Folk Fest: Weakerthans talk power

By Garth Paulson

A band with strong roots in punk rock, odd literary references and revolutionary politics isn’t your typical performer at an Albertan folk festival. In fact, Winnipeg’s Weakerthans might fit in better on the annual Vans Warped Tour than the Calgary Folk Festival in Prince’s Island Park. Yet, the band was one of very few to make a return visit to this year’s festival.

“Well they asked us which was very sweet,” explains guitarist and lead singer John K. Samson on his band’s repeat performance. “We don’t get asked to tons of these. This is the first festival that ever asked us to play. I think the programming here is really forward thinking and they’re willing to take some risks. I’m really happy they asked us back. That’s what I love about the festival, I also love how contained it is geographically. It’s really close together and you’re in the city but you still feel like you’re in the country and the people are just great. It’s my favourite festival I think.”

This year the Weakerthans performed a wide variety of workshops, playing along such artists as Christine Fellows, Jackie Leven, Dany Michel and Chad Van Gaalen, all of which resulted in festival highpoints. Their solo set was typically energetic and flawless–bridging the gap between young and old festival attendees with their distinct brand of punk, folk, pop and country filled with Samson’s powerfully emotional, English major worthy lyrics. Their Sunday performance even contained a stirring rendition of “One Great City!” a song off their latest album, Reconstruction Site, which has garnered the band some ire in their hometown of Winnipeg.

“It’s understandable in the sense that people are kind of trained to listen to lyrics in a very superficial way because mainstream radio is a superficial medium,” Samson casually remarks, showing his punk roots through and through. “People don’t really think about lyrics that often. It’s hard for people to get their heads around the fact that the song is fictional, it has characters in it. It’s not me saying that I hate Winnipeg. I like that when someone comes up to me and complains about it because you get to have that discussion about what lyrics mean, what they should do and the responsibility of an artist. All of those are interesting discussions. I’ve had a lot of those in bars and on the street in Winnipeg. I think that song has accomplished something at least in making me think through those things and making other people think about it too.”

Still dealing with the success of Reconstruction Site since its 2003 release the Weakerthans exposure and underground star power continues to grow throughout North America. Despite a near-rabid fan base and a long string of critical praise Samson remains a soft spoken, unassuming rarity in the world of rock. Coming across more as an incredibly intelligent friend rather than a egomaniacal rock star, he is more comfortable quietly discussing world issues, including the recent Live 8 concert, than he is reflecting on his growing popularity.

“I think it was a very fine idea,” Samson says of the Live 8 concerts. “I actually haven’t given the matter much thought, but debt relief is a great issue. I think it’s wonderful that people have started to get behind it. People were complaining about rock stars actually saying something but I think the opposite is true. I think they should be saying things all the time. I think they should be doing stuff like this all the time. The people who organized that and performed at it acted as responsible citizens should. To complain about the fact that they’re making political statements is disturbing to me. Musicians have an unreasonable amount of power in our society so I think they should use it all the time, they should get whatever they can out of it because for the most part it’s a pointless power. It’s a power that is just silly and invented by the culture to sell things. In those very infrequent moments where they can actually do something good with their celebrity they should.”

Even if their music isn’t particularly folky in the traditional sense at least Samson and the Weakerthans’ message is. Maybe they aren’t such an oddity at a folk festival after all.

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