Published Oct 30, 2019Navy Blues is a rather divisive album for fans of Sloan, the longtime Canadian rock institution. For those from their native Halifax, it was the album announcing, loud and clear, that the band had made the obligatory industry move to Toronto, and they were aiming to stay there. For people like me, way out on the slower moving edge of the West coast, it was the album that announced their arrival.
Bassist Chris Murphy and guitarist Jay Ferguson met in the mid-'80s, and performed together in a couple of short-lived bands. Murphy started jamming with drummer Andrew Scott while attending college. Bringing Ferguson into the fold and subsequently adding guitarist Patrick Pentland, Sloan were born. Twelve albums and nine Juno nominations later, their lineup has miraculously stayed the same.
Navy Blues, Sloan's fourth album, arguably saw the band at their creative and cultural peak. It was the last of their albums to sell gold in Canada, while "Money City Maniacs" remains their biggest, heaviest and most recognizable track. As such, Navy Blues is as deserving of a lengthy dedicated tour as any of their albums.
With the iconic "4" light rig, as seen on the cover of their excellent 1999 live album 4 Nights at the Palais Royale, placed backwards behind them, Sloan took the stage about 50 minutes late. That tardiness certainly didn't do the dad-heavy crowd any favours on a Tuesday night, and the sight of silver having taken over the hair of Scott and Pentland, and creeping into that of Murphy and Ferguson, might lead one to assume they'd be feeling the weight of time as well, but if the band was tired, they didn't show it.
Sloan split their "evening with" performance into two distinct sets: one for the album and the other for the hits. With sound techs dressed in adorable sailor outfits to help set the mood, they performed Navy Blues admirably. They smoothly progressed through the song transitions just like on the recordings, even while switching instruments, save for when they took a brief pause to conceptually flip sides on the record. That particular pause allowed Murphy to give a shout out to Daryl Smith, the man who had produced the album and then apparently moved out West sometime afterwards.
Granted, Scott seemed to have a little difficulty reaching the highs, most evident on "The N.S." from Between the Bridges in their second set, but the vocals of Ferguson, Murphy, and Pentland sounded remarkably as youthful as they did when I saw them open for the Strokes at the Orpheum in 2002, the infamous night someone tried to steal Nardwuar's tam o' shanter.
Though they all trade vocals and songwriting duties, of the four of them, Murphy remains the most natural frontman. With his big square-rimmed glasses and flowing hockey hair, the only guy onstage not wearing a hat, he sang the most and, more importantly, exuded the greatest charisma. Getting the crowd to clap whenever appropriate, he was theatrical on bass, projecting his performance into the crowd while using the space, backing off to the amps to make silly duck faces or pull his chiselled jaw tight before redressing the mic center stage. He also twirled his sticks and grinned like a fool with his head tipped back while on drums, compared to the style of usual drummer Scott, who looked at his kit when he played with his face largely obscured by a Pirates baseball cap. Up front, Ferguson and Pentland had more opportunity to connect, but they generally stuck to the wings, electing instead to let their playing do the talking.
That being said, given their tendency to trade instruments, everyone got their chance to shine. With both Pentland and Murphy playing acoustic guitar for Navy Blues closer "I'm Not Through with You Yet," Pentland delivered his most soulful vocals, and demonstrated a certain wokeness by singing "rotten picking moment" instead of the employing the original problematic phrasing. Even bearded everyman Gregory Macdonald, who has been Sloan's touring keyboardist/percussionist since 2006, got a little moment to shine, starting the jaunty piano intro to side two opener "Chester the Molester."
One of the greatest and/or most Canadian moments of theatricality had to be during the intro to "Money City Maniacs," when all the lights were dimmed save a rotating red hockey goal light as the expected sirens blared. Later, Murphy got the crowd to sing the song's second bridge, and though about half the place messed up the words, it still got one of the biggest cheers of the evening.
As promised, their second set was a collection of hits pulled from across the years. If anything, Murphy seemed even more hammy for this, taking his mic over to Pentland to double up his vocals on "Unkind" from 2011's The Double Cross. Later, noting the cavernous aspect of the venue, he playfully mused that, on page one of the imagined Rock & Roll Handbook, it states, "The lower the ceiling, the more rocking the show." Considering what they pulled off this evening, it's difficult to argue.