These turbulent times call for a measured and calming response and Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers provide just that this evening in Manchester. The band have been ploughing a reflective furrow for well over a decade now, and although the personality of individual albums has subtly shifted, the mellow, contemplative and inventive outcome is always the same.
The current tour is in support of the band’s most recent batch of releases, which include new album The Waves, the Wake and the Side Effects EP which accompanied it and this is where we begin tonight. The new record demonstrates a departure from the usual approach for singer/songwriter Tony Dekker, who explains early on that he wrote many of the songs without an acoustic guitar, presenting the unfamiliar challenge of what to do with his hands when the songs are presented live. The album is certainly more cinematic and Dekker’s vocals are more upfront as a result of the more exquisite musical tones. It does seem to take a moment or two for Dekker to get his gentle vocals as steady as these more tender tracks demand and the undulating ‘Side Effects’ isn’t as effective as it is on record, but by the time we get to ‘In a Certain Light’ things effortlessly start to fall into place. The tender banjo accompanying Dekker’s serene ode is a joy and the effect is beautifully peaceful.
The pace and textures shift slightly with 2010’s ‘Palmistry’ and the swooning ‘The Great Exhale’, which demonstrate the evocative and visual delights that this graceful brand of Americana possesses. We’re reminded once again about the more complex arrangements that exist on the new record for the next batch of songs though; finespun harp, lute, organ and woodwinds contribute to the widescreen panorama on the album and these unfortunately can’t be truly recreated on the small stage in the Yes Pink Room. Instead, during the next stage of the evening, we are introduced to their touring synth and accordion player who majestically presents some of the musical depth that exists on record on tracks including ‘The Talking Wind’ and ‘Unmaking the Bed’. ‘Alone But Not Alone’ introduces a more traditional rhythm to proceedings ensuring that the more reflective moments are wonderfully balanced out by these more melodic joys. By now, Dekker’s vocals are nigh on perfect; there’s a wonderfully lilting musicality to them, never loud but always completely compelling.
There is a very early request for 2007’s jaunty ‘Your Rocky Spine’ and Dekker ensures this fan goes home happy midway through the set. The song’s relentless banjo-led rhythms are matched by a soaring intensity as the percussive and bass elements begin to fuse with Dekker’s energy. On record this brilliant song is a more controlled entity, before inexplicably ending without warning. This evening the song’s metric intensity starts to unravel and the band coalesce magnificently, providing a denouement full of animated passion.
The song marks a peak of sorts and the final half of the show returns to a more reflective cadence, but it is no less compelling. A solo section along with an atmospheric, slow-burning synth interlude enhances the already evocative mood, but it is the moments when the band become one that Great Lake Swimmers are at their most enjoyable and ‘The Open Sea’ is one of these great immersive occasions when the swirling keys establish the dramatic tone before Dekker’s atmospheric vocals take grip.
The oeuvre of the band exists in the same category of fellow Americana champions such as Shearwater and Okkervil River and their songs demonstrate a real concern for the world we live in and the people we may become and the welcome encore of the bluesy ‘Think That You Might Be Wrong’ is followed by the optimistic ‘I Am Part of a Large Family’ which ensures we all leave with a hopeful smile on our faces, despite the lack of fan favourite ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, which is perhaps a bit too laid back for these stormy times.