John K. Samson / Tom Keenan The Good Will Social Club, Winnipeg MB, November 23

John K. Samson / Tom Keenan The Good Will Social Club, Winnipeg MB, November 23
Photo: Kaitlyn Emslie Farrell
Local singer-songwriter Tom Keenan opened the show with a collection of earnest and well-crafted tales about love, life, youthful indiscretions and Shakespeare. While Keenan's stage presence is engaging (likely a result of his acting background), at times, his stripped-down songs could benefit from additional instrumentation, either with an extra guitar, piano or some soft percussion. Despite most of the crowd being unfamiliar with his debut album, Romantic Fitness, he had them doing backup vocals and had their full attention during his well-executed opening set, which isn't always an easy thing to do.

Over the past 20-plus years, few artists have embodied the spirit of Winnipeg more than John K. Samson. From his days playing bass for one of North America's most influential punk bands, Propagandhi, to his time with the literary-leaning Weakerthans, to his current focus as a solo artist, Samson has never been an obvious cheerleader for the city, but rather weaves together observations, forgotten history and stories about the places and people that make up life on the prairies.

Kicking off the show with "Heart of the Continent" from 2012's Provincial, Samson may not play a lot of solo and acoustic shows, but he seemed comfortable and relaxed on stage as he reworked old Weakerthans material, played a couple new, unreleased songs and kept the sold-out crowd wondering what was next throughout the hour long show.

With so many songs that people identify with in his back catalogue, fans weren't going to hear everything they wanted to, but when songs like "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue," "Pamphleteer" and "Left and Leaving" were played, it was apparent those older cuts meant something significant. While the city that Samson has been writing about since his first unofficial solo release on cassette, Slips and Tangles, has changed over the past two decades, many of the themes in his songs have remained true. Winnipeg may have a new arena and football stadium, a fancy new airport, a recently opened human rights museum, a new rapid bus corridor, the Jets and more entertainment options, but the underlying issues of urban decay in the downtown, suburban sprawl, young people moving away, poverty and a racially divided population still exists.

Revisiting "Time's Arrow" from 2003's Reconstruction Site before moving into two new songs, the uptempo "Fellow Traveller," which is only the second song Samson has written that is set outside of Manitoba, and "Oldest Oak at Brookside," about a tree you can see from the city's gleaming new airport. While "Fellow Traveller" had a certain charm, neither song really stood out in the way that the life-long Winnipegger's storytelling usually does.

The tail end of his intimate set had a heart-warming sing-along during "One Great City" (the unofficial anthem of Winnipeg) and crowd favourite "My Favourite Chords."

Between stories about his curling team, Buffer Zone, (a reference to the city's mosquito fogging in the summer), songs about rural Manitoba, Highway 23 and toasts to forgotten hockey heros, Samson's passion and drive to try and understand the forgotten stories of the prairies came shining through during the night.

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