North stars

If the recent six-month tour with Ben Kweller doesn't win over American fans, if the thousands of deprived and hungry music fans didn't find Kweller's opening act — the Sam Roberts Band — to be, at the very least, worthy of a $15 CD purchase or a concert T, then it's over. Fuck it. The bad guys won.

The truth is, it'd be great to see Sam Roberts get a shot at the big time — the real big time, not the periphery. This is a band I'd gladly pay $50 to see play an arena, this is a guy whose Grammy speech I'd actually like to hear.

If you listen to Roberts' first full-length, 2004's We Were Born in a Flame you'll catch the drift. The literate rock 'n' roll songs are made to be seen live, particularly "Don't Walk Away Eileen," "Brother Down" and the endearing "Wreck of a Life." There's a built-in sense of adventure and romanticism that screams sleepless nights, life-affirming love affairs, and whiffs of saffron and incense.

But the story itself is a lot less majestic: Sam Roberts is an articulate Richard Manuel-looking Canadian boy whose South African immigrant parents made him practice his violin every single day. As a teenager, he dutifully worshipped the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Stone Roses and started a rock band in junior high. Back then, the Montreal kid's greatest wish was to be allowed to participate in a talent show. At 20, he wanted to be on the cover of an alt-weekly. It all happened.

But once the music bug clamped down, regional success seemed too limiting.

"Yeah, of course, we definitely pursued this," Roberts says. "But just because you've had success once doesn't mean it's your God-given right."

The band consists of the same group of close-knit guys that it always did, and, except for the departure of George Donoso (who's now drumming for another Montreal band, the Dears) nobody's going anywhere.

"We're a band in every sense of the word," Roberts says. "We're friends and we've certainly learned that we're not exempt from the detention of being on the road. It's a rigorous way of living, but the goal is to remain honest."

That honesty creeps in with every question.

After Lost Highway Records (Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, etc.) put out We Were Born — it seemed only matter of time before the boys became the next Ryan Adams. You could almost hear the upcoming Emmylou Harris duet in the 15-song tour de force. But despite the record's dud-free offerings and the band winning three major Juno Awards — Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Rock Album of the Year — as far as bean counters were concerned, the record died on the vine. Lost Highway gave Sam Roberts the boot.

"You know, our first big break came when a demo of 'Brother Down' hit the radio stations. It was a huge hit — all word of mouth. I'm glad it happened that way and not by some record company's plot," Roberts explains.

But once he got a taste of music's "business" side of things, Roberts knew he was in the midst of a machine: "I understand it — record labels front you money and are always trying to protect their investment. But what really happens is that you are pitted against one another to maintain control."

The battle continues, and so do the tunes. (Their 2006 album, Chemical City, is self-released.)

"This impulse to write doesn't come from other people's reactions," Roberts says. "It just seems like that's what I was meant to do. It's probably more stubbornness than anything."

And the record is terrific. It's a departure from what they've done before — more of a metaphysical foray and psychedelia-tinged record. There's a higher purpose-meets- higher love narrative to this record. "It feels pure and untampered-with," Roberts says.

When asked about his songs having a certain throwback appeal, Roberts says "I don't know, I'm just attracted to a time when people were making music that mattered."

Sure, he might sound like he was plucked straight from a Last Waltz scene — but Roberts is every bit the modern man. Maybe what's in the way of his brass ring is his own refusal to become a contradiction.

Thoughtful and wise — just like his songs — let's hope Roberts is rewarded with enough support to continue making music until the day he dies.

"You can't fake being in a band for too long. Pretty soon the wheat gets separated from the chaff."


Friday, Nov. 24, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. Satin Peaches and Jason Collett of Broken Social Scene to open.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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