From the outside looking in — blissfully ignorant as I am to the nitty gritty of this particular four-man dynamic, obvs — Sloan appear to be the ideal rock and roll band. They’ve racked up the mileage: The Halifax-born, Toronto-based quartet has maintained the same lineup for 27 years with nary a dramatic breakup or reunion. They are equals: All four members write and sing their own songs, a democratic methodology that is rare in an industry driven by ego and control. They get to be different things to different people: In Canada they enjoy large audiences and fame, but here in the States they fly under the radar as badass power-pop underdogs.
Lucky us, I say. Case in point: Saturday night (May 5) Sloan brought their tour to an excitable crowd of less than 200 at Empire in Portland, an intimate second-floor loft space above a Chinese restaurant on busy Congress Street. And like any so-called ideal rock and roll band that has been through thick and thin, subsists on egalitarianism, and sways between fame and obscurity knows, the room is the thing. The room at Empire bounced and weaved to the rhythm of rock anthems, collectively sang along to songs old and new, and aspired to be bigger than its meager stature. You should have been there (those in Boston get their chance tonight when Sloan play Brighton Music Hall in Allston).
Bassist and de facto band spokesman Chris Murphy worked in self-deprecating tones throughout the evening; his stage banter often questioned how many in attendance actually knew the band and/or knew that they were playing in town that night. Despite Murphy’s witty rapport, the band played like we were standing in a stadium; the crowd reacted like it knew damn well who was on stage.
At this point in their career, Sloan have a wealth of songs to draw from in their back catalog — songs full of humor, humanity, and empathy, not to mention a sizeable cache of gooey pop hooks that suggest some sort of Faustian deal. The nearly 30-song performance touched upon all of the band’s studio albums, including their twelfth, this year’s, err, 12 (Yep Roc). New tunes like “Spin Our Wheels,” “Have Faith,” and “Right to Roam” fit in with the well-worn Sloan aesthetic: Muscly Beatlesque rock delivered via suit jacket, leather jacket, or jean jacket, depending on the band member doing the singing. The T. Rex strut of “Who Taught You to Live Like That” mobilized early in their first set, while “Carried Away,” devoid of the strings central to the album version, thrummed along with reinforced bottom end. Stage-right guitarist Patrick Pentland, having recently achieved J Mascis levels of rock wizardry with an epic white beard/hair combo, tossed out plentiful shards of edgy ‘90s-derived fretwork, while stage-left guitarist Jay Ferguson balanced the sound with clean chords and fills.
In the fan favorite department, Sloan dusted off “Losing California,” “The Good in Everyone,” “Penpals,” “The Other Man,” and “If It Feels Good Do It,” the latter closing out the second set with its rousing verse-that’s-really-just-a-gloriously-sustained-chorus. When the band reached back to its 1992 debut single, “Underwhelmed,” the effect was somewhat revelatory: A song that once owed a considerable amount to shoegaze had been reclaimed as a meaty power-pop nugget, sandwiched together with Andrew Scott’s head-over-heels drum fills.
The sets became even more fun and freewheeling when Scott traded his drum sticks for a guitar, Murphy jumped onto the drum throne, and Ferguson picked up the bass. Scott’s songs are some of the group’s most inspired, brawny, and unexpected, and the band seemed to really bask in the glow of role swapping — on-stage smiles increased, goofiness multiplied, Murphy twirled the drum sticks like a kid giddy with new discoveries. Within the short span of three of Scott’s songs, the band moved from a dusty Neil Young ramble (“Gone for Good”) to a rave-up about annoying neighbors (“Living with the Masses”) to a ‘60s-inspired singalong (“She’s Slowin’ Down Again”).
Nearly two hours, two sets, and one encore later, Sloan stepped down from the stage and shot the breeze with the concertgoers that decided to hang around. There was no wall — Sloan were the room and the room was Sloan — and before the crowd emptied out into the warm Portland night, they put in a final, casual bid to be the kind of band you talk about when you talk about bands.
Photos by Zeth Lundy; follow him on Twitter @zethlundy.