The very first album I ever bought, when I was 10 years old, was Barry Manilow. It was the 1970s and the musical choices for a child of that age were limited. Popular culture of the time oscillated between sappy overproduced love songs and really poppy-sounding disco. There were other genres of course, with bands like Queen and Kiss, for example, alternatively rocking and shocking people. But most of those were too extreme, or sophisticated, for a child of my age.
Growing up with Rock and Roll
Since then my musical tastes have expanded greatly. Regardless of which genre, type, or era a musician or band is from, the most important thing to me is the live show. If players cannot represent themselves properly during a concert, I have no interest in their music. That doesn’t mean they have to sound exactly like their albums, it just means they have to be able to play something remotely resembling the music they are selling.
My absolute favourite live concert experience, of any kind, is the outdoor show. Finding a spot with good sound is more important to me than being able to see the stage, so I usually place myself in front of, or to either side of, the sound booth.
This summer I was able to see two very different, totally current, bands at outdoor shows. One was Sam Roberts Band, out of Montreal, Canada, and the other was Foster the People, based in Los Angeles, California.
Sam Roberts plays guitar rock with a twist of funky percussion and looping rhythms. Born in South Africa and raised in Montreal, Roberts’ songwriting is influenced by his love of Latin music. He first learned how to play on a Spanish guitar his father gave him when he was 12 years old.
Foster the People, lead by singer Mark Foster, play a contemporary mix of rock and electropop. The band quickly rose to fame after it released the very danceable “Pumped Up Kicks.” Although young, the players are competent enough to pull off large-venue shows, and usually find themselves in front of an equally young — and very enthusiastic — audience.
Sam Roberts Band
I have seen Sam Roberts live a few times, including a couple of outdoor shows. The most recent was this past summer at a free show for Canada Day on July 1, in Cloverdale, British Columbia. Cloverdale is a largely agricultural suburb about an hour from Vancouver.
Seeing a free show is always tricky because there will be some people who are not really fans of the band. I find a good way to avoid being around people who might not be paying attention to the music is to get reasonably close to the front. Luckily the Cloverdale show was in a big field, so the casual viewers spread themselves out far back from the stage.
Sam Roberts released his first album, an EP titled “The Inhuman Condition”, in 2001. With his band, he has recorded five full-length albums and toured extensively. The shows are relatively bare, with only the players and a light show for visual entertainment. The set always includes a few consecutive songs for which Roberts, as lead singer and rhythm guitar player, ditches his guitar and moves about the stage freely, dancing and encouraging audience response.
The Sam Roberts Band song catalogue ranges from basic rock and roll songs, generally about love and life, to thoughtful, insightful songs about society and the Canadian experience and full-on dance numbers. The shows are well crafted to allow for changes in mood: a few guitar-rock songs which get everyone waving their hands in the air, then some deeper, more ponderous numbers followed by some dance beats which get the audience’s feet moving.
For the encores, the band ends with extended versions of some songs, including a lengthy jam in the middle of one. This is where the players really get to enjoy themselves and stretch their creativity. I, along with many others, find myself unable to keep still, but I always notice people here and there standing transfixed by the spectacle before them.
I leave a Sam Roberts Band show feeling uplifted, entertained, and with my spirit refreshed. The run time is usually close to two hours.
Foster the People
I have seen this band live once only. The venue, Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, BC, is a short trip from Vancouver. The beauty of the surrounding scenery and the gentle uphill slope of the field are ideal for enjoying a great concert on a lovely summer day.
Despite their youth, it is fair to expect a quality show given the band’s almost non-stop touring for the past year. There was a lot of effort put into the production values, which were quite good. The visuals included some amusing inflatable objects adorning the stage, art work backdrops, video screens, and light show. Lead singer Foster plays rhythm guitar and keyboards on some songs, while for others he engages the audience with animated dancing.
The main act started with an instrumental intro to “Miss You”. The audience expressed their love the instant Foster appeared from behind a curtain dressed in a white suit and in full dance mode. As if on cue, whichever audience members may still have been sitting on their blankets promptly jumped up and started dancing as well.
Foster chose to sit at a piano and play some philosophical, more ponderous material for a few songs in the middle of the show. I appreciated the sentiment, especially when he explained between songs what he had been writing about, but the mini-set was too long. It broke the tempo of an otherwise upbeat, energetic concert. I fear the young audience, many of whom may not been to many live shows, failed to grasp the point and got kind of bored.
The error was rectified soon enough, although some of the wind had been taken out of the band’s sails. I suspect that the extensive touring schedule was getting tiring. Foster made a comment about how they would soon be home in Los Angeles, and he was looking forward to a break. By the time the wildly popular “Pumped Up Kicks” came on the band’s energy was flagging. I would also guess that the song is getting a bit stale for the players, it having been a huge hit for about two years already. They played an alternate version, which remained true enough to the original to keep the audience happy but was different enough to prevent fatigue for the players.
The young audience seemed blissfully unaware of these few small failings. By the time the concert ended after dark the light show really electrified the crowd and the dance rhythms of the final few songs put everyone in a happy, dancing mood.