Sam Roberts, Sloan, and the Hard Lessons at the State Theater
Detroit, November 28, 2009
I should have seen it coming.
When a friend told me about the Sloan, Sam Roberts, & Hard Lessons show at the State Theater (I’m not down with the Fillmore re-branding) on Thanksgiving weekend, I was psyched. Putting the two best current Canadian rock artists together on one bill in Detroit? Fantastic call. It’s about time someone thought that up. We love Canada around these parts, eh?
So in picking up the tickets, I found out two things: one was that the best local rock radio station in Windsor/Detroit (actually based in Windsor), the River, was putting on the show, dubbing it the “River Icebreaker.” Nothing like a little nudge-wink humor to welcome in the bitter-cold season, yes? The second was that Sloan was opening for Sam Roberts. Curious, but no biggie… I guess Sam’s caught on in the D a bit more than Sloan, what with the topical Detroit song that we’ll get into later, and surely Sloan will get to play a full set, right? I double-checked and found that Sloan was indeed reportedly lined up to play a full set, and I was in like Flynn.
The night arrived and we got there late, only in enough time to catch the last 15 minutes of the Hard Lessons. Memo to whoever puts these things on: if you advertise that the music will start at 7:30, then that should include ALL music; not counting the 4th (warm-up) band really throws off those of us who like to think they can follow directions.
Anyway, the Hard Lessons, as always, rocked the joint in that time frame. They closed with a few nods to the largely Canadian audience; along with some heart-felt words about their affection for Canada, they played their live-show-staple cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” and then waved the Canadian flag along with the Michigan flag before exiting the stage. The cross-border love-fest would continue later…
Sloan then took the stage. Things started out promising enough, with the band ripping into “Believe in Me,” a rocker from last year’s “Parallel Play.” Patrick Pentland was wearing a scripted “hfxnshc” hat, from one of my favorite songs off Never Hear the End of It. It was shaping up to be another well-formed Sloan set, with the rock and the pop mixed together in just the right ratio…
…and then, not so much. This is what I should have seen coming: they were playing a non-headlining set for a radio station with a large American audience, where they evidently (and correctly) thought a lot of attendees either won tickets or were there to see Sam Roberts (probably more the former), so what they broke out in the hour-long (!) set was a parade of their most radio-friendly back catalog stuff as well as each of the five tracks from their new EP. The new stuff was not too shabby, but also rode the line between rather and extremely radio-friendly.
So to sum up, as someone who owns Sloan’s full back catalog, I think I probably heard only three songs that I was looking forward to (which would be the aforementioned “Believe in Me,” “Stand By Me, Yeah” and “Who Taught You to Live Like That?”) Nothing came close to the rock and roll energy that songs like “hfxnshc” bring to the table. It was evident that Sloan was, yet again, making a play for the American market. Though I was very disappointed in the show, I can’t blame them…it’s gotta suck to be one of your generation’s better rock bands and to remain more-or-less totally undiscovered in the States. But it’s really depressing, especially as an American, to see a band that you admire so greatly stoop so low for a little attention from the States.
So let me make a call-out to all you Music Directors out there: cut these guys a break and put one of their songs in “Grey’s Anatomy” or another one of those shows that a boatload of folks watch every week, and make them into the hit band they so obviously long to be. I’m guessing that for the right show, you could pick up one of the tracks from the new EP (did I mention it’s radio-friendly?) on the cheap. Good? Good. Once that happens, hopefully, they can get back to doing the things that make their real fans happy…including headlining and playing actual full sets (One hour? Seriously? WTF is up with that?) for every show we can get them to play in the D.
Speaking of the headliner, I was almost as excited to see Sam Roberts as I was Sloan. His 2003 debut We Were Born in a Flame is outstanding, and he’s put out a couple of very good albums since. His band played a great set, although it was a lot more fun seeing them a few years back at the Magic Stick with a couple hundred folks who were way more into it than a lot of the obvious ticket-winners who attended on this night.
Included on his latest is as good of a song about Detroit (then and now; it’s titled “Detroit ’67”) as I’ve heard (video below). He spoke eloquently in an interview that I heard on the way to the show about his affection for Detroit and how he believes it will persevere through its current adversity. I hope he’s right. It was touching when he accepted a fitted Tigers cap and wore it through the song after “Detroit ’67,” even though it was obviously too small for his noggin. I’d be proud to accept the native Quebecois as an honorary Detroiter any day of the week.
Video: Sam Roberts – “Detroit ’67”