Still waters

Great Lake Swimmers, Middle East Upstairs, June 5, 2007
By JON MEYER  |  June 12, 2007

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Tony Dekker

On record, Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers trot between the countrified rock of the Cowboy Junkies and the somber folk of latter-day Neil Young. Maybe it’s the Canadian thing. Singer-songwriter Tony Dekker has been praised for crafting brooding north-country tunes full of pleasant melody and solemn mood (call the band a clean-and-sober Lucero).  And while all the built-in introspection kept things a little still at the Middle East Upstairs last night (for the first date off a U.S. tour in support of their third full-length, Ongiara), the band’s earnestness was as unavoidable as the pearl-button getup worn by banjo player Erik Arnesen. 

The band is touring with support from Los Angeles-based sultry-voiced Eleni Mandell, whose country-tinged, femme-Tom Waits sketches call to mind a post-feminist Tammy Wynette. Her set, which included songs off her new album Miracle of Five, set the tone for the rest of the show: twinkling, jangly folk-pop offset by a self-aware sexuality. In her case, it was a cat-like slither, inciting some movement in the crowd when the band picked up the tempo, Mandell’s hips accompanying. She alternated between nice, soft arrangements and more galloping punk-infused tunes, her wistful temperament and clever lyrics enduring: “I’ll make you money whenever you’re gambling / I am the dice you roll in the alley / I am the pennies that come in handy,” she sang on “Girls.”

Mandell is a wise addition on Great Lake Swimmers’ tour. Whereas she was out to surprise and enlighten, the Swimmers were out to be what they were. And that’s not a bad thing. But the slow-build intro song took more time to engage than the band probably hoped, and the mid-set break, in which Dekker played a few songs solo, was less Paul Westerberg, more every sensitive-guy-with-a-guitar you’ve ever heard. Still, you had to admire the way he grimaced at the mic as he sang tight-lipped, eyes closed, strumming lightly. And the more up-tempo songs, especially the searing performance of Ongiara’s “Your Rocky Spine” (“Floating over your rocky spine / The glaciers made you and now you’re mine”) showed the band at their best: banjo plucking, drums snapping, bassline trotting along, and Dekker belting it out instead of whispering.

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