Catching Up with Sam Roberts

By Helen Spitzer

Sam Roberts Band learned about forging a meaningful connection very early in their history; three of them are friends from high school, and for the 17 years that they’ve been a band, they’ve managed not only to get along but to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Their connection to the songwriting tradition in this country was similarly inescapable during their first visit to headline Massey Hall: hours before the show they noticed that Neil Young had played a two-night stand that same month, and Gordon Lightfoot had wrapped up a four-night stint the week before.

Q: What’s it like to be aware that you are literally standing in the same place?

You are inevitably influenced by the weight the venue itself carries — just even the sight of the marquee. I did catch myself several times during the set, when I’m supposed to be letting go of conscious thought, thinking instead, “I can’t believe I’m at Massey Hall.” The second time I enjoyed myself more.

Q: Why is feeling a connection to the audience important for an artist?

The whole idea, in my mind anyway, is that you break down as much of the barrier as possible between yourselves, as the band, and the audience. I’m not saying I want to invite everyone up to shake a tambourine. But the thing is to create this feeling of communal experience, that you are all in it with a sense of common purpose, and emotionally connected. It’s what we look for — and when it doesn’t happen automatically, it’s what we work for over the course of a show. You want them to feel as much a partof it as the people onstage. Some venues make that goal easier to achieve than others.

Q: Standing onstage at Massey Hall, it’s surprising how close the very back rows feel. What difference does physical proximity make?

Sightlines are important — and not just from the audience. Obviously you want everybody to be able to see, but you need to be able to see everybody from the stage as well. And there’s so many venues where you don’t see anything past row 40. You’re just assuming everybody’s having a good time, but there’s no certainty. To have a venue like Massey Hall, where the performer can look up and know they can connect with the entire audience, that’s important.

Q: If the audience is right there, does it pull the band even closer together?

There’s no question that when things sound good, the confidence the band has to push themselves goes to another level. When things sound bad, you can’t pull it off. It’s hard to describe this as a job sometimes, but part of the job is to learn how to cope with your technical issues and make it as seamless as possible, without losing your cool, and without it affecting the audience’s ability to enjoy it. It can take a long time to learn to be comfortable when things go wrong. But when things go right, when the room feels very natural and you feel an immediate connection, you can really deliver the kind of show you want to play. Certain rooms make that easy to do.