As Sam Roberts stood under the Skyway and listened to lines of his song “Where Have All the Good People Gone” sung back at him by a massive crowd, he had to wonder about the definition of American fame.
Doesn’t a Canadian’s ability to turn thousands of U.S. fans into a chanting, dancing, air-guitar-playing mob qualify as stardom in the states? If not, no one’s told Roberts or his band. Thursday night, they performed like the internationally lauded band they should be throughout a stellar 90-minute set at Canalside.
For Roberts, he’s back to navigating the confusing duality of his band’s success. On one side of the Canadian border, his fame is on par with poutine and old episodes of “Degrassi Junior High.” His albums haul in Juno Awards; his band has a craft beer named after them (Spearhead Brewery’s Sam Roberts Band Session Ale); and his appearance in the parking lot of a Montreal Tim Hortons would likely result in some Timbit-fueled chase out of “A Hard Day’s Night.” But on the U.S. side, Roberts – much like the baffling cases of Sloan and the Tragically Hip – hasn’t found the same level of delirium for his brand of denim-collared musicians.
But you wouldn’t know it in Buffalo.
Roberts’ 2003 release, “We Were Born in a Flame,” touched coming-of-age Queen City crowds like fellow Canadians Lowest of the Low once infected ‘90s youth via “Shakespeare, My Butt,” with sing-along tracks, barroom grit and infectious hooks aplenty. Follow-up albums like “Chemical City,” “Love at the End of the World” and “Collider” elicited similar enthusiasm, earning Roberts packed Mohawk Place, Town Ballroom and Lafayette Square shows over the past decade. If this rundown isn’t enough, please recall his three-song, pea coat-clad performance between periods of 2008’s Winter Classic. Eighty-thousand hockey fans needed intermission entertainment – and the Sabres called Roberts. That’s high praise.
And it’s praise that Roberts – now touring off last year’s synth-accented “Lo-Fantasy” – was eager to justify under Thursday’s sun-kissed Canalside show.
At the start, the band offered a pair of songs off their new album with the keys-guitar combo “Human Heat” and “Shapeshifters,” a percussion-led dance reminiscent of ’90s Cardigans’ hit “Lovefool.” But anyone in attendance who thought they were getting a recycled setlist from Roberts sorely underestimated his and the band’s love and recognition of their Nickel City status. Though their set peppered in hopeful hits like “Metal Skin” and “Kid Icarus” – as well as “Angola,” dedicated to late Mohawk Place owner Pete Perrone – the night belonged to formative Buffalo favorites.
Roberts’ guitar intro started the pleasers parade on “Fixed to Ruin” before the nodding rhythms of “Let It In” welcomed the same swaying from a crowd stretched back to the venue’s canal slip. Coalmine-comparing “With a Bullet” gave an opportunity for Roberts and guitarist Dave Nugent to duel on the night’s deepest cut before “Hard Road,” complete with the aforementioned pair joining bassist James Hall on the song’s road-weary walk to Roberts’ line, “There must be something in the air. Some kind of answer to my prayer.”
And on the encore, the band answered the crowd’s prayer with their breakout single, “Brother Down,” the one that first started Western New York’s large-scale love affair with Roberts. Across the site’s cobblestone and colored chairs, stateside fans sang words most QEW drivers know like hockey card stats. Until the rest of the U.S. joins the chorus, Canada’s best-kept secret will continue to find big American fame just off the Buffalo River.
Opening for Sam Roberts Band was Buffalo trio Johnny Nobody. With the steady tandem of Colin Roberts (bass) and Jay White (drums) supporting the hard-driving guitar and vocals of Andrew Vaeth, the band made for an ideal lead-in for Roberts.