Guelph, Ontario, can't be a particularly promising place to put a band together. A long way from everything but three frozen Great Lakes, Toronto and the smoldering ruins of a city the natives once called Detroit, Guelph is most famous as the birthplace of Dr. John McRae, the World War I soldier-poet who wrote "In Flanders Fields": "We are the dead/Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved, and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields." And until now, you could make the argument that those four words—"We are the dead"—were Guelph's longest and most resonant contribution to the world of art and beauty. But suddenly Guelph can lay claim to the Constantines, the next and newest band sliding into line to save rock & roll from itself. And now the Constantines' Bry Webb sings four new words: "I'm learning to survive."
Shine a Light is the Constantines'—or the Cons, as they've been nicknamed, set to sit right alongside the Mats—second album, the follow-up to an overlooked but critically lauded 2001 self-titled full-length that came packaged in plain cardboard and accompanied by a real strike-anywhere match. But just released on Seattle monster Sub Pop, Shine doesn't need props to make the same point: the Constantines are a band intent on starting fires—some to keep you warm at night, some to serve as signals, and some to burn things down.
The first spark comes from Webb, the Constantines' principal songwriter. Guitarist Steve Lambke drops in to sing every once in a while; keyboardist Whil Kidman, drummer Doug MacGregor and bassist Dallas Wehrle stick to their own background genius. Thanks to that whipcrack rhythm section, the Constantines ably share Fugazi's do-it-yourself spirit and their calculated instrumental ballet routines. But Webb adds something unique, a dose of painful gravitas to an already seriously determined band.
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He's a modest, natural poet whose easy insight and plainspoken confidence must make him a welcome neighbor when you're bitter and by yourself at the bar. And he's the one who gets the Constantines tagged with their Springsteen and Westerberg comparisons: like Nebraska-era Bruce, Webb has a voice that is heavy with Everyman despair, with rough blue-collar grit that sounds as natural coming out of a CD player as it would over a CB radio. But like Westerberg, Webb reins in that old man's voice with his young man's heart, tempering despair with stubborn can't-win-but-tryin'-anyway idealism.
Two years ago, he sang that his generation was a ghost town, "so roll me over!" But now, on top of Shine's "Young Lions," he's tossing and turning back in the other direction: "Roll out of the cradle/Climb out of the window.../Loosen your collar/Shake off the wires/Run like a river/Glow like a beacon fire."
That has to be the thesis for the Constantines: a rejection of a life lived someplace cold and dark. They're a visceral opposite to entropy, an unpredictable fireball of energy from a town that's gotta spend at least half the year shivering indoors in front of the TV. Certainly, we could be wrong. Maybe Guelph is a blazin' winter party town, where bohemian geniuses hack out ice sculptures in the street and stagger home to suck on wine bottles beneath thick flokati rugs. But Shine a Light doesn't sound its best until the late and lonely hours, and there's got to be a reason. The morning after, there's the hangover and the embarrassment. So the Constantines are a band for the night before: when every conversation is urgent, every sentence a revelation, everything seems easy, and the drinks keep you nice and warm.
The Constantines perform with the Weakerthans and Roy at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln, Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. Wed., 7:30 p.m. $10. All Ages.