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One Great City

Weakerthans indie-rock frontman John K. Samson is mad about Manitoba

I hate Winnipeg,” sings John K. Samson—lead singer of the Canadian indie rock band The Weakerthans—as he channels a fed-up dollar store clerk, a driver stuck in traffic, and The Golden Boy statue atop the Manitoba Legislative Building, on the sarcastically titled track “One Great City!” off the 2003 album, Reconstruction Site.
Samson’s hostility towards the capital city of Manitoba, Canada, is infectious—at least until the song ends with a final strum of guitar. After all, there must be a reason why Samson has chosen to live in the prairie town for his entire life.

“I definitely think about moving, but there’s lots of things that keep me here … it’s the place I write about the most,” he explains. According to Samson, “being incredibly familiar with a place can be good and bad”—the latter resulting in the aforementioned track, plus several others within The Weakerthans’ decade-long discography.

With Samson’s latest endeavor, Provincial, released this January, it is finally obvious how dear Winnipeg is to Samson, whom some know as the ex-bassist of popular punk outfit Propagandhi. Although the 12-track LP is unaffiliated with The Weakerthans, Samson’s solo album is just as raw and rock ’n’ roll as ever, allowing for an even more intimate invitation into his life, with the addition of string, brass and woodwind instruments.
“This project sort of started from me wanting an excuse to drive around the province I live in,” he admits. “I obsessed over this idea where if you wanted to, I could take you to the site of every song.”
Four major Manitoba highways wind through the album—a concept present within the lyrics and album artwork. Each song is represented by one of four symbols, except the final duet, entitled “Taps Reversed,” featuring Samson’s wife, Christine Fellows, on vocals and piano. The song is marked by a red “X” symbolizing “Home.”

Sitting shotgun for the journey that became Provincial, was his dog Lucy—sorry to disappoint fans who hoped he owned a housecat named Virtute—the narrator of many songs on Reconstruction Site and Reunion Tour (2007).  
“I always wanted to be a fiction writer growing up,” says Samson—co-founder of the  leftist propaganda and political literature-based publishing company, Arbeiter Ring Publishing—clearing up the Virtute/Lucy mix-up.
Though primarily a product of Samson’s imagination, the tracks on Provincial have some history. Samson conducted a great deal of research: “I went to the Manitoba archives in the local history room at the Winnipeg Library, [and] read about a lot of people at the Ninette Sanatorium.” This facility treated Manitobans infected with tuberculosis in the 1900s and now serves as a historical landmark for Samson’s album.

“There are definitely real people at the foundation of it all,” says Samson, even if they are portrayed as patients with X-ray-induced burn marks and “skinny ghosts dress[ed] like cowboys” during a Ninette Sanatorium Halloween party. This sixth track on the album (Samson’s personal favorite)—“Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”—is a chilling, folky four minutes of acoustic guitar, violin, and Samson’s typically twangy vocals.

His storytelling is showcased in the preceding song, also related to Highway 23: “When I Write My Master’s Thesis.” In this upbeat, guitar and drum-heavy lament of a listless grad student—a playful nod to Bob Dylan’s 1971 hit “When I Paint My Masterpiece”—Samson replaces Dylan’s lyrics of “Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,” with a more modern version: “Oh, the streets of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas fill with smoke.”

Back in town for the first time since his 2009 show at The Crepe Place, when he played alongside fellow Canadian Jason Collett of Broken Social Scene, Samson will hit The Catalyst Atrium on Sunday, April 8. And he is itching to show locals what he has up his sleeve. “It’ll be a mix of 20 years of my work as a songwriter,” he says.

John K. Samson plays at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, April 8, at The Catalyst Atrium, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $13/adv, $16/door. 423-1338.

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