Sam Roberts has built an impressive career in a reasonably short period of time here in Canada, building solid tunes on the back of a sort of Beatles meets the Waterboys sound, and with a voice that suggests to me a Split Enz-era Neil Finn with just a dash of George Harrison. How’s that for stylistic shorthand? Sam Roberts performed last Friday night in Surrey just outside of Vancouver for the Olympic celebrations, and it occurred to me what a national treasure he is.
The song to me is about gathering memories as treasures, and having those memories be what counts most, even beyond death which, in contrast to the power those memories hold, is relieved of its menace. It’s an epic pop song that seems to suggest Quebecois folk music textures at the same time. The lyrics evoke primal connections, with echoey, Daniel Lanois-esque guitars, and passionate vocals. Roberts and band sound modern while also remaining to be connected to a guitar-based pop music tradition of the past as well. What’s not to love?
Yet, Canada being Canada, I sometimes worry about artists like Sam Roberts. Artists like him in more recent years are often forgotten due to the short-sightedness of our Canadian music industry, a reactionary creature that tends to follow trends rather than setting them. This tendency is unhelpfully coupled with a memory to be compared to that of a goldfish when it comes to investing in long-term careers. But, the good will out, even in an environment where the domestic market is treated as though it needs protecting – which it doesn’t.
Despite our knee-jerk culturally institutionalized inferiority complex, something I did notice at the show in Surrey was the crowd. I saw guys, girls, teens, people in their 50s, and older, all taking in the superlative handle that Roberts has on melody, on lyrical imagery, and on ensemble playing. It made me think that Roberts’ main skill with a song like “Lions of the Kalahari”, and many of his other songs, is his ability to reach a sort of musical critical mass, creating a sound that appeals to this wide range of fans without it sounding as though he’s trying to do it in a blanded out, corporate rock sort of way.
And that is the mark of an artist likely to stick around.