The end of August is the beginning of the end of summer. Ewan Currie (lead singer/guitarist) and the rest of The Sheepdogs (Leot Hanson on guitar, Ryan Gullen on bass and Sam Corbett on drums) spent their August 30th this year with us in Vancouver this year, instead of their home of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Where better in Vancouver than Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park to stay in autumn-denial?
I was lucky enough to be cut loose early from work that evening. By the time I got home, I was ready for a night of kicking up my feet and doing nothing interesting. I turned the wi-fi on my phone and was bombarded with e-mails. Sheepdogs. Tonight. Review and photograph. Deadline? 8:15pm. I glanced at the clock and it read 7:49pm. I ran into my room, changed as quickly as humanly possible and ran around trying to find my 50mm lens. It ended up being attached to my camera, so I double checked that there was a memory card in it and that I had sufficient battery. No time for any other lenses. 7:54pm. I called a cab and finished gathering my things before running out the door. 7:58pm and the cab arrived. I should have prefaced this by explaining that I live 3 blocks away from Lions Gate Bridge on the North Vancouver side. My fate was entirely left to the mercy of the bridge traffic… Something never to be trusted. After a pleasant conversation with a driver, who was also a Sheepdogs fan, I arrived by the grace of the universe. The time read 8:13pm. By the time I sorted out my ticket and made it to the photographers pit, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I had arrived.
Gone were the nerves and in came the excitement. I spoke to a fellow photographer as we were waiting and she told me that the previous band, Imaginary Cities, had put on quite a show. Before that, The Harpoonist and Axe Murderer had played. Seemingly, none of the openers had quite captured the excitement of the audience, but I am truly disappointed I missed them. All three bands are worth a listen. With a barrier between the left and right side of the audience, it looked as if the left side of the crowd was a lot rowdier, with more people. It quickly made sense when you realized that the beer garden was on that side. And considering the outrageous line-up when I showed up, I wouldn’t want to leave that area either if I spent all that time waiting to get in.
The venue itself was pretty gorgeous. There isn’t a single area of Stanley Park that I’ve seen that I don’t think is beautiful, but I might be biased with my love of the wild. The pine trees acted as an external gate, with the assistance of metal gates at the bottom to stop anyone trying to get a free ticket… These boys have to eat! The stage was set at the bottom of a small hill to create a natural amphitheatre with the landscape. It felt a bit disconnected, however. On top of the barrier to separate the spectators who were drinking from those who were not, there was also the standard barrier to separate the audience from the performers, as well as the stage being well over six feet high in certain areas. Being that the ground was far from flat, shorter fans were best off on the right side, as well as the steeper hill to sit and watch from being on the right. With the smell of recent rain, but a dry event, it was the perfect day for the show. As long as you didn’t mind a little bit of mud.
Even before The Sheepdogs came on, the crowd (especially on the left) was shouting. A few were visibly intoxicated and taking the last weekend of summer very seriously. Between the beer garden and the green herb that British Columbians are known for, you couldn’t find a person not having an excellent time. The sober folks seemed to be enjoying the company and entertainment that the intoxicated folks seemed to offer. One of The Sheepdogs’ roadies’ was wearing a wolf tee-shirt and a guy felt like shouting “Let the guy in the wolf shirt play!” Later in the evening when he came on stage to help Ewan switch guitars for a song, the “Wolf Shirt! Wolf Shirt!” chant lived a short time. These people clearly needed some smooth sounds to calm them, imported to the present from the 70’s. And boy, did The Sheepdogs deliver; complete with long hair, beards, multi-coloured striped shirts and vests.
When The Sheepdogs began, the entire vibe changed. The groovy riffs and the honest subject matter of the songs captured almost every person within earshot. You’ll have to forgive the security guards for not bobbing their heads as well. Quickly, you see that The Sheepdogs aren’t a band of many words, but they sure let the music speak for them. With song after song of what seemed like classic and familiar hits, I was impressed with the set list they managed to put into their hour-and-fifteen-minute set. They began with “Gonna Be Myself” and flowed into a variety of songs, including (in far from exact order, as I hadn’t brought my notepad): “I Need Help”, “The One You Belong To”, “Please Don’t Lead Me On”, “Feeling Good”, “The Way It Is”, “How Late, How Long”. In the middle of the set, they played a song called “Ewan’s Blues” and brought out their friend (and Ewan’s brother), Shamus Currie, who brought out his trombone. Beforehand, Ewan asked the audience. “Vancouver, how do you feel about the trombone?” Quickly, the hollering assured The Sheepdogs that we were into it.
As the song completed, a “Shamus! Shamus!” chant emerged in the audience. A few songs later, the “Shamus” chant erupted again. Ryan caught Ewan’s eyes and after a smile, he went up to the mic and jokingly said, “Hey now. He might go solo on us!” Shamus definitely got his fair share of attention that evening. On stage basically the entire night, he also played keyboards and assisted in backing vocals. If you didn’t see him the last time you saw The Sheepdogs, it must have been prior to March of 2012, as he is a relatively recent member of the band and not considered an official member.
Although, if we’re talking time in Sheepdogs years, it would be negligent not to mention how quickly everything seems to happen for them, much like dog years. Let’s create a timeline.
- The band gets together. Most of the members have never been in bands before (only Leot previously played in bands and he joined a bit later. Ryan and Sam both learned their instruments around the time of the band’s inception, whereas Ewan played a bit of guitar prior).
- Self paid release of their first CD, “Trying To Grow.”
- “The Sheepdogs Big Stand” is released next, also paid for by themselves.
- The original release of “Learn and Burn”.
- Received 1.5 million public votes to win the cover of Rolling Stone; the first unsigned band to appear on the cover.
- This resulted in a record deal with Atlantic and Warner Music Canada.
- This was also the year of the re-release of “Learn and Burn”, as well as a new EP called “Five Easy Pieces.”
- Also released their first music video (“I Don’t Know”), a nostalgic splice of old footage and the band playing.
- Released self-titled album produced by The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, and Austin Scaggs.
- Put out 2 singles (“The Way It Is” and “Feeling Good”) which both reached #1 on the Canadian alternative charts and even showed up on American rock charts.
- Won 3 JUNO Awards (New Group of the Year, Single of the Year and Rock Album of the Year)
- Played many festivals to a wide audience, including Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Osheaga, SXSW, Catalpa, and more.
- Released “The Way It Is” music video, with a cameo from Jon Dore as the children’s baseball coach.
With their fan base growing exponentially, they recently reached platinum status in Canada. Their brand of blues infused rock and roll has stricken quite a few chords, especially locally. Not since Rush has a Canadian band of their genre made such an impact. As Ewan says on The Sheepdogs’ website, ” “We want to make killer albums that people really want to listen to, but we also want to have a really reputable live show.” Their compositional structure takes good time rock and roll at its finest, with perfectly placed solos, backing vocals, harmonies, and melodies. It is reminiscent of so many different acts from the 60’s and 70’s that at different points in the evening, I was completely convinced that they were playing a Doors cover, or a Santana cover or an Allman Bros cover. To keep originality while being similar acts that have stood the test of time is difficult, but they maintain. Ewan’s soulful voice, with the essence of a weary lumber jack pairs simply and cohesively with the bluesy guitar and the groovy rhythms of the bass and drums. It sounds like a bunch of dudes in blue jeans, working hard and doing the best they can and writing songs about what they see along the way. And what you hear is what you get, give or take the jeans.
The rest of the songs included “Who”, “Learn and Burn”, “Shine On”, “Southern Dreaming”, “Right On”, “Catfish 2 Boogaloo”, “I Don’t Get By”, “I Don’t Know”, and “Laid Back.” When they left the stage, Ewan thanked us. Quickly, “Wolf Shirt,” The Sheepdogs roadie, was back to change guitars while the band acquired beverages off stage. They didn’t make us wait for too long, and as they triumphantly re-entered the stage, they assured of us of not one, but two more songs. I was even pleasantly surprised and satisfied by a Neil Young cover of “Down By The River” for their encore.
All in all, I can’t say a bad word about their ability as musicians. I love their composition and their interaction with each other on stage just adds more to the show. As a group, the core is solid and they seem to be able to read each other with a single glance. With their distance from the crowd and the lead singer being tied to his microphone stand while playing his guitar, the show felt a bit constrained, but that didn’t stop Ryan and Leot from utilizing the space on the mammoth stage. The focus and drive in Ewan’s face was visible and from the technical accuracy he displayed on all fronts, I was really impressed with the show; even if you could see him muttering chords to himself during solos. I thought it was endearing, anyways. Sam kept it all together with his steady hands/feet, and with the chemistry the four (or five) of them have created, it’s not surprising how quickly they’ve gained notoriety. But don’t take that the wrong way. For a band that’s been touring almost non-stop for the last 6 years, it takes a lot of drive and determination to make it as far as they have. Saskatchewan doesn’t seem to have many places to tour outside of Saskatoon, aside from Regina. They have been going the distance for a long time, never giving up on their dream. I, for one, am just happy that some genuinely decent Canadians are making the step towards making a name for themselves worldwide. Here’s hoping that the next time I see The Sheepdogs, they will continue along their ascendance to that of rock and roll legends.