Friday, June 29, 2012

Sam City

Sam Roberts is not from Buffalo.

He’s from Montreal, Quebec. He’s been churning out songs with his current Sam Roberts Band since 2000, setting Canadian sales records while rocking a steady number of onstage Levi’s tuxedos in the process. He’s ruled the Rock Album category of Juno Awards for most of the past decade, has his music blasted over Montreal Canadiens home games, and probably can’t walk into a Pizza Pizza without having faded denim torn from his diminutive frame by crazed Degrassi fans.

Yes, Sam Roberts is Canadian. But, if you come down to Canalside for his band’s “Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor” performance tonight (with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals; lawn opens at 6 p.m.), you’ll see a guitarist and band whose style and substance may be the sonic embodiment of modern day Buffalo.

Roll through the tracks on 2001’s We Were Born In A Flame and you’ll hear a Cobblestone barroom. Cue up follow-ups Chemical City, Love at the End of the World or Collider and you’ll absorb the level of eclectic rock and roll variances found on a pub crawl down Allen Street. You’ll find mandatory Queen City rock riffs and optimistic melodies amid contemplative lyrics, all with a bit of rust on its edges. You’ll hear about hard roads, about how your friends will save you in the end; you’ll hear about a brother, graveyard shifts and love as deep as a coal mine. You’ll sing along with songs because you’re rhythmically lured in, even if you don’t like girls named Eileen or Maria (or necessarily agree with metaphorical stretches concerning the Taj Mahal). And, when you’re done with each album, you’ll play it again. And again. And again.

And another Canadian musician finds American fandom in Buffalo. In a city that’s showered QEW acts like Rush and the Tragically Hip with mania reserved for 70's-era Zeppelin or Springsteen, we’re attracted to the type of rough-hued northern musicianship not always appreciated by the rest of America. We’ve bought Matthew Good Band imports from Record Theatre, crossed the Peace Bridge for Sloan shows—and considered the memorization of Ron Hawkins lyrics required for over two decades. Simply put, we’ve always gravitated toward the honesty of blue-collar Canadian artistry.

But, with Roberts and today’s Buffalo, the cross-border connection seems different.

Sure, he was the pea-coated guitarist at 2008’s Winter Classic, charging through “Fixed to Ruin” on an outdoor riser between periods. And yes, the guy’s sold out Town Ballroom and other local venues over the past few years. But, he’s also a scruffy underdog who’s striving toward better times, albeit with an appreciation of the past. He’s an unassuming frontman who’s grinding forward not with huge singles, but with endless road work and a succession of solid albums. And, just like Buffalo, he’s adding new elements to his composition while not losing the essence of his act.

(Hell, on newer numbers like “The Last Crusade” and “Let It In,” Roberts joins bandmates Dave Nugent, Eric Fares, James Hall and Josh Trager to rip through their traditional guitar-and-percussion approach—and accommodate an intermingling of saxophone notes. This addition to their historical foundation could be considered the Sam Roberts Band’s Larkinville.)

With this connection understood, it’s appropriate that Roberts is opening up this summer’s “Rocks the Harbor” series. These are optimistic, adventurous times in Buffalo, with downtown renewal blooming amid a seemingly endless stream of outdoor music and 80-degree temperatures. Tonight, you’ll have a chance to see the best of the present, surrounded by glipses of the future. All the while, you’ll be serenaded by the guitar chords of the city’s possible soundtrack, with songs to make you gently sway, hoist a beer or head nod.

And once again, no: Sam Roberts is not from Buffalo. But tonight, you can assuredly count on him delivering a show that’s emblematic of the current rhythm of this city. 

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to "Up Sister" by the Sam Roberts Band.)

1 comment:

Laura Suttell said...

Thanks, Michael. I missed Sam Roberts this year, but caught them at Artpark last Sept. They nearly wore me out - at least seven encores, but I'm not complaining.