, but it was only two years ago, at the Yep Roc
15th anniversary show at the Cat's Cradle, that I fell for this Toronto-based quartet—hard. In the middle of a lineup of bands similarly indebted to 1960s Anglo pop, Sloan wowed the big room in an impassioned set with no skimping on the power part of the power pop equation. I’ve been poring over their immense catalog ever since—trying to figure out what took me so long.
Yet there’s a good reason why even passionate rock people are ignorant of Sloan: Despite 20 years of turning out smart, hooky songs, with everything from slamming indie rock with huge choruses to stripped-down garage stylings to immaculately constructed pop ear worms, Sloan is not a big name in these parts. In a recent visit to a local record shop, I found no Sloan vinyl and only dated CD copies of their records, promising online extras that are no longer available. When I inquired, the proprietor said he just doesn’t move a whole lot of Sloan. In Canada, it’s a different story. They play big halls and are widely revered, but here, on their own, the band is relegated to the 250-person capacity Cat’s Cradle Back Room. Their loss was our gain.
With four songwriters, all of whom sing and three of whom are multi-instrumentalists, Sloan is versatile to the extreme. Along with very few others (Moby Grape
and Teenage Fanclub come to mind), Sloan has been able to make this talent-heavy configuration work. Two competing songwriting egos is more than enough to break up a band. Somehow Sloan not only to balances its profusion of talent but blends the disparate sensibilities into a vibrant whole.
While Sloan can play to a huge room, there was some welcome latitude in the intimate setting. The band played two sets, with no opener and liberties happily taken, starting with the first song. Song is really a loose term for “Forty-Eight Portraits”
—which is not available as a single $1.00 download on iTunes, just as its inspiration, Side 2 of Abbey Road
, isn’t. To be sure, this almost 18-minute suite written by drummer Andrew Scott, which closes Sloan’s latest, Commonwealth
, seems an odd choice for an opening number. But it was Scott’s birthday, so there he was, leather-clad and looking like some unholy amalgam of Billy Boy in A Clockwork Orange
and 1980s-era Julian Cope, playing guitar and leading the band through his complex creation, which takes its title from his interest in printmaking and painting. The band handled the shifting components with total panache, from tremulous psych-pop to a section sung on record by a children’s choir to a climactic “She’s So Heavy”-chord cycle. It was something of a feat, but there was no hint of strain.
Afterward, Scott took his place behind the drum set, and Chris Murphy, the ostensible frontman, put down the sticks he’d been bashing with Keith Moon-like flourishes, picked up his bass guitar and took his place at center stage. The first set concentrated on Commonwealth
, a particularly egalitarian showcase in which each member wrote songs for one “side” of a traditional double record. These tracks are as engaging as any of the band’s great singles: Lead guitarist Patrick Pentland’s “Keep Swinging (Downtown),” Murphy’s “Carried Away,” with its bittersweet echoes of Fleetwood Mac, and the sweet-voiced Ferguson’s “You’ve Got a Lot On Your Mind” were given vibrant treatment. The set culminated in the stirring, waltz-time “Marquee and the Moon,” which nods to clubs where the band cut its teeth in its native Halifax.
The generous second set picked and chose from among Sloan’s 11 albums. Throughout, the band never wasted a note or lost cohesion, with Pentland adding stinging leads, Scott becoming a demon on the drums, Murphy accompanying himself with limber bass lines, and Ferguson, a bit enigmatic behind the bill of his cap, playing rhythm guitar and sounding like heaven every time he opened his mouth. Credit also goes to longtime keyboardist Gregory Macdonald, who added harmony vocals and even played some bass.
For an encore, Scott was back in front, with birthday privileges. After a ripping cover of the Descendents’ “Catalina,”
the group paid tribute to the recently broken-up Guided By Voices, who had been scheduled to play the main space that night. The volume and fuzz went up a notch, and rousing takes on the less familiar “Some Drilling Implied” and “Tractor Rape Chain” followed. The latter became a sing-along for an audience that didn’t see anything odd about howling out the nonsensical title phrase as if it were the national anthem. Finally, the band launched into the perennial set-closing “Money City Maniacs,”
which involves huge, Cheap Trick-reminiscent chords, lusty clapping of hands and a shout-along chorus that rhymes “The joke is” with “Coke fizz” to glorious effect.
Despite a few audience members conspicuously singing along to every single lyric, the garrulous and charming Murphy acknowledged that Sloan might be new to some and even thanked those who dragged their spouses with them. With their regular-guy personae and gale-force performance, it’s a sure bet that Sloan made a few more converts last night.
I’d heard the odd record geek sing the praises of