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.
When I first heard Marah‘s music, I was surprised I had never heard of the band anywhere. But after spending some time with it, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was perfectly fitting. In fact, I could picture them as a traveling bar band in the days before big media, working the towns from saloon to saloon, performing their original material to the bone on the lonely road, and killing it, and getting some peripheral appreciation for it, but still mostly hearing the echos of the drunkards dancing, who just want them to play their particular roots take on the days’ greatest hits. They’re a red-headed stepchild, but worthy of whatever level of cult status they enjoy.
Part of the problem is that their popular/supported era of musical identification has passed them by. They more easily identify with forebearers like the Boss or Seger than anyone else; those who are woefully out of fashion by most indie-identifying music-heads, despite the best efforts of the Arcade Fires and Hold Steadys to make that kind of rootsy, personal-narrative-based music relevant again.
Yes, it’s certainly unfortunate that those who enjoy heartfelt, visceral rock like Marah’s do not control the radio stations or blogs of the nation’s corporate cultural elite, but don’t let their brand of eclectic brilliance pass you by without giving it a listen. I’ve never failed to be impressed on many levels with their songwriting, impeccable production, and ear for wrapping the past into the present with such easy looseness.
One of the best things for a music fan is finding an album that comes totally out of left field and just knocks your socks off. For me, Wild Mountain Nation has been that album. Blitzen Trapper is an experimental rock band with a multitude of stylistic shifts contained in this album’s 34 minutes; the band revels in throwing curveballs at every turn. It’s got so much going on that the trip can be exhausting. However, even if the wild ride proves too jarring, there are qualities that can make this a useful album for discussions about music today.
For instance, if a friend ever gives you a hard time about rock music being too predictable nowadays, that there’s nothing new, play them this album. It’s innovative enough to definitively prove them wrong. It utilizes elements of classic rock, math rock, country, metal, noise, eletronica and bluegrass in its base. You could split at least one track off this album and give it to a fan of each of those styles, and they’d think you’d discovered some great new artist.
They’d be right, but then they might hate most of the rest of the album.
Riffs form the basis of the rock portion of rock and roll, and your ability to procure a good one can make or break you as a rock and roll songwriter. It’s even more imperative when your band is The Black Keys, since their brand of minimalist blues-rock (guitar and drums only) places the riffs front and center with only the barest rhythm section to back them up.
Fortunately, frontman Dan Auerbach has the gift of riff. He takes his guitar, plugs it into heavy overdrive, and drags it through the nastiest tire factories in Akron, Ohio. If you like your stuff loud and raw, this is your band.
Sloan exemplifies many of the things that make rock and roll great: strong guitar melodies, hooky yet not entirely predictable song structures, solid grooves, and strong singing complete with lots of harmonizing. In listening to their back catalog (which is, on the whole, worthwhile), it’s apparent that they’ve become more and more comfortable being who they are: a band intent on making songs that will pop back into your head for hours or days after listening to them. They want to be that band, earnestly.
Which brings us to Never Hear the End of It, Sloan’s 8th full-length studio release. Since their success is secure in Canada and probably never going to happen in the U.S., or maybe since Sloan has been at this for so long, they do some things with this album that are outside the norm. First off is the album cover’s background, which is pink. This, to me, is ballsy. How many male bands would do that?