The Elwins / Marshall Burns O'Hanlon's, Regina SK, February 24
Published Feb 25, 2015"It didn't always seem that worthwhile, but now that it's over, I don't regret any fucking moment," sang hometown songwriter Marshall Burns in the first song of his set at O'Hanlon's, about his time in a travelling band.
How much could that have resonated with the Elwins, the Toronto band he was opening for? Here they were, in Regina on a slow Tuesday (February 24), the kind of snowy night that probably keeps some people off the slippery streets, playing on the day their new album, Play for Keeps, was released nationally. If they had any questions about the worth of what they were up to, though, the Elwins hid it well. Rarely are four more genial and good-natured men on stage playing pop music as well as these ones.
Burns started out the night with a casual set. How casual? He forgot the lyrics to one of his songs halfway through, an awkward move when anyone else does it but charming when it's him. He was playing solo, singing and playing the same Rickenbacker he pulls out as one of the three front-people for Rah Rah. I didn't hear what sounded like any previews from their upcoming album, Vessels; in general, his selections were from or more in line with his work with the Lonesome Weekends, a local alt-country group of which he's a part. Of course, everything has a familiar Marshall ring to it: the swearing, the specific Saskatchewan references, a certain cadence his songs always have. He cuts right to the quick of the thing, whatever kind of song he's playing.
When headliners the Elwins took the stage, they brought the added spark their music needs to hit in front of an audience. Their debut, And I Thank You, was a cool bit of pop-rock, bringing sunny enthusiasm to pop misery. New album Play for Keeps develops and refines that sound. Their live show had that same polish on the old and new songs, giving a new excitement and energy. Tracks off the first record like "Stuck in the Middle" are terrific fun coming through a set of headphones — all amped up rock energy — but with the volume and attention to detail of the best pop musicians; live, the four of them, always in motion, always visibly in sync with the music, brought vigour to the tracks while keeping all the subtleties.
They nailed pop precision in their playing, playing intricate parts without becoming soulless and technical. The catchy guitar lines from the aforementioned song were kept intact, but they still made it seem natural and fluid. They performed just as well on songs like "So Down Low" off the new record, which have bigger guitar rock moments for the group. Even singer Matthew Sweeney, who already does great, tuneful work on the albums, put even more into his performances in the live setting.
With a band like the Elwins, who thrive in front of a full crowd, it was hard to judge just how well they might have gotten things going, as it was a quiet night at the venue — evidenced by guitarist Feurd Ian Robertson Moore's attempt to get some clapping going for the second last song that quickly fell flat. But the band seemed as upbeat as their music, giving off the impression that they could've kept with energy up for another hour if asked. When they used the bass-and-drums intro to "Forgetful Assistance" to introduce the members of the band quickly near the show's end, it was a nice touch: these seem like they'd be decent guys to know, who are luckily also in a really good band.