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The Weakerthans – Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre

March 22, 2010

The Weakerthans are at their core a fairly run-of-the mill pop rock band with punk roots showing now and again. Once in a while they’ll introduce an organ or a steel guitar or a lasso d’amore, but they rarely stray from tried and true chord progressions and song structures.

The thing that keeps them from being totally generic is John K Samson’s lyrics. They’re, like, lyrical and paint complex portraits of characters who don’t often find their way into the rock song canon. A sad bus driver, a sympathetic but ultimately errant house cat, a melancholy curling skip, and a bitter dollar store cashier are all represented in their songs along with classic tales of young love gone wrong.

Live At the Burton Cummings Theatre is the band’s first official release since 2007’s Reunion Tour, but doesn’t offer anything for fans hoping for a preview of new material. The Weakerthans are notorious for taking their sweet time between albums, and there is nothing new offered up here. These are live versions of songs you already know, some with variations and additions, some without (spoiler: John K doesn’t attempt the high note in “Left and Leaving”). It definitely feels like a live album, too, rather than a recording of a specific show. There’s an audible silent pause between songs and no false starts or stage banter aside from a fading “thank yeh” at the end of some tracks.

Christine Fellows is all over these performances, her piano and distinct vocals appear throughout the set. Sometimes it strengthens the output, but more often than not it’s distracting. Not everything needs a vocal harmony. There are other additions which work better — the strings in “Night Windows” fit perfectly with the wistful feel of the song and are a welcome enhancement.

I’d be hard pressed to argue with those who say the band peaked in 2000 with Left and Leaving (and there are a lot of you), but I also think a mediocre Weakerthans album is better than most bands’ very best work. That record set an impossible standard and the band will likely be playing in its shadow for a long time. As for this album, casual fans may not find much to like about it if they’ve already heard the others, but die-hards will love it. It’s a Weakerthans album, after all, and those don’t come out very often.

Further reading/listening:
The Weakerthans: official website | MySpace
Stream Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre from Exclaim.ca
Our review of this show: Stereo Freeze 4.21

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