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Live Review: City and Colour, December 10, 2011, 9:30 Club – Washington, DC

City and Colour
Photo by Vanessa Heins

One of the great joys of being a fan of something — music, film, sports, whatever — is imagining what it might be like if the shoe were on the other foot. What would it be like if I were on the stage, the screen, or the field? The etymology of the word fan traces back to fanaticism, but it could have just as easily evolved from fantasy. We’ve all done it.

As a child, I can vividly recall tossing around a plush football in the living room (by myself, mind you), making diving catches onto the couch and playing out the commentary of game scenarios in my head. But my perspective, even then, was always anchored by the realist in me. I grew up idolizing Dan Marino and Cal Ripken, Jr., but in my imaginary world, I never quite ascended to those heights. I never imagined myself in the role of the star quarterback leading the game-winning drive in the Super Bowl (yes, I understand the irony of my last two sentences) or the infielder with the longevity and productivity to reignite a country’s pastime. Those things, for whatever reason, just never completely appealed to me. Instead, I always imagined being the sprightly cornerback who came up with the clutch interception to give the offense one last chance or the spark plug who set the table for the go-ahead score thanks to keen plate discipline and opportunistic bag-stealing.

To shift the focus to music, it would make sense that my delusions of grandeur be equally understated. There has never been a point in my life where I’ve felt compelled to imagine myself as a rock star. Just like being the star quarterback has never suited me, neither has been serving as the face of a band selling out arenas. It isn’t something I’d want to experience even in my wildest of dreams. And this is right about where City and Colour, the astutely-named project of Dallas Green, figures into the equation.

Ever since hearing “Waiting…” for the first time, City and Colour has been the kind of outfit that has repeatedly made me think, “you know, if I were as competent with a guitar as I am with a keyboard and mouse and had any semblance of a singing voice at all, this is the kind of music I might make.” This isn’t to say Green’s music has played a large role in my life or made the impact on me that countless other artists have, because to be blunt, it hasn’t. But his aesthetic has always maintained a sense of attainability, a feeling that if in some parallel universe I were going to exist as a musician, this is one of the routes I’d feel at home in taking. So to finally see him on stage and in action live was — and this most assuredly sounds creepy — a chance for me to study a nonexistent, Twilight Zone version of myself. And you know what? I came away feeling like, “yeah, this is definitely the kind of music I could see myself making”.

Little Hell, Green’s newest album, sees City and Colour grow exponentially, welcoming aboard a full band to broaden the previously acoustic-driven sound. In a live setting, this trade-off caused some of his more memorable songs to feel a little less intimate. “Waiting…,” for instance, played like a twangy alt-country tune, sacrificing almost all of the tenderness that made it so powerful to me to begin with. But aside from squandering that one song and all the raw sentiment behind it, all of the hits — “We Found Each Other in the Dark,” “Sleeping Sickness,” “Body in a Box” — were executed with precisely the acumen and emotion displayed in their original recorded form, making Green’s live show exactly as I expected it: gentle, unassuming, and affectionate.

Rather quickly Green’s band dispersed, leaving him alone on the stage under an appropriately dim spotlight. Before naturally progressing to just an acoustic guitar — and eventually a harmonica — Green donned an electric guitar and delivered a startling rendition of “Day Old Hate” from his first album as City and Colour, 2005’s Sometimes. Now three records in, Green’s decision to add a band and fluff out his sound is a perfectly reasonable one. But this show was at its absolute best when he was alone on stage, delivering his songs with the same simplicity and earnestness that made him such a fascination to begin with. The crowd seemed equally enthralled throughout this batch of solo songs to the point where you never would have guessed the line for entry previously ran beyond the full length of the city block. For me, Green’s greatest asset is his ability to be impactful without being domineering, and the crowd’s behavior only served as confirmation.

Green was engaging and at times hilarious, beckoning the audience to put away their phones and cameras for just one song before suggesting that if anyone sees someone else recording, “politely tell them to fuck off.” Later, during “Little Hell,” Green’s band actually had to stop the song after noticing how out of tune the sound was. It turns out that Green had become so wrapped up in story-telling that he’d placed his capo across the wrong fret. In his grandest gesture of showmanship, Green laid out the ground rules for a proposed sing-a-long for “What Makes a Man” in which he took some dramatic vocal liberties at the end of one line, then went off on a calm rant about Christina Aguilera’s tendency to turn every word of every song into an unnecessarily over-dramatic event. Could I see myself joking around on stage similarly? Absolutely.

More than anything else, City and Colour’s performance at the 9:30 Club reassured me of everything I had previously gathered from listening on record. Green is immensely genuine and personal; he made a very specific point of letting the audience know how lucky they are to have such a venue, and to credit the venue employees for making the artists feel at home, which evidently isn’t such a regular occurrence on the road. It was an understated show, one that didn’t leave one or two indelible memories that stood above the rest, but only because it didn’t need to. That’s what’s so great about what Dallas Green does with his music. That’s what continues to make me think, “this is the kind of music I wish I could make.”

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