The Strumbellas @ MTelus – 27th June 2019

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My primary worry is that The Strumbellas are a poor man’s Lumineers (who are themselves the stripped-down Mumford & Sons). It’s not that I don’t like their music. It’s just that I worry, after having listened to their new album ahead of the show, that I won’t be able to identify them or their songs in a lineup. 

I also worry that as a JazzFest show, it won’t be full of true fans, but people (like me) who know one song and just love hitting up live shows. It’s also a not-very-jazz show to be featured as part of JazzFest. To my ear, it’s folk rock with deep country roots, though I’ve seen is described as “farm emo” and “gothic”

It’s sort of ironic to say that lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Simon Ward was inspired to write their most famous song, “Spirits,” the one that comes up every time you click their name on Spotify. In an interview with The Star, he explains, “I was going through an exceptionally hard time and this song and most of the record was just about, ‘I’m not happy’ … I felt like a loser. A lot of doubt, a lot of lack of self-worth. ‘Spirits’ and most of the record is just about, ‘I feel down, I don’t feel like a good person, I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job, but I’m going to try.’”

And yet, the latest album, Salvation, is terribly uplifting when you hear it live. In spite of it’s opening statement: “Well I know it gets harder every single day/And I know my darkness will never go away,” “We Don’t Know” is energizing. Isabel Ritchie tears into her violin with verve. And following that song, keyboardist and vocalist Dave Ritter, wearing a namesake hat and shirt with a banana motif, engages the audience. He’s upbeat, and it’s a nice big crowd, and he reminds us not why we’re gathered here tonight, but that we are, when he says, “we usually listen to music alone, on our headphones, in a dark closet… but not tonight!” It’s also a nod to the type of music it is. It’s not depressing, but it is about depression. Similarly, when, ahead of playing “Salvation,” Dave introduces it as “a really slow song about dying,” someone yells “all your songs are about dying” and he admits it’s true.

When Ward eventually engages the crowd, around song five, he speaks terrible French and it really gets the crowd going, as we all appreciate a good attempt and a ridiculous accent. He takes the opportunity to thank the crowd and remind us that they weren’t so well received in Montreal a few years ago, a nod to, or perhaps a headshake at the success of “Spirits.” I’m understanding why Dave spoke first. And I feel for the singer, who wears his sunglasses throughout the show. I wonder if there’s tension, or something going on behind the scenes. Statistically, it seems probable that some of the bands I see are not as happy-go-lucky behind the scenes as they appear to me onstage. 

I’m playing armchair psychologist, a job better left to Dax Shepard

There were songs about a sheriff or a sailor or a soldier. There was “The Party,” a song for a sad stoner, but “One Hand Up” was the cure – though uncannily reminiscent of K’NAAN’s “Waving Flag.” They broke out the tambourines for  “In This Life,” an Irish jig. My back and knees started to ache during “We Were Young,” (insert obvious joke here) and I had to find a seat, which was easier than it had been when I first tried before The Strumbellas took the stage and literally brought people to their feet (and those feet to the dance floor). Their last few songs were for the fans – they sang along to the anthemic “I’ll Wait,” stomped and clapped all the way up through the balcony to the back row during “Wild Sun” before ending with, yup, you guessed it: “Spirits.”

For the encore, Ward finally removed his sunglasses and hat and did a cover of Blind Melon’s “Soup” with just lead guitarist Jon Hembrey, which feels like a bizarre choice. The rest of the band returns for “Shovels & Dirt.” It’s a bit of a letdown, and I feel like maybe they should have just left on a high note. I’m picking up on the emo/goth influence, especially when they leave you with the reminder that “if we all die young then we don’t get hurt.”

These were songs for rainy days and for road trips. They were songs to sing around a campfire and to make you feel less alone in a crowd. There were some Lumineer-ish sounds, and subjects, but I’d argue that there’s room for The Strumbellas, too. 

1. We Don’t Know
2. Young & Wild
3. In This Life
4. Salvation
5. The Party
7. Running Scared
8. Sailor’s Blues
9. One Hand Up
10. Wars
11. We Were Young
12. The Sheriff
13. I’ll Wait
14. Wild Sun
15. Spirits 

16. Soup (Blind Melon cover)
17. Shovels & Dirt

Review – Carrie-Ann Kloda
Photos – Eric Brisson

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