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all words: Andy Hess and Matt Siblo
all photos: Press photos

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Andy Hess: DC beat

The Weakerthans are the only band to ever make me feel bad for a cat (Sorry cat lovers, I just happen to enjoy the company of dogs). But with that title comes a lot of expectations: The Weakerthans are great on record, but how are they live? Turns out they’re pretty damn good.

The five-piece from Winnipeg write super (maybe even uber) catchy story-songs involving bus drivers (“Civil Twilight”), medical oddities (“Hymn For A Medical Oddity”) and curling (“Tournament Of Hearts”). Sampson and company played to an enthusiastic crowd at the 9:30 Club’s early show Saturday night with a 19-song set list with material from the bands four albums that wasn’t filled with too many surprises — except for the great rendition of “Wellington’s Wednesdays” where Sampson traded spots with a fan and watched him finish out the guitar solo from the crowd.

I don’t even play guitar and I was jealous of the kid.group-2_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85

Rock Plaza Central on the other hand were definitely worth showing up an hour earlier. With a name like that you would expect a wall of drums and guitar solos, but it quite the opposite.

The seven piece band from Toronto blew me out of the water with their mechanical horse inspired blend of epic indie folk. The multi-instrumental collective played tunes from their most recent effort …at the moment of our most needing which was released in May and 2006s Are We Not Horses?.

The stage banter was just as good — political jokes that weren’t terrible and a poignant story regarding one of Chris Eaton’s relationships that may or may not be true. I couldn’t tell if he was joking. That might be because Eaton is an actual story-teller in his other day job. The band played a short and sweet set that kept me interested more than a band with such a deceiving name normally would. If you have the money or bandwidth I would check them out. Seriously.

Matt Siblo: Philly Beat

It’s been over ten years since John Samson of The Weakerthans walked away from Propagandhi, the anarcho-punk band of his youth but echoes from the abyss still plead for “Anchorless.” It’s the lone song recorded by both bands and one of the few that The Weakerthans could attempt without incident. This past Sunday at The World Café in Philadelphia, Samson declared he’d play “anything but that.” On more generous evenings he’s gone so far as to play (cover?) Propagandhi’s “Gifts.”

This fickle relationship with the past feels appropriate for a songwriter whose contemplative imagination finds humanity even in the inanimate. Two songs from The Weakerthans last album, 2007’s Reunion Show, were inspired by Edward Hopper paintings. Some of Samson’s most engaging stories reside outside of himself; two of the evening’s most powerful songs were sung from a feline perspective. “Plea from a Cat named Virtute” is a last ditch effort to embolden its owner who’s lost their self-confidence. “Virtute the Cat explains her Departure” details a sorrowful exit into the alleys so unnervingly devastating it makes the simple calling of a name a tragic romantic gesture. It’s powerful enough to make the delusional protagonists of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven seem lucid.

Live, Samson’s diminutive presence and coy sense of humor provide the audience a plausible protagonist for the band’s introspective songs His erudite lyrics often illustrate a seductive longing or wistful state of passive resistance.  On stage, the man whose ribs peer through worn t-shirts and raggedy shoes is no longer vivid imagery: he is strumming center stage.

Without the auspicious or expectations of a new album to promote, The Weakerthans played a career-spanning set devoid of the inertia accompanying the unknown.  But the absence of new material was a sobering reminder that it has been two years since Reunion Tour and no new album appears to be on the horizon.  Not even a cover intruded upon Sunday’s victory lap and it showed: the band’s assured presence gave way to hammy performances injecting rapid fire windmills into character studies of Canadian bus drivers (“Civil Twilight”) and clueless over the hill rockers (“Reunion Tour”). Performing an exaggerated solo during “Utilities” Samson hyped it as incendiary, delivered with precision, and concluded with a knowing grin.

Songs with the most muscle such as “Aside” and “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” remained in tact whereas more delicate selections were spruced up with trumpet lines and a moog. But unlike its recent I-Tunes session, which saw the band remixing and rearranging, here nothing veered too far off course. The evening’s familiarity retained the bittersweet nostalgia of the band’s songs: leaning heavily on the past in a present tense.

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