Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro
Wednesday, November 16, 2016

When my dad was in college, he attended some of Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures, and his most concentrated nugget of wisdom from that experience has always stuck with me. He told me the great man of letters told his students that when reading a novel for the first time, read for plot. But the second time through, toss away the plot and look deeper at everything else to excavate the work’s essence and the author’s intent.

After I saw Sloan play almost exactly two years ago at Cat’s Cradle Back Room, I sorted out my reaction in a detailed review full of praise and song titles. Having continued to listen to a lot of Sloan music since then, I can say with assurance that I’m definitely up on the plot. With that in mind, I was excited and maybe a little intrigued by the chance to marvel at the Toronto-based rock foursome’s craft this time when they rolled into town on their latest tour.

Last time around, with the band was promoting the ambitious, double-sided Commonwealth, the Back Room was only about half-filled. The band turned in a kickass performance, but the lack of attendance felt slightly dispiriting. The turnout was much better this time, and the enthusiasm in the room seemed to please the guys onstage. Guitarist Jay Ferguson, who seemed slightly enigmatic during the previous show, looked content on stage right, wearing a relaxed grin, chewing gum, and adding incisive rhythm guitar and sweet vocals. At stage left, lead guitarist Patrick Pentland sported a flowing grey-white beard and locks, yet somehow, clad in black and cranking out precision chords on his low-slung Gibson, he looked every bit the rock star.

Chris Murphy remains the band’s ostensible frontman, delivering between-song patter, playing mighty bass, and cueing the audience to clap its hands or join in at operative moments. Drummer Andrew Scott provides the thunder that drives this well-tuned engine, and multi-instrumentalist Gregory Macdonald, who’s been with the band for ten years, provides essential keyboard parts on many crucial songs.

This tour commemorates the twenty-year anniversary of One Chord to Another, the band’s self-released third album on which it galvanized its sound, produced a few of its best loved songs, and put its collective foot forward on a career that still remains vital in 2016. Accordingly, the first set consisted of the record from start to finish, and it was all your hypothetical first-time reader would have needed to get a clear picture of the band’s hallmarks: bracing power pop played with a punk edge, clarion harmonies, guitar crunch, precision, emphatic drumming, handclaps, hooks. But just when it seems clear how Sloan operates, the band changes it all up.

Halfway through the LP, for “A Side Wins,” Scott, quite seriously one of the great rock drummers in existence, got up, strapped on a Gibson SG, and took over lead vocals, switching places with ostensible frontman Murphy (who plays like Keith Moon), while Ferguson picked up bass duties. There and on the album-closing “400 Metres,” Scott adds a vital tinge of psychedelic sprawl to the hook-heavy power pop, refracting the band’s bright colors kaleidoscopically. His lyrics are half-spoken, something like a Bob Dylan parable, and the tempos loosen up and shamble, another contrast from the Sloan sweet spot.

Playing a set sequence of songs is likely to thrill hardcore fans, but it may be less than ideal for the uninitiated. Not with Sloan Wednesday night. The audience reveled in the band’s faithful rendition of a record that many seemed to know by heart, and the reaction was almost as hearty as for OCTA as it was for the second set, which leaned on the band’s Canadian hits and felt like one giant sing-along.

So did this experienced Sloan reader focus on the craft and the deeper facets of Sloan’s music this time? Yes and no. Having had a chance to read the Sloan book a few times, I could better appreciate the vital role that Andrew Scott plays both as a drummer and songwriter. But by the end I was too caught up in the instant gratification of hearing these great songs played with such bracing gusto, too busy shouting along to lines like, “She cursed me up and down and rolled her R’s, her beautiful R’s” to focus for long on the considerable artistry on display. It was all over too soon.

Rock ‘n’ roll is more visceral than a novel, and Sloan’s music hits you front and center. In the privacy of headphones or in the car, one can contemplate the skill and precision of a record like One Chord to Another, but in a live setting, better to just let it roll over you as you sing along as loud as you can. Not exactly a Nabokovian distinction, but surely a valuable lesson learned.