Great Lake Swimmers debuted their first, self-titled record in 2003. Since then, the Canadian band, fronted by singer/songwriter Tony Dekker, has developed their signature sound of contemplative folk balladry across seven studio albums, most recently 2018’s The Waves, the Wake. That record continues the tradition of soothing, melancholy melodies and introspective, earthy lyrics. Last week, Dekker brought Great Lake Swimmers‘ compositions to a wintry evening at SPACE Evanston, his passionate guitar work supported by bandmates Erik Arnesen on banjo and Bret Higgins on bass.
A delightful opener, Native Harrow (singer-songwriter Devin Tuel), warmed up Evanston SPACE with lyrical, atmospheric folk and dreamy lamentations on love and life on the road. Tuel’s effortless vocals (there’s a strong tinge of Carole King in there) were perfectly balanced by bandmate Stephen Harm’s multi-instrumental accompaniment.
On the drowsy, resigned “Happier Now,” a recent single from Native Harrow, Tuel’s charm shined it’s brightest. She’s an emphatic performer, drenching her lyrics with emotion and connecting to the audience with generous magnetism.
The trio of Great Lake Swimmers followed, guiding the audience through a tour of their nearly 20 year old songbook, highlighting songs from the most recent release, and dipping a toe into some fan favorites from the past. From the new album, songs like “Side Effects” and “In a Certain Light” played nicely to the seated crowd, delivered in Dekker’s mournful, measured vocals. At their best moments, Great Lake Swimmers, such as on the spiraling “The Real Work,” manifest a hypnotic quality live. Watching these men develop the soundscapes on each instrument is a real pleasure.
A little bit of the sound here goes a long way, though, and there are moments when Dekker’s limited range as a songwriter is laid particularly bare (notably on songs like “The Talking Wind” and “I Could Be Nothing,” where the earth-tinged lyrics flirt with the cliche). For a listener unfamiliar with this discography (admittedly myself) it’s easy to get lost in the similar melodies and ethereal poetry.
But evenso, the craftsmanship and dedication to the band’s singular tone is impressive; if anything, Dekker seems to be sincere to a fault. I was particularly interested in a song called “Moving Pictures Silent Films,” the first song off the very first record– the band closed the set with this excellent, lamenting tune, and it managed to feel like a touchstone for the set that preceded it. An origin story for the rest of Dekker’s haunting, thoughtful body of work.
Great Lake Swimmers continue to tour. Their latest release, The Waves, the Wake, is out now, on Nettwerk Records.