The Weakerthans

The Weakerthans Official Website!

By Gabe Kalmuss-Katz

WHEN: 1997-present

CULPRITS: John K Samson (vocals, guitar), Greg Smith (bass, vocals), Jason Tait (drums, saw, percussion), Stephen Carrol (electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, keyboards, vocals) / Former member: John P. Sutton (bass, vocals 1997-2003)

ALBUMS: Fallow (1997); Left and Leaving (2000); Watermark EP (2001); Reconstruction Site (2003); Reunion Tour (2007)

HOW: I was 14 and the escape of choice was the mall, and once we got to the mall, the escape from the mall was Hot Topic. I picked up a punk compilation CD which couldn’t have cost more than 5 dollars; it was called Take Action, and was released by The Weakerthans’ US label at the time, Sub City. It had a demo version of “Everything Must Go!”,  the first track on their second album. I don’t think I fell madly in love, but I was interested enough to buy their (at the time) new album, Left and Leaving. At which point, I subsequently fell madly in love. I’ve gone to see the band at least six times since then (and plan on adding to that tally later on this week).

WHY: The Weakerthans are a Canadian rock band, formed by the former bassist for Propagandhi a little more than 10 years ago. Their songs feel like they coalesced when the sun hit black ice on a section of the Trans-Canada highway a few miles outside of Winnipeg, the band’s home, and their perennial subject and vantage point.  If you listen to enough songs by the Weakerthans, you will know Winnipeg, deeply, without ever crossing the border.

A large part of the appeal of the band is John K. Samson, the band’s singer and lyricist, a storyteller and a poet. It’s easy to call songwriters those two things and really mean “they’ve got a way with words and sometimes they turn those words into narratives,” but Samson’s lyrics are honest-to-god poems that happen to be seamlessly set to music. What Weakerthans lyrics have the capacity to do is what the best poetry should do: present words you’re used to in a way that makes them exciting, moving, and relevant. It doesn’t hurt matters of poetry, that on occasion, his songs are written in perfect sonnet form.

But there’s even more than that, because a good writer who only writes love songs can grate after a while. Samson’s not afraid to write a good love song every now and again, or a song or two from the point of view of a cat named Virtute (he’s got two stellar ones), but as I hear it, his chosen topic, the one that acts as floorboards for most of his songs, is home. He writes about it in obvious ways, like the ode to the collective drunken warmth of a local bar, “Wellingtons Wednesdays” (“The night’s a spill, a permanent stain” it begins).

He writes about home being a place you can’t leave, so all that’s left is to try to find some way to change within it, in the song “Fallow” (“We’ll carve new streets and sidewalks, a city for small lives. And say that we’ll stay just one more year”).

He writes about it being a place you can’t forgive for not letting you change in “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” (“And I love this place, the enormous sky, and the faces, hands that I’m haunted by. So why can’t I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labeled ‘home’ ”).

He talks about temporary homes, boxed up and repainted and now empty, and the desperate wanting for some kind of memory to last past the damage deposit in “Sun In An Empty Room” (“Parallelograms of white in rooms that we repainted white”).

He talks about home as a place where the only way to leave is to die, but not even that works, because just as the idea of home seems to haunt Samson, so do the people who once made up home, even after they’ve long died. His song “Night Windows” is about such ghosts, and Samson’s ends with a bunch of half-finished things he would say, were he to pass one of those specters on a fall Winnipeg night: “Remember How…I’m Sorry That…I Miss The Way…Could We.”

I think it appeals to me because I’m obsessed with the idea of home, of producing roots and lacerating them, when home changes and whether you grow with it or wriggle out it. Of civic pride in towns where most residents don’t know the name of the guy who founded their town. But you’ve all got homes, and these songs might make you think about them a little more. That’s what I can hope.

I do need to make it clear, it’s not just John’s show, and hopefully these songs prove that. Whether in the wood-worn solo of “Elegy for Elsabet” or the lilting Pedal Steel on “Benediction,” Stephen Carol is a beautiful, emotive guitar player. The rhythm section of Greg and Jason plow through punk song like a kid who’s a natural at driving stick, and support the band’s quieter tendencies with grace and innovation; see Jason’s drumming on “Left and Leaving” or Greg’s lulling bass on “Sun in an Empty Room.”

SONGS: The band has shed many of their noisier, punkier tendencies since their first album, but I wanted to give that wonderful side of them as much time as their later work. In some cases, the live songs I picked are personal preference and not that important, but the live take on “Benediction” (which still features Sarah Harmer’s vocals) is much better than the album version, a rare instance of overproduction on a Weakerthans track.  In addition, I’ve only included a few songs from the band’s most recent album, Reunion Tour. While I don’t think this album holds up quite as well as the band’s past releases, there are many worthwhile tracks on it, including first single “Civil Twilight” and part two in the Virtute saga, “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.”

NOTE: While The Weakerthans are not an especially prolific group (man is it tough to have a favorite band who make you wait 4-5 years between albums!), there is plenty of miscellanea to tide you over.  Check out Samson’s solo album, Little Pictures, which was recorded in between his split from Propagandhi and his formation of The Weakerthans. You can download it from G7 Welcoming Committee. In addition, I’d recommend the literate, intricate releases by Samson’s wife, Christine Fellows, which Samson often guests on. Jason Tait has recorded with Broken Social Scene.  Also, the band’s music videos are beautiful, funny, and always worth watching.

LINK: Click the list below to hear every album by The Weakerthans for FREE on!

Click to hear The Weakerthans for FREE on!


“Aside” from Left and Leaving

“Plea From A Cat Named Virtue” from Reconstruction Site

“Left and Leaving” from Left and Leaving


Gabe Kalmuss-Katz is a midwesterner at heart who recently semi-reluctantly moved from Michigan to Brooklyn. He has already scouted out the 5 liquor stores in New York City which sell Goose Island. He is a case manager at a restorative justice community court in Red Hook, and spends far too much of his time writing about music at his blog, Songs Save Lives.

~ by Brad East on October 8, 2009.

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