Sam Roberts calls his brand-new album "Love At the End of the World," and clearly, he doesn't take that title lightly. On Thursday, Roberts and his band kicked off two nights in the Town Ballroom by playing pretty darn close to the entire record, even though many in attendance were most likely unfamiliar with it.
That tells us much about Roberts, who took his native Canada by storm with his debut effort, "We Were Born In Flame," and commenced claiming Buffalo as one of his favored cities immediately thereafter. First, Roberts is an old-school musician, in the sense that he and his band intended from the beginning to earn their audience through touring. The new material is defiantly optimistic, but challenging. It represents a step forward.
It's important to note that, when Roberts released his sophomore effort, "Chemical City" -- a record redolent with growth and marked by a notable deepening of the band's arrangements and Roberts' songwriting skills, equally -- portions of his fan-base balked. The record's gorgeous neo-psychedelic vibe was deemed by some to be self-indulgent, or too much of a departure from "Born In Flame's" power-pop bedrock. Roberts came to Buffalo for twin sold-out performances with no intention of offering a "hits" show, and that made Thursday's gig seem awfully special. He opened with the new record's title tune, a dirty blues shuffle positing the evening's thesis -- that, essentially, we're in awful lot of trouble, and not much makes sense anymore, but love can still do all of us some good. That might seem a vague precept, but with rock, it's all in the delivery, and Roberts delivered like a man on fire.
Though his new record suggest a new chapter in Roberts' and his band's tenure, there is much about the new music that should appeal to fans of the old. Though the startlingly powerful "Lions of the Kalahari" boasts Indian and African influences, it also stays close to American blues, and thus, fans weren't thrown. I'll count this song as one of the finest pieces Roberts has yet conjured, and though much of the packed house was likely hearing it for the first time, the song went over well.
With guitarist/vocalist Dave Nugent, drummer Josh Trager, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Eric Fares and bassist James Hall, Roberts has spent the better part of the last 10 years honing a sound that marries power-pop to a sprawling psychedelia. As he has become better as a songwriter, the psychedelic aspect has only deepened, and a band well seasoned by substantial touring has become a many-limbed organism. Yes, the performance was tight, and yes, the band members themselves looked like they were having at least as much fun as the crowd.
"Fixed To Ruin" was another raucous standout from the new record, as was the propulsive, insistent "Hard Road." When Roberts came near to closing time, he chose one of the more biting, incisive tunes from "Love At the End of the World." "Them Kids" is a song expressing disappointment with generation text-message for its seeming inability to find the deeper resonance. Roberts and the band played the song like their very lives depended on it. And for perhaps the first time during Thursday's show, there was nary a cell phone in sight.
WHO: Sam Roberts Band
WHEN: Thursday night; another performance tonight (doors open at 7 p.m.)
WHERE: Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.