The Austrian Circle
A year ago, I stumbled across this band called the Weakerthans. I was immediately hooked for life after listening to their intelligent lyrics, Jawbreaker-esque breakdowns, and interesting song structures, and had Holly burn a couple of their CDs for me. These four Canadians provided the soundtrack to my life for all of last spring, and they quickly became one of my favorite bands of all time.
Flash forward to 2008: The Weakerthans are on tour in the U.S. They’re playing at the Pearl Street Night Club in Northampton, Massachusetts, which miraculously is their first all-ages show in this area in a while. I wasted no time (okay, maybe a teensy bit of time) in ordering my tickets and before I knew it, April 12 had arrived already.
As this occasion was my first time ever personally driving outside of my home state of Connecticut, that made the day even more special, in addition to the fact that I would already be seeing one of my favorite bands perform. I was however a little disappointed in the fact that the gas in Massachusetts is only about ten cents cheaper than it is back home, because I had been hoping that it was about thirty cents cheaper, in which case I would have filled my tank up there and taken advantage of being in a somewhat less wealthy state. Anyway, we drove up early so we could wander around the little college town for a while, because Northampton is a really neat place. Lots of places to shop and eat. We ate dinner in this little vegetarian restaurant where we were probably the only people who did not have laptops with us at the dinner table (I’m pretty sure everyone there had MacBooks, too) and then we wandered around some record stores and a couple other random shops. Finally when we were bored, we headed to Pearl Street, and sat outside the venue to wait for the doors to open.
Even though we arrived early, the venue filled up very quickly and before we knew it, the cozy little spot we found to sit on the floor in the back of the venue was now an obnoxious spot to stand where I couldn’t see half of the stage due to the fact that I am not very tall, but the opening act was only one person so I guess the limited view wasn’t that bad. Christine Fellows performed first, who, along with the Weakerthans, is from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She played the piano and sang folk-y sounding songs; she kind of seemed like a female solo-artist version of John K. Samson, who is actually her husband, so I guess that makes sense. The second act was also a solo performer whom I did not catch the name of, but I liked his songs a lot. His songs were also folk-y sounding and on the slow side -- it was definitely a lot mellower of a concert than what I am used to.
Despite my tiredness as it was really late, I was still really excited when The Weakerthans finally took the stage. They are one of those bands that I listen to all the time while I’m driving or doing homework or just lazing around in my room and no matter how much I listen to them, I never get sick of them and I admire them in so many ways. And then I get to the concert and it doesn’t even seem real that I can possibly be standing in the same room as a bunch of people that I look up to so much as a musician and a writer.
The set started out with just John K. Samson by himself on stage with his guitar, playing the song “Bigfoot!” off of The Weakerthans’ latest album Reunion Tour. It’s probably the mellowest song on the entire album, and such a bizarre way to start off a performance because it is so slow, but somehow he pulled it off. The Weakerthans are just good like that, I guess. They have to be the only band that can start a show or an album with a slow song and still grab the listeners’ attention. And right from the start, the whole crowd was singing along.
After “Bigfoot!,” the rest of the band joined Mr. Samson on stage and started playing “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961),” one of their faster songs. The entire audience started dancing, but not like the crazy hardcore dancing I usually see at shows. They were just sort of dancing without really moving at all, just staying in one place, bobbing up and down, strengthening their attempt with every song to sing louder than the band. Afterwards they went on to play more fan favorites, including “Civil Twilight,” “Sun in an Empty Room,” “Night Windows,” “The Reasons,” “Benediction,” “Reconstruction Site,” and “Aside,” which is when I think the crowd finally succeeded in singing louder than John K. Samson. I know I was singing as loud as I possibly could for that one. When the song ended, some guy standing off to the side who sounded kind of tipsy yelled, “Yeah! Play that one again!” As much as it would be fun to hear “Aside” two times in a row, the band obviously did not grant the man’s request and continued on with their set, playing “Elegy for Elsabet” next. (I wrote down the set list when I got home from the show and I’m pretty sure that it’s in order. But I could be wrong in a couple places. I did after all have a little more than an hour drive back to my house.) Now, since there were lots of tall people and by this point in the concert I had managed to squeeze up to the middle area of the venue but was still not in the front, I really couldn’t see any members of the band except for John K. Samson. And I should probably mention that he looks a lot younger in real life than he does in pictures that I’ve seen of him. But about four and a half minutes into “Elegy for Elsabet” there’s this really cool guitar solo that Stephen Carroll, the other guitarist in the band, plays, and the first part of it has this whistle-like sound, and I always wanted to know how he was making his guitar sound like that. Well, he was waving something over his head like a lasso while he was playing the guitar, but I couldn’t really see what it was, no matter how many heads I tried peering over or how many times I tried to inch my way just a little bit closer to the stage so I could see what was going on. But from what I could see it looked pretty awesome. And everyone broke out into applause when the solo was over.
Following the epic “Elegy for Elsabet” The Weakerthans played “Left and Leaving,” then a song from Fallow that I do not know the name of since that’s their only album that I don’t own, then “Tournament of Hearts,” and “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute.” And then the band walked off stage. And although they had played a full set that was not disappointing in any way (although, if they had played “Watermark” or “Relative Surplus Value” I would have gone home the happiest girl in the world), no one in the audience moved. Everyone demanded an encore. Listening to the Weakerthans is sort of like drugs, even though I have never done drugs in my life, but that’s what I imagine it is like. Once you start listening to them you will never have enough. But when a band as great as the Weakerthans are performing, you’ve got to know that there’s going to be an encore, and that it’s going to be great. After much chanting and much cheering and much applauding, John K. Samson came back up on stage with his guitar, and after numerous people kept shouting “My Favorite Chords!” over and over again he instead settled for playing “One Great City!” which is one of my favorites, and he made the awkward hammer ons in the middle of the song seem a lot less hard to play than they really are. After “One Great City!” he did grant the audience’s request and played “My Favorite Chords,” with the rest of the band getting on stage and joining him in the middle of the song. The Weakerthans then played three more songs, the first of which I cannot remember to save my life, the second being “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure,” and the third and final song of the night was “(Manifest).” Just as The Weakerthans are one of the only bands that could get away with starting out a set by playing a slow song, they’re also probably one of the only bands that can get away with playing the first song of an album as the last song of a concert. And it didn’t matter that no one in the band was playing trumpet, because everyone else in the venue was singing the trumpet part as loudly as they possibly could. And then the show was done for real this time, despite shouts requesting “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” from one half of the audience, and “Relative Surplus Value” from the other half. We left the venue and ventured into the cool April night, the buzzing in our ears dying down as we walked back across town to where my car was parked at Smith College. This was definitely one of the best nights of my spring, if not the best, and although I go to concerts very often this is one that I will most certainly remember forever.