Monday, June 29, 2015

Great Lake Swimmers at The Troubadour - June 12, 2015

Nature, reflection and emotion meet headlong in Great Lake Swimmers

They periodically come down out of Canada to share their latest observations on life, love and the eternal struggle, usually accompanied with a new album. As a long time fan of Great Lake Swimmers it was most gratifying to see them reach an apex of their career as a performing band on Friday night, June 12th at The Troubadour. Fueled by the impact of their latest album, A Forest of Arms, their live performance was robust and energetic, not the usual laid back wistfulness I was used to. And love.

Tony Dekker, Erik Arnesen
I saw them first at Hotel Cafe in June 2007, though I can't remember what prompted me to check out their music in the first place. But I had Ongiara and was completely overwhelmed by it, particularly the song "Changing Colors" with its moving and prescient lyrics.  It may be the best song about death I have ever heard. I remember meeting Tony Dekker that night and shaking hands, but it was hurried and I only got to say how much his music was meaning to me, and how good they sounded. In October that year they played Spaceland, where I could get up close and really observe just how tight a band they are.

I caught them twice on their tour for 2008's Lost Channels in April, 2009 at Spaceland, again, and then in October, up town at El Rey. And it was another fine album. In May, 2012, on tour with New Wild Everywhere, I saw the band with their present members, a wonderfully collaborative set of musicians who give the appearance of really enjoying working together.

I arrived in time to enjoy the opening act, Tamara Lindeman of The Weather Station, also from Canada and on tour with GLS as a solo singer/songwriter in the early Joni Mitchell tradition. And she appeared worthy of the comparison with songs about relationships and the passage of life that had a rare and appealing quality. Her lovely soprano was strong and flexible, allowing her to explore upper, bird-like registers, but remaining robust in the mid ranges. I asked her about her band after the set and she usually plays with three other musicians. I would love to see that.

Great Lake Swimmers took the stage right at ten and launched right into the first song from A Forest of Arms, "Something Like A Storm" with a forceful and precise delivery. Now, they're always a very thoughtful and introspective band, and they still have that quality, but Tony Dekker's vocals seemed stronger and more dynamic than I remembered. That may have been the result of a superlative sound mix,but his voice was very strong . As much as I have applauded this band through the years, I feel I have underestimated them. They added a longer drum jam that ended the song at a fever-pitch. Very exciting.

Miranda Mulholland
Bret Higgins
Playing straight through the first six songs from the new album, but saving "Shaking All Over" for later, these sounded even more dynamic live than on the recording. Miranda Mulholland is an exuberant presence on violin and adds important vocal backing on many songs, Erik Arnesen on banjo and Bret Higgins alternating on upright bass and mandolin, round out the full sound and add a quality that makes Great Lake Swimmers much like a chamber ensemble. Special notice must be made of Joshua Van Tassel on drums who keeps the whole thing moving propulsively forward that has added a real punch to their sound.

The set included ten of the twelve songs on the new album, with a sampling from their past like "Moving Pictures" and "Your Rocky Spine", all greeted with the same enthusiasm from a loving audience. They perform with all the enthusiasm and vigor of a new band

Cinematic soundscapes that evoke the imaginary visual image of an icy tundra landscape comes easy to this band and effect is almost physical. It was a perfectly balanced set with a sing-a-long version of "I Must Have Someone Else's Blues", a robust "Shaking All Over" for a finale, and an encore that brought the band down into the audience for an electrifying acoustic version of "Still". It all made for one of the best concerts I've seen this year .

And I really underestimated their last album, New Wild Everywhere, because it came out on top of a bunch of other records that buried it at the time. Revisiting it now, I see it as one of their strongest records and a real precursor for what was to come on the new album.

Tony Dekker: guitar; Erik Arnesen: banjo, guitar;  Bret Higgins: upright bass, mandolin, piano; Miranda Mulholland: violin, backing vocals; Joshua Van Tassel: drums.

Set list:
1. Something Like A Storm
2. Zero In The City
3. One More Charge At The Red Cape
4. Don't Leave Me Hanging...
5. ...I Was A Wayward Pastel Boy
6. Put There By The Land...
7. ...Pulling On A Line
8. I Must Have Someone Else's Blues
9. The Great Bear
10. Your Rocky Spine
11. A Bird Flew Inside The House
12. Chorus Underground / Moving Pictures
13. Palmistry / The Great Exhale
14. Expecting You
15. Easy Come Easy Go
16. Shaking All Over

Encore: Still / Long May You Run