Published Jul 02, 2014Canada Day concerts, by their very nature, tend to be a mixed bag — not just in that they feature a variety of different artists, but in the extracurricular tomfoolery department. Tuesday's (July 1) free show at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth had its share of the latter: comically absurd lines for everything from beer to bathrooms; having your headliner stop their set two songs in to wait for the fireworks display to start (and then starting again ten minutes later because it was taking too long to clear boats from the harbour); between-set music that seemingly forgot it was Canada Day, relying heavily on the works of Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and Will Smith; and, particularly alarming, a shooting and a stabbing in close proximity to the venue.
No matter how beautiful the day is — and Tuesday in Halifax was one for the ages — putting up with thousands of other people at a free outdoor show has its drawbacks. The question, then, is whether or not the music itself is worth it. For the most part, last night's city-sponsored festival delivered.
Following a workmanlike set by Halifax riff-rockers Alert the Medic and the sunny-day pop stylings of Vancouver's the Belle Game, the venue started to fill up for later acts Ben Caplan and July Talk. Scheduling those two acts back-to-back risked an overdose on Tom Waits-style grizzled vocals, but there was enough difference in the musical styles that the pairing worked. Caplan's on-the-nose debts to Waits have always been a hurdle for me in terms of getting into his records, but there's no denying he's an incredibly infectious, boisterous live performer.
Along similar lines, at the heart of July Talk is the demonstrative push and pull between singers Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay. They pair the sonic tension between their vocal styles with physical constraint: they hold, push, grab one another throughout the show with an intensity that's smoldering. Their material still has that "first album" feel to it — the energy of songs like "Guns and Ammunition" proves more engaging than the songs themselves — but the band has a promising career ahead if they can continue to channel that intensity.
As for headliner the Sam Roberts Band, their set suffered somewhat from the aforementioned fireworks-break-that-wasn't two songs into the show. It took Roberts a while to break into his big, CanCon-friendly hits. There are two sides to his back catalogue: one relying on slinky, swaggering groove; the other on sharp, catchy hooks. (Think "Brother Down" and "Don't Walk Away Eileen," his first two singles, as great examples of each.) My struggle with Roberts in recent years is that I've always found him to be much, much more entertaining when he leans on his pop tastes, but over time the band has sided with jammy grooves, meaning it's sometimes hard to tell songs like "Shapeshifters" and "The Last Crusade" apart.
But live, Roberts and company make it work. They did so Tuesday in a manner akin to their opening acts: with intensity. Up close, you could see the spit in every syllable as Roberts found new life in tracks from last year's Lo-Fantasy alongside hit songs he's played hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. The best example was probably "Brother Down," the penultimate song of the 13-song main set. (The two-song encore featured "We're All In This Together" and "Don't Walk Away Eileen.") "Brother Down" is a CanCon staple, and one that Roberts has probably had to play at every show of his for more than a decade, yet he tackled it with a fighter's poise, bouncing around onstage and leaving his guitar behind to dance out into the crowd, feeding off their energy.
Sometimes, it takes effort to make it through a hot festival show — for fans and artists alike — but Roberts had what it took on Tuesday.