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Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)

Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)
July 10, 2023 12:38PM
Sloan
Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023

An anecdote: In February 1999, I attended a show by Canadian power-pop-grunge legends, Sloan, at the 9:30 Club in DC. It was on the Navy Blues tour, and I was attending with a few people I knew from the discussion board on the old 930.com website, which had a chatroom at the time, and I sat down with them while they did a very amateurish interview with Chris Murphy, who was extremely patient with their somewhat silly teenage questions (they were literally high-schoolers at the time; I was preparing to go to grad school). What’s interesting about this show is that I have photographic evidence of my attendance; long before I had a digital camera or cellphone, I took some bad snapshots of me with one of the various hangers-on and Chris Murphy. I have no idea of the names of these kids, but the print photos are still with me, almost a quarter-century later.

Also with me 24 years later is the distinct memory of Sloan doing one of the most aggressively loud shows I had ever seen — not the loudest; that distinction belongs to Bob Mould. Solo. Glenn McDonald, who saw the band around the same time, wrote to me not long ago, “Did we see that crazy-loud show together? My hearing recovered, but my feelings about them kind of never did.”

After multiple decades, and numerous chances to see Sloan again that I forsook, I gave them another try this year on the album tour they drolly labeled Steady. (Get it, “Sloan steady?” This is a band that has always been amused by grammar.)

All that said, I was modestly optimistic but also wary about seeing Sloan more than three decades into their career. I have a bunch of Sloan records, but nothing since the mid-2000s, and the excellent A Sides Win: 1992-2005 compilation which covered the first …. third of the band’s career. So far. What I’m getting at is, Sloan have been prolific and dedicated in a genre that typically slides below the radar screens of most listeners outside the power pop genre.

And, full credit, the band has been terrifically consistent with its members steadily weathering on, dividing up songwriting and performance duties while taking over their own production while owning their long-running label, Murderecords. The band is now a Canadian institution, but unlike confederates like the Tragically Hip, there is nothing explicitly Canadian about most of the band’s music. Honestly, they’re basically doing a classic North American suburban art form, energetically clever pop songs that borrow from the aesthetic and production trends of the past forty years; whether the crunching chords from KISS, the sweet harmonies of the Beach Boys, the heavy feedback of grunge, the mild prog keyboard flourishes they tweak from ELO — Sloan are nothing if not expert magpies.

The show was advertised as “An evening with Sloan.” No opening act, just two full sets by the band, plus an encore. Much of the opening set was from the new album Steady, which was entirely unfamiliar to me. But they also interspersed songs from the early days and from the mid-period where I lost track of the band’s output.

If you've never seen the band in concert, it’s critical to understand that all four core members write and sing. I tend to refer to Chris Murphy as the bandleader, but that's mostly because he's the most extroverted personality. But while he does sing lead on many of the songs in a live show, he is by no means the only writer and singer. At various points, Sloan has even released records split four ways where each member owns 1/4 of the total songs. But if you’re a more casual listener, it can be a bit puzzling to watch the apparent bandleader retreat from the microphone, duck behind the drum kit, and the rest of the band reconfigure with aplomb.

I wasn’t blown away by the first full set, which was dominated by material from Steady. The songs were mostly good, but I’ve always felt that it must be mildly frustrating to be a touring member of Sloan or another similarly-inclined band. The records have subtle flourishes and artistic touches, but the live performance tends to flatten out the intricacies and lean into riffing and crunching guitars. And in full candor, Murphy is the best live singer, but Patrick Pentland on bass, drummer Andrew Scott, and guitarist Jay Ferguson all stepped up with lead vocals on their respective tracks. Pentland likes big catchy hooks (the band’s Cheap Trick affectations are profound), and his “Scratch the Surface” is all deadpan urban ennui in 21st century Toronto. Scott’s “Panic on Runnymeade" is a brief detour into frayed grooves and Crazy Horse feedback; Murphy tends to do prettier melodies. But since the material was unfamiliar to me, and the live setting flattens out the subtleties, I probably got less out of it than I might have. Interspersed in the material from Steady were some older songs, too, like Murphy’s rueful “Fading into Obscurity” from 2011’s Never Hear the End of It, which was nostalgic even when he wrote the lyrics, “don’t you know who I was?” as his band’s prominence had started waning. It would have been a great Wings song, and that’s not a diss. They went back to the shoegazy Smeared for Scott’s “500 Up” whose young adult brattiness still has its appeal.

I liked the second set a lot more, and not just because they moved more seamlessly between the older and more familiar material and newer songs. The band also just seemed looser and more casual. Never Hear the End of It got strong representation, with seven songs in the set and encore, including the monstrously riffy “Who Taught You to Live Like That,” and the much-beloved Twice Removed got four, including Scott’s soured hippie dream “People of the Sky.”

Since Sloan are such an institution in Canada, I was curious how they must have felt at the only-partly-full Union Stage on a rainy weekday in Washington. But the enthusiasm of the audience partly compensated for the crowd size. Pentland’s “Losing California” from Between the Bridges — with its sly Joy Division reference — was a highlight, as was Murphy’s structurally ambitious “The Marquee and the Moon” from the same album, but the crowd might have responded best to the raunch and humor of Navy Blues’ “Money City Maniacs” (which I vividly recall, but I don’t see on the setlist, oddly.) As the band loosened up, Sloan invited up an 18-year old from the audience who did the rhythm guitar on Twice Removed’s earnest “Coax Me”, and then Murphy asked his own 15-year-old son to take over the drum kit on 1992’s “Underwhelmed,” the apotheosis of the band’s short-lived shoegaze era, and one of the smartest songs ever about grammar pedantry. (Also one of the best songs ever about the misuse of the English language, along with Billy Bragg’s hilarious take on the Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee” — "I said, "I'm the most illegible bachelor in town." And she said, "Yeah. That's why I can never understand any of those silly letters you send me.”) Man, I love “Underwhelmed” and so does Sloan’s audience. After over three decades, it’s still the highest-charting single Sloan ever had in America, although they had far bigger songs in Canada over the subsequent decade.

I came out of the Union Stage show after well over two hours, blessedly not at the volume of their tours in the late 1990s, but gratified that I’d given the band another chance after almost a quarter-century. Of course, I found out that I’d gotten a parking ticket, which diminished my enjoyment of the evening but I can’t hold that against the band. (This is one of the many reasons why I almost never drive to shows.)



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/10/2023 01:58PM by zwirnm.
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Re: Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)
July 10, 2023 01:47PM
Michael,

thanks for that great review. I'm surprised you did not mention the Beatles anywhere, since it's always thrown out as a reference point when anything is written about Sloan. In any case, the last album - Steady - was okay, but far from their best, so that may explain why the first set was weaker. They have a tremendous back catalogue, however.

I'm surprised that they were involved in the loudness wars way back when (I have never seen them in concert), since this clashes with their image here in Canada as a very literate national institution, not some band that wants to blow the place down. They remain a radio staple here, although, like many bands that are still active, their older material tends to gather most of the airplay. I did hear a couple of their new songs around the time the latest album was released, but it's now gone back to just the old favorites.
Re: Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)
July 10, 2023 01:57PM
I figured when dealing with a band with a clear power-pop lineage, references to the Beatles and Big Star no longer contribute much additional value smiling smiley But thank you for the further info, Philippe!
Re: Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)
July 11, 2023 10:24AM
Thank you for the excellent review, M.Z. Sloan has been on my radar since their 1996 album One Chord to Another. I've never gotten to see them onstage, though. As far as I could tell, they never booked a gig in Colorado. Since moving to Seattle, a few opportunities have come up, but I've always had to miss them, for some reason or another. They haven't yet booked a Seattle date for their current tour, so I'm keeping my hopes up.
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Re: Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)
July 11, 2023 10:28AM
And check out their 2011 album The Double Cross, if you haven't already. If you like Never Hear the End of It, I'd say the odds are that you'll like The Double Cross too.
Re: Sloan (Union Stage, Washington DC, June 27, 2023)
July 11, 2023 10:59AM
I don't think I heard that one, but I had a 2 1/2 year old at that point so my energy for any new music was limited!
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