The Sheepdogs at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, on Saturday The War on Drugs at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on Friday
The Saskatoon history-repeaters showed up strong on Saturday at Lee’s Palace, the second of two sold-out shows at the black box on Bloor Street. The Sheepdogs did their stoned choogle and Southern-rock dreaming to beery applause and encouragement. The experience was an homage to the wheat-field soul of the Guess Who, the blue-jeaned boogie of Grand Funk Railroad and the peach-brandy blues of the Allman Brothers.
The members of this shaggy Saskatchewan quartet weren’t born when that music originally went down, though. In the 1970s, the Sheepdogs weren’t even a gleam in Randy Bachman’s beard.
The Sheepdogs burst into North American pop culture this summer. By winning an inaugural contest (Do You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star?), the bar band went big, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, scoring a record contract with Atlantic Records and landing a spot opening for a Kings of Leon tour.
They also pocketed some cash – enough to pay for their groovy go-go-girl light columns.
First was The One You Belong To, a piece of radio-friendly pyschedelia and three-part harmonies from the band’s long-player Learn & Burn. Singer-guitarist Ewan Currie, a burly and hairy fellow with a smooth Burton Cummings croon, sang “with the start of a song, I do more right than wrong – you belong to the one you come from.”
True enough, the Sheepdogs are beholden. They chugged soulfully on Who?, the mid-tempo single that answers Humble Pie. And on the woozy finale of Neil Young’s Down by the River (performed on a stage crowded with guitarists who played earlier in the night), an iconic Canadian was given his due.
“Be on my side, I'll be on your side, baby,” Currie sang, soft as his sheepskin vest, “there’s no reason for you to hide.” Absolutely, the Sheepdogs play it straight and cool, with influences worn proudly on their sleeves. Everything rocks and nothing ever dies – these guys are welcome throwbacks.
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“If there’s a weight on you, then it’s on me too.” Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs sang that line early in his band’s groovy set at the sold-out Horseshoe. His sneer invited, like a crinkly-smiling Tom Petty; the two-chord lysergic glide of Your Love is Calling My Mind set the tone – lighten your load, leave the driving to someone else.
The song segued into an instrumental passage before making its way to the shimmering Come to the City, where Granduciel and band came back to its seductive roam: “I’m just ramblin’, only driftin’.
Somewhere along the ride – maybe 40 minutes along – familiarity set in. The music of the Philadelphia four-piece was seamless, maybe too much so. Guest saxophonist Joseph Shabason of Toronto added a squelched squawk; samples and keyboards soothed. The bassist had to him a nice busyness and John McVie bounce, and the drummer fuelled a head-nodding rhythm. Granduciel phrased like Dylan vocally. His Firebird electric was capoed, allowing for fluid, open-chorded arpeggios.
After the gist was gotten, things didn’t seem so interesting, though. The set list drew from the band’s excellent hypnosis of this year, the album Slave Ambient. Selections from 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues were unmemorable diversions; a cover of the Grateful Dead’s Touch of Grey perked things.
There’s an addictive quality to the War on Drugs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get your fill. Granduciel sang about the “strong wind through my mind,” and to keep that flow running. But before the show was over, satiated fans had stepped off the ride – gathering their coats and taking leave.
By making a circular path, the road goes on forever. The War on Drugs didn’t finish its set, it faded away – walking off with no goodbye, and failing to return for an encore uncommanded. Adamant for the drift, the Dylanish Granduciel had no direction home.
The Sheepdogs play Sudbury, Ont., Dec. 12; Thunder Bay, Ont., Dec. 13; Winnipeg, Dec. 14; Regina, Dec. 15; Saskatoon, Dec. 16; Edmonton, Dec. 17; Calgary, Dec. 18; Penicton, B.C., Dec. 19; Vancouver, Dec. 20.