All words + photos: Kara Capelli
Great Lake Swimmers brought their Canadian folk pop to the Rock N Roll Hotel on Sunday night, and the show was exactly what I expected and wanted, starting with the song that’s been a top pick on my iTunes for weeks now: Think That You Might be Wrong, the soft and pretty album opener from New Wild Everywhere, released this April. Like most of the songs on the new album, it’s easy listening, perfect for when life throws you some relaxation time, and that’s what we got Sunday night.
The band lineup on this album and this tour is new, but lead singer Tony Dekker’s warm voice remains, guiding the Great Lake Swimmer characteristic sound: mostly upbeat folk pop, never anything complicated, with simple translucent lyrics. Ode upon ode reflecting on life, love, and our place in the larger world. Dekker laments in Fields of Progeny, “‘Where is the culture?’ you ask/I don’t know/’and when is the future?’ you ask/I don’t know,” and muses in the twangy The Great Exhale: “And the world stops spinnin’ when you stop spinnin’/Sighs when you sigh when you sigh/I’m coming home so leave the light on for me.”
Later, in his characteristically mild-mannered way Dekker explained that Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife is his reaction to the “corporate turkeys” who ruined the Gulf of Mexico, sorrowful that we’re still dealing with it, and reminding us that we are all connected and affected by the tragedy. (Yes, we are all here at a Great Lake Swimmers show, so yes, we are the type of people who feel solidarity with you that greed and lack of responsibility of corporations are chipping away at everything good in the world.)
Great Lake Swimmers is distinctly Dekker’s project, with various other members over the past decade. If there was any question about that, the rest of the band exited about halfway through the show, so he could sing Moving Pictures Silent Films and I Saw You in the Wild completely solo.
The current five-person lineup has all the folk essentials – banjo, fiddle, stand up bass, soft percussion, and electric and acoustic guitar. Dekker took extra pains to display his appreciation and gratitude to his band mates, introducing them affectionately more than once: Miranda Mulholland, with her wild red curly hair, lightly wisping around her face as she alternated her sweet harmonies with dancing and stomping to the tune of her overpowering fiddle; Brett Higgins on upright bass, standing almost as tall and still as his instrument in the background; drummer Greg Millson with his deliberate and calm hits, his arm never going above his shoulder, his movements as slow and calculated as possible; and the multitalented Erik Arnesen on banjo and electric guitar.
They are refined musicians with a certain maturity and calm enthusiasm, which above all translated to absolutely nothing unexpected happening at any point during the show: they barely moved their bodies across the stage at all and played an 18 song set, split evenly between their New Wild Everywhere and older albums from the past decade. But they delight in their music and each other, keenly aware of their bandmates, feeling every pulse, often exchanging wide smiles across the stage from their perches – moments that were both satisfying and adorable.
While it was a far stretch from rousing or exhilarating, the whole show was a fun sing-along. The majority of the audience – clearly dedicated fans – didn’t need any coaxing to sing and sway to past and new songs alike, and the band had everyone clapping and stomping during Your Rocky Spine from 2007’s Ongiara about two-thirds through the show. They ended with the most upbeat song on the New Wild Everywhere, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” which features the album’s characteristic twangy, country feel. After a few happy high fives in the backstage area of Rock N Roll in the hallway outside the bathrooms, they returned to the stage to end with Parkdale Blues and I am Part of a Large Family.
For those who were there early enough, the surprise of the show came well before Great Lake Swimmers took the stage. The opener, Cold Specks, walked on stage, declared “Hi, my name is Al Spx. And this project is called Cold Specks,” and with a voice like Etta James immediately launched into an a cappella ballad. Everyone in the room whose attention had previously been on their drink, their phone, or any other thought in the world, turned around and stared. Who is this short, nondescript 24 year-old girl taking the stage and blowing us away?
With barely a word, she launched into The Mark, the first song on her studio debut I Predict a Great Expulsion. She explained that the next one, Blank Maps, was supposed to be the single released in the U.S., but that the FCC is shit; I suppose referencing all of the goddamns in the lyrics. For the last person in the room who wasn’t paying attention already, she asked us all for a collective goddamn, because she just likes to do that. GODDAMN! We all cried (and laughed), as she began the song.
On stage, she’s just a girl and a guitar based in London, originally from Toronto, channeling all of the blues and soul greats before her. Self-described as doom-soul, her songs are depressing ballads, mostly written when she was a teenager, that come from somewhere deep in her heart and touch on themes of faith, love and death. Or about other stranger, just as depressing, themes like having a sexual relationship with the devil: “So here’s my ode to Satan,” was the intro to that one.
Her lyrics are opaque poetry, so most of the time I didn’t know if she’s actually being depressing or not. Also, and the feel of her music isn’t totally down – with a voice like hers, much of it is rather uplifting. She received the whole-hearted thanks and appreciation from Great Lake Swimmers, which she acknowledged from the back of the room to the laughter of the crowd as she enjoyed the show later on.