John K. Samson is not your typical singer/songwriter. Sure, he traffics in basic human emotions, just like the troubadour next door. He puts together plaintive and emotive melodies that touch the heart and raise the hair on the back of your neck. But what he doesn’t do, at all, is insult his audience’s intelligence by catering to their least common denominator.
If anything, listeners could be excused if they required an annotated reader and (perhaps a cipher) to assist with Samson’s lyrics. There are songs about P.G. Wodehouse. Songs about tuberculosis. Graduate school. Iceland. Diabetes. Manitoba. Songs about love, as understood through grammar. A song about a hockey player (Reggie Leach) Samson believes deserves a slot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And, of course, songs about cats. Of course, these songs aren’t about any of those things per se…except when they are. Often, they serve as extended metaphors that are deployed with dexterity and enunciated with aplomb. And quite often, they veer towards sort of hilarity-flecked-with-humility that Canadians have been smuggling across our northern border for decades.
Samson is best known for his work fronting the Winnipeg-based band The Weakerthans. In that iteration, recognition has included JUNO awards and the 2008 Polaris Music Prize for the album, Reunion Tour. Along the way, Samson has developed a set of fans passionate about his work, past and present, as evidenced by his karaoke-esque audience at Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat.
The show had a curious lack of promotion—only receiving a couple of perfunctory paragraphs worth of digital ink around town — which ensured that the crowd was packed with partisans vocal from the first strains of his solo acoustic opener, “One Great City!” (That particular Weakerthans song takes on a special irony as Samson sings about the Winnipeg Jets having left town, now recently reincarnated and currently locked in a playoff spot battle with the team playing for the city he was entertaining.) You don’t normally hear an audience shouting and singing and clapping to an acoustic number, but that’s just the sort of passion that Samson elicits. Or, maybe some folks just got good and toasted before the show.
The Provincial Band then joined the festivities, backing Samson with an electric guitar, stand-up bass and drum kit, which were occasionally supplanted by an electric bass and Samson’s beautiful Beardsell electric guitar (dropping the drum kit on some of the ballads). The hour-and-20-minute performance flitted about between slower, contemplative numbers and straight ahead drum-driven rockers like “Longitudinal Centre,” while also jumping between Samson’s solo work and Weakerthans’ tunes, sating a crowd intimately familiar with both parts of his post-Propagandhi career.
One highlight of the night, though, was more reminiscent of his punk days gone by: a cover of Jawbreaker’s “The Boat Dreams From the Hill.” All I can really say about that moment is: it was frenetic and awesome and absolutely killed. While his recent songs would more likely land him on Teenbeat than Dischord were he a D.C.-based artist, it is a testament to the songs’ captivating nature that the crowd didn’t lose steam, for instance, during the elegantly beautiful melancholy of “Left and Leaving.” If anything, these plaintive moments somehow elevated the intensity of the connection between Samson and his audience. I certainly got chills on a number of occasions. There may not be a huge buzz factor these days for a John K. Samson show, but the upside of that societal oversight is that it provides his audience with an intimate, spine-tingling, humor-filled experience that easily trumps the canned performances common from artists who have been toiling in the trenches as long as Mr. Samson. Do yourself a favor. Dig deep into his catalog and then go see the show.