Not only is Cleveland the only club show Winnipeg melodic punk band the Weakerthans are playing all summer, but it’s also one of only two U.S. shows. After nearly a year of touring behind its newest album, Reunion Tour, the band is spending a few months playing only weekend shows, most of which have been Canadian folk festivals. But singer and guitarist John Samson says his band doesn’t have a formula for playing festivals.
“We don’t really cater our festival shows any differently than our club shows,” he says via phone. “We don’t really do anything differently. We play the same show we always play, I think. That sounds boring! I just mean we try to play the same way at a festival that we do in a club, which is where we’re the most comfortable.”
The band, which plans to take most of the winter off and continue playing a few shows in the spring, is finishing the touring cycle for Reunion Tour — a record that Samson describes as the next logical chapter after the past two albums — but hasn’t even started thinking about a next edition to its discography. Instead, the band focuses on playing balanced sets of all its material in a way that keeps it interesting to members.
“We do about an even number of songs off the last three records and a couple off the first one,” says Samson. “I like including all the songs. I like putting new songs in a set with the older songs and seeing what they do to each other. I think that’s kind of exciting.”
Older songs, like those off the band’s seminal and representatively emotive 2000 album, Left and Leaving — which got some notoriety when the song “Aside” landed in the closing credits of the hit film Wedding Crashers — may not continue to have the same emotional resonance for Samson as when he first wrote and started playing them. But that’s exactly why he still likes playing them.
“They change,” he says. “I think that’s the hallmark of a song that can do something — that it can change with you, in a way. I think their meanings change in every context and everywhere and every place they’re played, and who they’re played by and who we are at that time. All those things coming into play. That’s the great thing about live music — that the songs can get up and walk around and live in a different way.”
Playing these live shows, particularly daytime festivals, where Samson says much of the audience sits in lawn chairs and stares at him, can be more of a frustrating experience than the fans may realize. Plus, for the Weakerthans, which plays some introspective, hushed numbers, the cell-phone era can have a bit of a distracting impact.
“One of my cheats, if I’m feeling weird at a show anywhere, is I just stare at our sound guy,” Samson says. “He waves at me, makes funny faces. I think that we’re more aware of what’s going on in the audience than the audience thinks. Occasionally, you get a few audience members who I swear must think they’re watching TV.”
Samson’s awareness of his audience isn’t necessarily always negative, though. He is often able to see the faces of longtime Weakerthans fans in the crowd, something that is anchoring and encouraging for a band that’s been around for about a decade.
“I always enjoy going to a place like Cleveland, because there’s people I can always pick out of the audience there,” he says. “It’s a thrill. We go to these places once or twice a year. That idea of walking into a place you’ve played before — everything kind of falls into place. You remember what it looks like, what the lighting is like, all these details. And then the people start to arrive and you recognize a few of them. It’s a nice feeling.”