Show Review: Laura Stevenson and the Cans at the El Mocambo, May 7th

Laura Stevenson is one of the nicest, if not the nicest, people I’ve ever met.  I could tell this would be the case when about three years ago I asked her for some guitar tabs to her songs over a Myspace message and she actually went out of her way to give them to me, reassuring me that she was at her mother’s house for a Labor Day BBQ, but that she would send me them as soon as she got internet in her new apartment, where all of her guitars were.  Such a display of kindness is rare from everyday schmoes, and even rarer from a moderately successful musician towards a random fan.

In fact, from what I can tell, all of her band, the Cans, seem like really nice people.  When I first got to the El Mocambo last night, as bands were doing their sound checks, I saw Dave Garwacke, drummer of The Cans as well as the creator of DIY punk site If You Make It (www.ifyoumakeit.com), smoking a cigarette quietly outside.  We talked for a little bit about nothing in particular, and he helped me get into the venue without any trouble.  Then, when I got into the venue, I was greeted by bassist Mike Campbell, who asked about my Laura Stevenson t-shirt – which I got as a prize for donating money to a currently-in-production punk documentary – as he hadn’t actually seen the shirt before; this sentiment was echoed by Stevenson herself, who came up to us while we were talking and was similarly impressed.  “We stopped doing the revolving door thing,” said Stevenson in an interview later when asked about the permanency of the current members of The Cans. “The gigs started getting bigger and more professional, so we had to get more professional as well.  It would be nice to have more auxiliary stuff, like strings, but people just can’t commit to the touring.  It’s good though; there’s more chemistry within the band because we’re used to playing with each other now.”

This chemistry is easy to hear on Laura Stevenson and the Cans recently released full-length Sit Resist.  The album is a folk masterpiece and early contender for album of the year, filled to the brim with beautiful melodies and interesting instrumentation as Stevenson’s earnest voice floats into your soul like a graceful pixie with words that are poetic, but never pretentious.  A Record was quieter, almost more like a solo album; Sit Resist feels like a collaborative effort, although with Stevenson clearly still in the dominant role – these are undeniably her songs.  “People treated our first album, A Record, more like an EP, because it was only eight songs and one of them is like twenty seconds long or something.  I actually think the original eight songs on that album work really well together, but then when we did the physical release on Don Giovanni, we added on the other three songs.  So I guess it feels more like a compilation. Sit Resist is more cohesive,” said Stevenson when asked about why many people are calling this her first “real” album.  “So far, it’s been really well received; we’ve only gotten one bad review so far, from a punk website who said we were ‘too precious.’“

The band is currently on tour supporting Florida-based indie/punk/folk band Fake Problems.  Unfortunately, I had to leave before I got a chance to see the headliners, but Laura Stevenson and the Cans put on a fantastic set.  Her music is simultaneously intensely personal and extremely powerful; Stevenson’s vocals are delicate and sweet, with a wide dynamic range, yet she doesn’t prescribe to the pitfall of vocal gymnastics that many singers as talented as her do, instead favouring a tight and economical, but still fiercely potent style. Though their songs are often quiet, they display lots of dynamic contrast; these guys can get mighty loud when they want to.  The band’s demeanor is one of quiet fury – nobody jumps around the stage pulling rock star moves, but everyone clearly feels the music, and they play directly from the heart.  After the show, I felt emotionally cleansed; I think it’s fair to say that most of the people who came to see her felt the same way.  If anything, the show could have been a bit longer, but thus is the plight of an opening band.  Get these guys some headlining gigs!

Stevenson is noticeably confident playing to smaller venues, joking around before songs, talking to the audience, and laughing off little mistakes – a characteristic no doubt gleaned from her days in the punk scene, which she is still active in as a founding member of New York-based collective Bomb the Music Industry!.  Stevenson explained to me how her music sounds nothing like punk, but still has a marked punk influence: “My biggest influence is probably Neil Young…The Beatles also, of course.  I like making pretty little Paul McCartney melodies.  And then when I was growing up and started listening to punk bands, a lot of the bands that I liked were just sort of Americana, but sped up.  So I guess I try to connect the music that I’ve always loved with the punk stuff I was into as a teen.”

So what’s next for the band?  “More touring!” says Stevenson, with an adorable, heart-melting smile.  The band aren’t quite huge yet, but they’ve garnered a fair amount of buzz in the past few weeks.  Whether they can become a force to be reckoned with in the mainstream music world – or indeed, whether they even want to do so – remains to be seen; the idea of seeing Laura Stevenson playing heartfelt Americana songs to stadiums of thousands of people is an odd image.  But at the very least, they’re extremely close to their well-deserved 15 minutes of fame, and now with a consistent line-up and a definitive debut album, they can only get better.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what comes next.

You can download Sit Resist for free until the end of May at http://laurastevenson.tumblr.com/post/4952733435/download-laura-stevenson-the-cans-sit-resist-for.  You can also buy it digitally on iTunes, or on CD and LP from Don Giovanni Records at http://dongiovannirecords.com/store/release.php?r=333

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