skate/punk-influenced tracks and an aggressive vegan/anarchist/anti-capitalistic ethos.
And that still twitching bird was so deceived by a window,
so we eulogized fondly,
we dug deep and threw its elegant plumage and frantic black eyes in a hole,
and rushed out to kill something new,
so we could bury that too.
His activist sensibilities adopted a more-introspective feel when he parted ways with Propagandhi, in 1996, and formed The Weakerthans, in Winnipeg. But he acknowledges that, despite not wearing it on his sleeve, his hard-core pedigree continues to influence his work today.
“To be honest, I don’t even recall what it was like,” he admits about his days with Propagandhi, “but I came of age in that political punk scene. It left an indelible mark on me. It’s something I’m proud of and I’m still mining it for ideas.”
But you must know the same games that we played in dirt,
in dusty school yards has found a higher pitch
and broader scale than we feared possible,
and someone must be picked last,
and one must bruise and one must fail.
Remaining politically and socially aware is a quality Samson shares with Weakerthans band mates. They live this value when they support Macdonald Youth Services, a Winnipeg organization that fosters hope and opportunities to empower children, youth and families, or when they donate their art to Song for Africa, a non-profit created by Canadian artists to educate people on humanitarian issues in Africa.
And climate change has not escaped the band’s attention as it takes steps to alleviate some of the environmental impact of its tour, which includes encouraging fans to use sustainable transportation to get to the shows.
“It’s crazy how much energy it takes to move even a medium-sized tour like ours across the country,” Samson points out, “so we’re trying to educate people and raise awareness of this reality.”
The first chapters of lives almost made us give up altogether.
Pushed towards tired forms of self immolation that seemed so original.
I must, we must never stop watching the sky with our hands in our pockets,
stop peering in windows when we know doors are shut.
Even more than politics and causes célèbres, it is The Weakerthans’ music, spanning four albums, that has cemented its place in the hearts of devoted fans from coast to coast to coast.
Despite garnering much critical acclaim and several accolades including SOCAN’s Echo Songwriting Prize (for “what’s next, what’s best in current music”) for its single Night Windows and a trio of West Coast Music awards for its latest album, Reunion Tour, it is likely only the band’s genre-defying resistance to the Top 40-friendly verse/chorus/verse formula that prevents it from finding more mainstream recognition. Not that further commercial exposure is something the members aspire to. Nor do they seem concerned about compromising their considerable indie cred as more mainstream audiences discover the undeniable charms and all-Canadian pedigree of tracks like Tournament of Hearts and One Great City!
“This is the way we’ve always been; it’s not something we think about maintaining,” Samson says. “The manager of the theatre we’re playing tonight, in Regina, pointed out that tomorrow is the 12-year anniversary of the first time we played this very same venue.”
Far from formulaic, Samson’s lyrics, set to soundtracks that lurch from full-bodied guitar-rockers to minimalist folk ballads, emerge as journeys painted in broad brushstrokes – profound without feeling contrived or overly prescriptive.
Drawing inspiration from a wide range of influences, including some distinctly Canadian themes such as curling, Arctic exploration, self-loathing and the love/hate relationships we nurture with our hometowns, the words and music create frames around ideas that let the listener impose their own context and meaning.
Many tracks remind me of a person moving toward self-awareness or a reluctant acknowledgement of their situation – not in a sudden, dramatic epiphany, but in a gradual emergence that asks more questions than it answers.
I hesitantly mention this to Samson and he instantly puts me at ease by welcoming my personal interpretation of his work, “I can see that,” he affirms, “and these gradual, personal changes have a huge effect over the long run.”
In at least one way, the return of The Weakerthans to the Yukon couldn’t be better timed.
The theme of gradual emergence resonates deeply as we emerge from another long, dark, remorseless winter that is reluctant to loosen its icy grip. It’s a kinship we share with native Winnipeggers like Samson, who commiserates, “This is the worst winter I can remember.
“The places we live, come with some real physical challenges that we share.”
So it’s fitting that the Rolling Tundra Revue will wind down in Whitehorse where local audiences are sure to welcome The Weakerthans and The Constantines with a warm embrace that defies our current struggle and resolves to make the most of a golden, beautiful chance to celebrate with an iconic Canadian band that feels our pain but wants to rock out with us anyway.
“It’s just the right way to end the tour,” Samson confirms. “In the North.”
Stop yelling small stories and bad jokes and sorrows,
and my voice will scratch to yell many more before I spill the things I mean to hide away,
or gouge my eyes with platitudes of sentiment,
I’ll drown the urge for permanence and certainty;
crouch down and scrawl my name with yours in wet cement.
*Lyrics are from Sounds Familiar, from The Weakerthans’ album, Fallow.