The Weakerthans’ songs are often compared to short stories. The tunes are literary, with vivid characters caught up in emotional turmoil. And they’re usually very short time-wise. When the band takes those songs and speeds them up a notch live, it gives the Weakerthans a chance to rocket through a large chunk of its catalog. That in turn gives the band’s fans a good chance of hearing pretty much every song they desire. Such was the case when the Weakerthans stopped in Los Angeles on October 2. The band played a set of more than twenty songs to an adoring crowd that loved each one better than the last.
The band was preceded by two openers. Jeramy Fisher plied a dark, folky sound not unlike Elvis Perkins. The Last Town Chorus recalled Mazzy Star with its reverb-soaked aura, dominated by piercing lap-steel guitar lines. But guitarist/singer Megan Hickey came off as grating. She kept trying to joke about how the El Rey is a stones throw away from where Biggie Smalls was gunned down, and how she was honored to visit that site since she’s from Brooklyn. After this strange attempt at humor kept falling flat, she asked the audience, “Do you not know any Biggie Smalls jokes?”
After that awkwardness, the stage was set for the Weakerthans to kill even more. The band focused mainly on material from its two most recent albums, the recently released Reunion Tour and 2003’s Reconstruction Site. Weakerthans lead man John K. Sampson kept true to his punk roots, clad in an old Epitaph T-shirt. The band can certainly rock a mean hook, but Sampson’s bandmates seemed to take things overboard on the more up-tempo numbers, striking rock-star poses like some cheesy bar cover band.
Then again, Sampson has always been the firm center of the band, and if those around him were clowning, he was shining. Live, Sampson’s songwriting is just as touching as it is on record, from the grown up frustrations in songs like “Civil Twilight,” “Time’s Arrows,” and “Sun in an Empty Room” to the childlike wonder of “Reconstruction Site” and “The Reasons.” And earlier Weakerthans songs “Pamphleteer” off 2000’s Left and Leaving and “Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist” off the band’s debut album Fallow really got the crowd cheering.
After “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” put a rousing exclamation point on the band’s initial set, Sampson returned solo for the first song of the encore, the anti-Winnipeg screed ironically entitled “One Great City!” That crazy cat was featured again on Reunion Tour‘s “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” And the band pulled friends onstage to add trumpet to “Manifest” and percussion to closer “Reunion Tour,” which featured Samson on harmonium.