Great Lake Swimmers Make a Much Anticipated Return to Pittsburgh

Great Lake Swimmers

Following the release of his most recent “The Waves, The Wake” album, Tony Dekker once again brought his band, Great Lake Swimmers, back to the Eastern US for a small string of live dates.  Making three stops in PA alone, we were spoiled for choice; and opted for the final night of the PA dates in Pittsburgh to once again see the band perform live.  Arriving at Club Café (corner of Carson St. and 12th St.), we located some great seats just to the side of the stage and settled in for an evening of great music.

Fellow Canadian artist Joshua Hyslop was slated to support Great Lake Swimmers, but unfortunately had to cancel due to some last-minute visa delays, leaving Tony to quickly find a suitable replacement for the tour.  Joshua’s misfortunes certainly paved the way for Native Harrow, a Woodstock, NY duo, themselves left in a similar position after the postponement of a tour by The Deep Dark Woods.  Fate may have rolled the dice to bring both bands together, but could not have envisioned just how well both would mesh to make this an unforgettable tour for both acts.

Commencing the evening at Club Café with a 35 minute set, the duo of Devin Tuel (guitar/vocals) and Stephen Harms (guitar/bass/percussion) took no time to earn the attention and respect of the audience before them.  With eight original tracks performed, Native Harrow shared a pair of brand new compositions amidst material from their previous “Ghost” and “Sorores” albums.  While Stephen played enough instruments to fill the average mini-van throughout their set, Devin would switch between both acoustic and electric guitars; yet it was her stunning voice that captivated us.  With some dreamy (and very ‘Woodstock’) folk vocals, Devin not only competently delivered each tune, but proved the perfect anchor to Stephens’ versatility.  I did not intend to cover the non-Canadian opener as part of this recap; the fact that I have is because they impressed, and suggest that others check out Native Harrow too.

Following an intermission that itself was not without incidents (you had to be there), Great Lake Swimmers were given the green light to take to the stage, and after accepting the positive reaction from the crowd, would ultimately share fifteen tracks, plus an encore of two bonus tracks.  Opening with “The Real Work” from the new album, Tony would seek permission from the room to play a handful of new songs first.  Like ourselves, I’m sure most attendees were there to experience the latest material, making it a moot point – but here at Team GDW, we struggle with the idea that an artist feels apologetic about performing their latest work.  We had a similar experience during a Jim Cuddy show earlier this year, whose apology extended to, “I know you want to hear the hits, and you shall, but I want to play half of the new album first, if that’s okay?”  We know that popular hits will be performed to appease everybody, but let’s remember that such songs were once ‘road-tested’ new tracks too.

It is well known that Tony and his guitar are almost inseparable when writing and performing, so learning that Tony approached “The Waves, The Wake” without his trusty companion, we were naturally curious to see if the guitar would be ditched during performances of cuts from this album.  Witnessing the acoustic guitar laid down on stage for a handful of tracks, while there was some brief flirtation with a tambourine, Tony did indeed deliver a few new tracks completely ‘instrument free.’  Nine of the twelve new album tracks would make the set-list, including “Side Effects,” “Unmaking The Bed,” and the earlier up-tempo release “Alone But Not Alone.”  Tony would also precede “The Talking Wind” by sharing the news about a tweet from Elton John adding this song to his Spotify playlist.  “Yes, I saw it on Twitter,” joked Dekker, “Is Twitter still a thing?  Well, except for the guy in the Oval Office.”  And of course, some favorites were shared too, especially for fans of “Lost Channels” like me, who enjoyed live versions of “Palmistry,” “Still,” and “Pulling On A Line.”

Surrounded by his regular Great Lake Swimmer companions Bret Higgins (bass) and Erik Arnesen (guitar/banjo), the addition of guests Marshall Bureau (drums) and Kelsey McNulty (keyboards/accordion) rounded out this talented quintet.  The chemistry between musicians was apparent, and the band played loosely all night; Tony conversing regularly with the crowd, and clearly enjoying his chance to once again perform to his Pittsburgh fan base.  And for us, having seen the band on several occasions, it was the subtle differences that stood out, from the lack of any backing vocals, to the added instrumentation offered up by Kelsey.  Thus older tunes were refreshed, and the new ‘dream-folk’ sounds offered some interesting variations.  Bret, Erik and Marshall would take a leave of absence after a wonderful version of “Your Rocky Spine,” leaving Tony to perform the new track, “Visions Of A Different World” with just Kelsey’s accordion in support.  Joining her bandmates at the close of this song, Tony graced his time under the spotlight alone for an intimate vocal version of “Mouth Of Flames.”

Rejoined by the full band for a handful of tunes, the band would close with an incredibly rousing rendition of another new cut, “The Open Sea.”  Exiting the stage to a loud ovation, Great Lake Swimmers naturally returned for two more tracks to send the audience home, opting for “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” and the closing number, “I Am Part Of A Large Family” (complete with subliminal message should you appreciate the carefully crafted lyrics).  With another well-deserved round of applause, our fantastic evening with Great Lake Swimmers came to a close.  It was a pleasure to chat with Bret, Erik and Tony once again, and we wish them well with the remainder of this tour.  As a band that we have followed for many years now, it is always great to catch them live, and of course, strongly encourage you to do the same if their tour brings them to a venue near you (probably best to refer to their website, as opposed to Twitter).

Set List:

  1. The Real Work
  2. Side Effects
  3. In A Certain Light
  4. The Talking Wind
  5. Palmistry
  6. The Great Exhale
  7. Something Like A Storm
  8. Your Rocky Spine
  9. Visions Of A Different World
  10. Mouth Of Flames (solo)
  11. Still
  12. Unmaking The Bed
  13. Alone But Not Alone
  14. Pulling On A Line
  15. The Open Sea


  1. Think That You Might Be Wrong
  2. I Am Part Of A Large Family

Visit Great Lake Swimmers’ website.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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