Feature: Lights out at the Elks Lodge: RIP The Weakerthans

It really shouldn’t have come as a shock that The Weakerthans had finally called it a day on Tuesday night. Their last studio album, ‘Reunion Tour’ came out in 2007 and they hadn’t toured for a couple of years.

But, like all the best things, it’s the hope that keeps you hanging on; just one more tour or one more album to keep us happy. Now, for the time being, that hope has been extinguished. And that’s what has hit the hardest.

Like a cat, let’s call her Virtute, forgetting her name and finding herself lost as she struggles to find her way home; that was me trying to reason out The Weakerthans’ demise. My initial response was, naturally, one of shock. The Weakerthans had been a constant in my life for the last 15 years – almost to the day – and they’ve delivered the finest quartet of albums over their 18 year existence you could imagine. I can still remember buying ‘Left & Leaving’ from a record fair in Southampton back in 2000. I can honestly say it changed my life.

But, as I found myself listening through their back catalogue these last couple of days, it’s noticeable just how much material they’ve left us to help us get over their departure. It’s like they’ve been feeding us hints but we’ve been too blind to see. Maybe it’s just coincidence their last Facebook post, advertising a garage sale of their old unwanted stuff, echoes ‘Everything Must Go!’, the opening song on ‘Left & Leaving’. Either way, it’s now a typically poignant reminder about just how great – and understated – The Weakerthans were. No fuss, just brilliant, poetic, music.

Being UK based, one of the most striking things about being a fan of The Weakerthans was that it often felt like being in a special, secret, society – our very own little Elks Lodge. Even down to the shows, it would often be the same faces, a little older and a little greyer, who’d be in attendance; the guy who would shout “Thank you very much” after every song was at least three of the same shows I was.

Sometimes there wouldn’t be many of us either – a Birmingham show I attended was dreadfully sparse – yet they still played a killer set. But nights like that only increased the charm. You could guarantee every single attendee had obsessed over the lyrics, scrutinised the intonation and riddled out the meaning. If I was a lyricist who’d spent months researching ideas, those are the sorts of people I’d want at my gigs. On the other hand, some shows were mass sing-alongs and a huge amount of fun, the later ones with bassist Greg Smith, who joined the band in 2004 and retained the charm of a fan playing in his favourite band, some of my favourites.

Their final central London show just happened to be the same day as a Bright Eyes gig. It meant two of this generations greatest lyricists – Conor Oberst and John K Samson – in town on the same night. One played The Royal Albert Hall, the other The Garage. I’ll let you decide who played where. I’d originally planned to go to see Bright Eyes with my girlfriend, but broke the news that there’s no way I’d miss The Weakerthans if they were in town. It’s probably the only time in 8 years we’ve been to different gigs on the same night.

So, what happens next? Of course, John’s solo work will continue – or, at least I hope it will; if he decides to finish his music career that might be a bridge too far – but as he played some new songs just six months ago, that’s unlikely. Stephen Carroll did an outstanding job producing the last Details record, 2011’s ‘Lost Art’, even contributing some guest vocals, so I hope he’ll continue with this. If you haven’t checked it out, I can highly recommend it, not least of all because they also feature The Home Team’s Jon Plett.

Bassist Greg Smith is a successful artist – he painted the cover to The Weakerthans‘Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre’. You can pick up some of his work on the Weakerthans’ webstore if you have a big pile of money spare. He too has some solo material to his name. Perhaps we can expect more in the future…?

After a prolonged sense of sadness, I’m feeling much better about The Weakerthans, and their perfect legacy. It’s rare for a band to have such a uniformly excellent back catalogue, but ‘Fallow’, ‘Left & Leaving’, ‘Reconstruction Site’ and ‘Reunion Tour’ are all masterpieces in their own right. “Seems the most I have to offer doesn’t offer much,” sang Samson on Utilities, self-effacing and abashed until the end. The truth is The Weakerthans have given us far more than they could ever imagine.

So, Samson, Carroll, Smith and Tait, smile and take your awkward bows while we, in the UK Lodge, toast our most important absent members. Farewell… until the Reunion Tour…

The Weakerthans links: Website|Twitter|Facebook

Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)


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