I love those shows when a bunch of friends and family pile in the car. Even more when you run into unrelated branches of your social tree at the venue. Some bands or artists have the knack of transcending a specific demographic or audience type. They provide something different people understand. I particularly love it when the commonality is rooted in literacy. Maybe that’s, by some definition, greatness.
Winnipeg’s John K. Samson is, by any definition, a great writer. Poet as much as songwriter. I’ve listened to his solo catalog along with that of his “cryogenically frozen” band The Weakerthans for years. I had never seen him live. His show last night at The Turf delivered in ways I did not expect.
Here’s the deal, I draw a clear distinction between those who can write and record wonderful music and those who can deliver it live. It’s a show after all. I’m there to be entertained; to be pulled into the artist’s world. There are so many ways to do that: lights, movement, musicianship, volume, range or a voice for the ages. Strip all those things away and we are left with just a song. And at least for me, the song is usually not enough. It works in a quiet coffee shop. Even better in somebody’s living room. But it is rarely enough to make me feel as though the time and ticket price are justified.
Admittedly, I cover my fair share of solo artists parked behind a piano or with an acoustic guitar in hand. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy myself. It’s rare I don’t enjoy or respect the music I experience. Let’s just say I often walk out of those shows not knowing quite what to write. If somebody were to ask, my response is often along the lines of “Well, it was really nice…” before running out of descriptors. Theatrics, soaring highs, mosh pits, etc,… those I get. But it’s rare when that singular artist is able to strip everything away and song after song moves me in lock step with everyone else in the audience.
Before last night, only two solo acoustic shows really tripped my 2019 trigger. Chris Smither at The Dakota was a revelation. Beth Hart at Pantages was a tour de force of personal and artistic honesty. Okay, let’s admit the former is a guy who is one of the most underrated guitar pickers on the planet. The latter was also graced with a voice rivaled only by the likes of Joplin or Winehouse. John K. Samson, Jam Jam to his local friends, brings neither of these qualities to the stage. His guitar playing is merely a frame for the lyrics. His voice would never make it through round one of some version of Winnipeg’s Got Talent. He stands before you, just a guy. An Everyman. Somehow he manages to connect in a way very few artists can.
He connects because he is honest. He connects because his fans relate to his humanity and personal demons. He connects because the words he writes are as open and spare as the fallow fields of winter wheat of his high prairie home. Poetry of the highest order. His stories reflect our own struggles. It’s a bit like sitting in a rehab sharing circle. Nothing too ugly. Where self-deprication and droll humor is defense against the pain. The songs may often reflect depression. But it is an affable depression. Just a voice and a man with whom many of us can relate. A man who we really want to see succeed.
If you’re an artist and you want to travel on a budget, Samson has it figured out. Just employ the hundreds of Turf patrons as your back up singers. It’s one thing when an audience sings back some kind of earwig hook. Or parrots the chorus of some pop radio hit. It’s another thing entirely when an audience sings along with complex, flowing poetry.
By and large, the people who get John K. Samson are highly literate. Who else takes PG Wodehouse references in stride? They love language. I’ll go out on a limb and say they’re smarter than the average rock n roll audience. The songs he writes are expressions of his struggles. They also speak for the rest of us because we have never been able to quite find our own words.
Isn’t that what the best art is really all about? An image or story functions on a literal level. At the same time it transcends to something more universal. A line which resonates in ways we can’t quite understand. Images to which different ages and backgrounds respond.
Here’s an insider example. There is a line in the song Our Retired Explorer which opines: “I must say that in the right light, you look like Shackleton”. There’s a great young band in the Twin Cities named The Shackletons. The line is the genesis of the band name. A song that led the members to go back and read the history of the Antarctic icon. A line that resulted in naming their band van Endurance, in honor of Shackleton’s ice crushed ship. How often have we heard the story of a band name or the name of an album derived from some obscure song lyric? Obscure to most. Precious to those that know.
Samson scripted a 12 song set opening with One Great City (I Hate Winnipeg). He announced that when he finished those, he’d open things up. Be more democratic in his show. So the back half of his show took on a different tenor. Democracy is messy! A rapt crowd shouted requests. Rabble rules! He would listen, discard, choose and then for the next three minutes you could either hear a pin drop or you joined the crowd in quietly singing along. It was that virtuous circle I often reference; artist and audience connect in some immediate and intimate manner.
The 4 song set, centered around rehab and the most famous feline in rock music, was sublime: 17th Street Treatment Centre, Plea From A Cat Named Virtute, Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure, and Virtute At Rest. The new song Vampire Alberta Blues expressed his anger with the fall out of resource extraction. The title track Winter Wheat was as spare and open as an unbroken Manitoba horizon line.
The show, along with his two song encore set, encompassed 23 titles and lasted a mere 75 minutes. Yet the delivery of a couple of lines remain with me. I can’t really tell you why. Maybe it’s that quality I tried to describe earlier. They seem to describe him better than I ever could. From the boisterously requested Bigfoot!: “And the visions that I see, will believe in me.” On one level, the chagrin experienced by a ferry driver named Bobby Clarke who came forward with his Sasquatch sighting only to be patronized and pilloried. On a transcendent level, it speaks to the sadness and desire to disengage we all feel when our credibility is questioned. When we feel ourselves dismissed.
To the last words uttered as the show concluded with Confessions Of A Futon-Revolutionist. Words that strip away the armor that insulates us from the connection we need with others in order to survive. Armor in which we clad ourselves in order to successfully suffer the slings and arrows when we find ourselves the Bobby Clarke’s of the world. Simple words that point to a path from the darkness settling over the November prairie to a far off spring dawn.
“Cynicism falls asleep. Tyranny talks to itself. Sappy slogans all come true. We forget to feed our fear.”
I left the Turf wondering if John K. Samson can ever believe that he is enough. All of us would like to convince him, he’s just like us. We all struggle day to day. Beneath that battered exterior resides that young idealist who still truly hopes those sappy slogans do, someday, come true.