As Laura Stevenson and her band The Cans finished tuning up last week at the Rock and Roll Hotel, a disembodied voice came over the PA from the soundboard. “Don’t make music -- Make history,” it said, getting a chuckle from band and audience members alike. But by the end of their high energy set, it would be damn hard for anyone to believe these musicians didn’t take that advice to heart.
Riding a double-barrelled wave of buzz -- having been named one of the must-see artists at SXSW this year stacked atop the glowing early press on their new album Wheel -- the five piece band took the stage to a packed room that hung on to every word uttered by the diminutive yet hugely-voiced Stevenson. From note one, the audience sang along to old songs, and amazingly even the brand new songs were already in the fanbase rotation. Wheel tracks “Runner,” which is as perfect a pop gem as one could imagine, “Bells & Whistles,” and “Renee,” the album’s sweeping opening track, were greeted with as much enthusiasm as older favorites “Barnacles” and “Mouthbreather” off of their 2010 7” Holy Ghost!
Laura Stevenson at the Rock and Roll HotelOn “The Move” and “Finish Piece,” the true magic of the evening was brought into sharp, honey vocaled focus. The most immediate analogy to Stevenson’s larger-than-life voice would be Sharon Van Etten. Both can wrench every last trace of emotion out of a single word, and in their songs both tackle stories told by hearts that are often bruised, and more often than not bloodied as well. Rather than drown in the gloom of it all, Stevenson opts for the high road and polishes out the roughness to some degree, steering away from dirge territory and driving her songs into the poppier, sunnier side of life on the other side of heartbreak. even if her subjects are “in a hot room…organizing all the ways that I could take all of the things you love away” (“The Move”), or begging someone to “please take a piece of me,” (“Finish Piece”), the subject matter never feels out of reach or too bleak to contemplate, and Stevenson does her damndest to make you feel like you’re right there with them.
And that is possibly Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ greatest triumph -- at the core of everything they do is a punky, vibrant center that assures you that bruised, bloody life histories are bearable when faced with friends, family, and even loose acquaintances. When the majestic lilt of Wheel track “L-Dopa” gave way to the revved up Ronettes flashback “Master of Art” (off of 2011’s Sit Resist) to end the set, the crowd surged with the same energy that they had at the beginning of the evening, letting the sweetness of the moment wash away any hint of the past heartache that Stevenson’s songs may have stirred., and proving for one night at least that making music and making history don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
All photos by Kevin Hill