Team GDW are incredibly grateful to our good friend and central PA independent singer-songwriter/musician Matt Wheeler for this review of the latest album from one of his favorite Canadian bands, Great Lake Swimmers. We have included links to Matt’s music at the foot of the article, and encourage you to check out his website and social media pages.
One day back in 2009, through the speakers of my work computer, a new sound met my ears: the melodic strains of Tony Dekker & his band, Great Lake Swimmers. Dekker’s sincere, wispy vocals, borne along by acoustic guitar, banjo & upright bass, held an air of mystery, and told a tale of a relationship through the imagery of nature. The title of this work, as I soon found out from the Pandora player on my screen, was “Your Rocky Spine.” I hadn’t heard any apt comparison for this sound, but I knew that I wanted to hear more. My search for more led to a deeper dive into the music of Great Lake Swimmers, and resulted in finding a free EP that a music blog was offering – a 5-song promotional collection called “Live at The Church of The Redeemer,” and I was hooked. The opening track, “Moving Pictures Silent Films,” was even more striking in its poignancy than “Your Rocky Spine.”
In the 12 years since that happy discovery, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Great Lake Swimmers live twice. In 2018, I even shared the stage with them here in my hometown, with Tony Dekker and keyboardist Kelsey McNulty joining me in singing my song, “Indigo.” Their sound has grown & developed over time, but it has never lost the feel that, to paraphrase a reviewer of one of their early albums, sounds like winter in Canada, in the best ways – stark in its beauty. So, with that context, it is fair to say that I was intrigued and excited when, a few months ago, I received the news that Great Lake Swimmers was going to give a proper release to the entirety of the concert at The Redeemer – of which the EP I had discovered all those years ago had been only a partial document.
“Live From The Redeemer 2007” is a snapshot of the band from that moment in time. Specifically, it is the CBC recording of the entire hometown tour stop on the band’s “Ongiara” album release tour. Great Lake Swimmers loves to record & play in unconventional spaces – an abandoned grain silo, a cave, even a castle – and their music feels absolutely at home in Toronto’s Church of The Redeemer. In addition to the band’s already stellar core lineup, they are joined for this performance by vocalist Basia Bulat, and the fantastic Bob Egan – he of Blue Rodeo & Wilco fame – who join in to fill out the sound in marvelous ways.
From Erik Arnesen’s opening banjo riffs, “Your Rocky Spine” invites the listener into Great Lake Swimmers’ musical world. Clearly, they are here to paint pictures with their words and to build a sonic landscape as rich & textured as that of the physical geography of Canada. Basia Bulat’s harmonies are the perfect complement to Tony Dekker’s lead vocals, and they take the performance of these songs to an even higher level. Listening to “I Am Part of a Large Family” in 2021, the song feels even more relevant in the current day than it already was nearly a decade and a half ago. The first verse is a plea for peace that is a succinct and fitting response to the strife of the last year – the last few years, in fact: “Why are we fighting, why are we fighting / Kicking & screaming, scratching & biting / Keeping it going, wherever we’re going / Generations are generating / And what am I supposed to do / But take good care, good care of you / We have a lot of work to do / Me and you, and you, and you.”
Bob Egan’s pedal steel work on “Moving Pictures Silent Films” emotes in such a way that it feels like another vocalist, pouring his heart out. I’ve heard this version of the song before, on that previous EP, and have heard other studio recordings in live settings. Yet the beauty and tenderness of this rendition hit me afresh and got me choked up as I listened to it today. This performance is one of the highlights of this stunning live album.
“Live from The Redeemer 2007” shines throughout, and I could park on almost any of the songs and tell you what good work each is. It’s a long album, again, it’s an entire concert and so its vinyl form is, rightfully, a double LP. But there is one more track that I want to draw attention to, “I Became Awake,” which is the closing number on their “Ongiara” album, and did not appear on the EP that I discovered in 2009. As one of my personal favorites, hearing this song included on this album is a treat. The verses lope along at a pleasant pace as Dekker narrates the story. Listening to this version of the song, I was freshly reminded of the hopefulness it provokes. A few lines that form an outline: “I became awake from a very dark place / …centre of a seed, so full of possibilities / …I was heavy, but now I am light.” It is a progression from dark to light that reminds us that hard times will relent, that this too shall pass, and there is hope. The wordless chorus is cathartic, driving this point home in an expressive and triumphant way.
These are near-flawless performances and recordings, and this live album finds Great Lake Swimmers in their finest hour. It is an absolute gift that the CBC documented them, and that the band has made it available to us as listeners. “Live At The Redeemer 2007” is currently only available via Bandcamp (released last Friday), and shall be out everywhere else this Friday.
~ Matt Wheeler