Words by: Alex Nief | Images by: JC McIlwaine
Sam Roberts Band :: 09.24.09 :: Blender Theatre at Gramercy :: New York, NY
If one were to scour the landscape of popular music today, they would be hard pressed to find a better representation of the rapidly evolving industry than the Sam Roberts Band. Roberts emerged on the Canadian scene in dramatic fashion in 2002 after the re-release of The Inhuman Condition. The second track, "Brother Down" shot to #1 on the Canadian radio charts, a wet-dream of sorts for an aspiring artist. Roberts had unsuccessfully shopped the EP to many labels, but armed with a top single and strong album sales, he soon found himself on the other end of the courtship.
Roberts ultimately signed with Universal Canada and in 2003 released We Were Born In a Flame. His major-label debut earned him Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys) for Artist of the Year, Rock Album of the Year and Album of the Year. While in Canada, the band headlined to sell-out crowds, just a few hours south of Montreal, they played to half-empty rooms and primarily served as a supporting act. At the conclusion of the Chemical City tour in August of 2007, the band went back into the studio to begin work on their fourth album. On May 20, 2008 they released Love At The End Of The World, which debuted in the #1 spot on the Canadian album charts, notably, outselling Madonna's Hard Candy, released only a few weeks prior (see JamBase's review of Love... here). A week later, the band introduced the album to a sell-out audience in Montreal and has been touring since. Well into their seventeenth month on the road in support of Love At The End Of The World, the Sam Roberts Band played The Blender Theatre at Gramercy in New York City.
The band took the stage and wasted no time with keyboardist Eric Fares jumping right into the opening, bluesy piano chords of "Detroit '67," the band's most recent single, which pays homage to the eponymous city and its sordid past. The audience was split between Roberts devotees, who crowded the stage and danced uninhibitedly, and about 35 people who sat awkwardly in the rear seating area, all appearing to be on bad first dates. As the band seamlessly segued into the fifth track on the new album, "Fixed to Ruin," a lively, no-nonsense rock song, the floor pulsed with energy.
The house mix, while spotty on vocals, was exceptionally well balanced instrumentally. James Hall (bass) and Josh Trager (drums) provided thunderous rhythm to Roberts' and Dave Nugent's perfectly synced, crashing guitars. If there was any room for air to pass through the speakers it was filled by Fares' dynamic keyboard stylings, which ranged from straight blues piano to ambient synth.
| Sam Roberts :: 09.24.09 :: NYC|
A few songs into the set the band revisited an older song from their catalog, "Where Have All the Good People Gone?," before returning to the new album with "Up Sister" and the downtempo, despairingly reflective "Sundance."
If there was a set break, then this was it, for all of about 25 seconds as Roberts switched out his Telecaster for an acoustic Gibson. Then it was back to business with "Bridge To Nowhere." After another brief guitar switch, the band launched into a blazing performance of the title track from Love At The End Of The World, rolling the same energy right over into the anthemic "The Resistance." The combination of the two hard-driving songs led to a climax that brought the entire house to its feet (notably those in the balcony who were half-asleep for the first two-thirds of the show).
Roberts ditched his guitar entirely for "Brother Down," which when performed live features Roberts moving around the stage, singing and shaking his shit like a slightly less animated Mick Jagger. The band closed out their set with "Them Kids," a riotous recognition of and response to the fact that the younger generations seem to be missing a grasp on what rock & roll is really all about: Dancing.
As the band thanked the audience and headed backstage, the crowd grew increasingly louder. As a barometer of the quality of the performance only six people, all from the seated area, headed for the doors.
After a brief absence, the band returned to the stage to roaring applause. Eric Fares and James Hall led the band into a neo-psychedelic, Doors-esque cover of the 1970s English band Hawkwind's "Hurry on Sundown." They followed with "Hard Road," a post-punk, commonsense critique/celebration of life's imperfections.
| Sam Roberts Band :: 09.24.09 :: NYC|
As the refrain from "Hard Road" drifted towards its conclusion, many of the Roberts faithful were anxiously anticipating what has become a signature close to many of the band's concerts, "Mind Flood." Since its inception into the Roberts Band repertoire, no show has felt complete without an extended version of this epic song. With its many time changes, crescendos and blazing solos, "Mind Flood" symbolizes the various rock styles that Roberts and his band have come to master. On this night they pulled it off with such energy and sincerity that it felt like another show altogether. At one point Dave Nugent was on his knees in an apparent attempt to break every string on his Telecaster as the lights strobed overhead and shrouded him in dark blue shadows.
It is unclear to this writer whether the Sam Roberts Band is trying to break into an existing market or attempting to revive a genre on life-support. The band represents the evolution of rock music in its entirety; they do not epitomize any single rock genre, they exemplify them all (well, most of them anyway). There are strong elements of blues, psychedelia and early punk coupled with a strong foothold in the "singer-songwriter" tradition - that is, to say, each song can be traced back to a man and his guitar. As for reasons why and how they have come to represent six decades of rock & roll while maintaining their creative integrity and organic sound, Sam Roberts may have said it best: "We signed a record deal with a lot more clout in the creative department and since that day we've dug in our heels and fought tooth and nail to never give up the upper hand. And that's allowed us to keep making records the way we want to keep making them. We've been incredibly stubborn and hard-headed, not relinquishing that little bit of control that we managed to get."
As for future efforts, Roberts spoke of having already begun to lay the groundwork for a new album, which will likely be released sometime next spring. To audiences, the Sam Roberts Band seems to play every show like it were their last, while in reality they are simply that good. The band seems poised to continue traveling down the hard road, dancing every step of the way.
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