Last Friday evening at the Corona Theatre looked like a scene straight out of Cameron Crowe’s acclaimed rock n’ roll drama Almost Famous. The venue was packed to the brim with rowdy, power-chord-hungry teenagers sporting long, greasy hair and leather Iron Maiden jackets. And if I had a nickel for every time that I saw someone toss up the rock sign (otherwise known as the sign of the horns) during one of The Sheepdogs’ ultra-classic sounding guitar solos, I’d probably have enough nickels to fund the construction of a time machine to send all of those kids back to the generation that they clearly missed out on (or at least think they missed out on).
Now while I don’t want to sound overly skeptical of the crowd’s enthusiasm and excitement– the energy was palpable at the Corona– I do wish to express that my first official Sheepdogs experience was pretty surreal. A total blast from the past, you might say.
While the teens (and pre-teens) were busy shredding gnarly air-guitar and starting short-lived mosh-pits, the other demographic of the crowd, composed of 40-year old Dads and their spouses, were quietly bobbing their balding heads, and shuffling about in Asics running shoes, probably reminiscing on a time when rock music was more culturally cutting edge, and less obscured with piles of layered-on nostalgia.
That’s not to say that The Sheepdogs’ sound can simply be reduced to mere genre re-hash— serving merely to fill the cultural void which emerged in the mid-90s, after hippie revivalism and guitar-based rock moved deeper and deeper underground. Indeed, while some of the younger fans at the Corona were blatantly appropriating a style and a culture that they knew relatively little about, the band onstage that night is an important Canadian cultural emblem, carrying the sonic torch of seminal rock bands like The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive into the 21st-Century. The Sheepdogs’ tendency to evoke nostalgia doesn’t feel like a cheap gimmick; instead, their performances remind us that we need more bands like these guys to keep the ethos of rock music alive.
The show on Friday night harkened back to the glory days of classic rock; the 2-part guitar harmonies (a technique the band likes to call “guitarmonies”) on the fan-favourite Southern Dreaming recalls both the deep-south rock stylings of the Allman Brothers, and also the blistering double-guitar lead on The Guess Who’s Share The Land.
As the night progressed, The Sheepdogs worked through a setlist composed of new material from their aptly titled 2015 release Future Nostalgia, as well as a host of hit songs from their critically praised debut and sophomore records.
The Sheepdogs closed their initial set with arguably their most well-known and recognizable track, I Don’t Know before returning for an encore that featured a 12-minute rendition of Neil Young’s classic Down By The River. Not only was it an epic way of closing out a nostalgia-laden evening, the choice of song seemed to be a deliberate gesture to the band’s roots– the days when drinking beers and jamming along with Neil Young records in someone’s basement took precedence over rehearsing polished live performances.
It’s hard to imagine that The Sheepdogs were teetering on the brink of musical oblivion just six years ago. After years of relentless touring across Canada, and countless nightmare “touring adventures,” the band was severely in debt and on the verge of giving up. That was, until a Canadian record producer silently submitted the band’s name to be considered for the 2011 Rolling Stone Cover Contest. The rest, of course, is classic-rock-revival history. The Sheepdogs went on to win the contest, and in doing so, became the first unsigned band in history to appear on the front cover of Rolling Stone.
The Sheepdogs’ performance last Friday at the Corona was the band’s first show in Canada after an extensive European tour. Although the Saskatoon natives were still thousands of kilometres from their true stomping grounds, they were nevertheless “thrilled to be back home,” according to lead vocalist and band frontman Ewan Currie. Their 2016 Canadian tour, which will bring them westward all the way to Vancouver before returning back east, will naturally be remarkably different than those brutal treks across Canada a less than a decade ago.
The band has rightly earned a special place in the hearts and minds of a Canadian classic rock fan base that still craves those sweet, southern-influenced guitar hooks and delicate three-part vocal harmonies. Friday night’s performance reminded me that The Sheepdogs were able to pull through in the end, turning their Cameron Crow-esque pipe dream into reality. Finally, it seems, The Sheepdogs have made it.
* photos by Georgia Vatcher