You don't need to tally up the U-Haul trucks or mattress-carrying freshmen in town to figure out it's "back to school" weekend in Halifax. You can taste it in the air, hear it wafting through windows, buzzing in the streets. Each year, on the first weekend of September, the entire feel of the city changes, seemingly overnight, as thousands of new students arrive to make their mark — figuratively and academically.
John K. Samson spent the afternoon before his Saturday night, Halifax Urban Folk Festival (HUFF) headlining show walking around Halifax, taking it all in. "I saw all these parents bringing their kids to college," he said from the Carleton stage, dedicating his academia lament "Postdoc Blues" to those students. "They sort of break my heart."
When I was in those undergrads' shoes, my broken hearts and academic laments were soundtracked by Samson's songs. Weakerthans albums like Left and Leaving and Reconstruction Site rarely left my rotation in my college years — an experience I'm sure many rock-oriented Canadian college kids of my vintage have in common. The band's records never lacked for immediate pleasures, but Samson's characters were filled with such rich detail that the real joys came when you let them burrow under your skin, their minutia interweaving with the plot points and miniature dramas of your own life.
The Class of 2021 arriving in Halifax this weekend will undoubtedly find their own troubadours to sing them through their college years. But for the sold-out crowd at the Carleton Saturday night, it was Samson they came to celebrate.
For those who have not been to a HUFF headlining show before, the format is a bit unique. The main set is preceded by a songwriters' circle featuring the weekend's other two headliners and a third, typically local artist. (Saturday night, it was the Pursuit of Happiness' Moe Berg and North Carolina singer-songwriter Tift Merritt together with PEI's Nathan Wiley). But, more significantly, the headliners are backed by "the Halifax All-Stars" — a group of local players brought together specifically for the show. In Samson's case, that meant Michael Belyea on drums, Sean MacGillivray on bass and backing vocals, and past Weakerthans touring member Daniel Ledwell on lead guitar.
Going into the show, I expected the quartet to focus more on Samson's solo material, which certainly had its moments in the set, including a sneering "Vampire Alberta Blues" and a fun, upbeat "Cruise Night." Instead, the night played like a tribute to Samson's entire career as a songwriter and, accordingly, a tribute to the Weakerthans themselves.
"[This is] a lot of songs I haven't played in a long time," said Samson after opening the show with Reconstruction Site's "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call."
It's not like Samson shies away from his Weakerthans material these days; fan favourites like "One Great City!" and "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute" often make appearances. But the volume of Weakerthans material in Saturday night's show (14 of 19 songs) was noteworthy, as were some of songs that made appearances, like "Psalm," "Exiles Among You" and "Watermark" (the latter of which, at least according to setlist.fm's crowdsourced documentation, Samson's never performed solo).
"This one was composed in the '90s, so it's loud, then quiet, then loud again," said Samson, introducing "This is a Fire Door Do Not Open," another old favourite that's now a rarity. "That's how we did it back then."
The songs were fast and energetic — perhaps the result of the All-Stars' enthusiasm, attacking the songs without the lagging weight of familiarity. But they weren't the only ones who were all smiles bashing through songs like "Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist." Samson's grin seemed stuck from ear to ear all night, while the crowd clearly struggled to stay in the Carleton's seats, slapping knees and bouncing heads with every drum beat and chord change.
The band took a breather mid-show as Samson performed Weakerthans songs "Hospital Vespers," "One Great City" and "Bigfoot!" by himself, as well as "17th Street Treatment Centre" from last year's Winter Wheat. Even these performances seemed buoyed by the overall energy in the room — they were bright, vibrant, sparkling in their tone and temperament. The encore, similarly performed solo, was the same: familiar songs "Aside," "Night Windows" and "My Favourite Chords" infused with newfound joy.
I'm always wary of nostalgia's looming gaze when sitting through a show that feeds me such familiarity. But I confess this felt different — a show less about the power these songs once had in my life, and more about how much life there still is in these songs. It's like they're still there, fully formed, waiting for others to discover their details, to soundtrack their heartaches and hardships.
Or, perhaps, they're just waiting for a proper reunion tour. Because someday (maybe? probably?), the Weakerthans are going to get back together and play these songs again. And, if they're played with the enthusiasm as they were on Saturday night, it's going to be something special.