For a band from Toronto, Great Lake Swimmers gives off a strong flyover country vibe, an initial modesty that quickly finds its voice. At The Ark on a rainy Friday night, lead singer Tony Dekker stood awkwardly at the mic, his hands in fists and stance unbalanced. Bassist Bret Higgins wore abbreviated cowboy boots that barely reached above his ankles. The rest of the ensemble — Kelsey McNulty on keyboards and Erik Arnesen on guitar and banjo — also exuded a midwest humbleness in their presence. Only drummer Marshall Bureau added a showy, urban energy to the stage. However, once the band settled in, their music pulled the audience along for a great ride.
On tour for their new album The Waves, The Wake, Great Lake Swimmers stepped away from their usual acoustic guitar-centered sound to a more multi-instrumental taste. The band often records albums in non-studio locations like an abandoned grain silo for their debut Great Lake Swimmers and a 145-year-old church for The Waves, The Wake. As a result, even with the acoustic beauty produced in a venue like The Ark, their live set has trouble mimicking the recording.
Still, Great Lake Swimmers found a way to fill the space with the addition of McNulty on keyboards. Her stripped-down synth patterns contrasted the more classic folk guitars and bass, bringing the band into a new era. Although the band could not transport a whole woodwind section, they were clever in how to adjust the set and minimize gaps in the music. Several songs began with a solo instrument then added different sounds, crescendoing into a massive wave.
Despite their indie status, Great Lake Swimmers released their first album back in 2003 and have since produced a steady stream of EPs and records. Reliant on the songwriting talents of Dekker, Great Lake Swimmers has been a constant presence in the Canadian folk-rock scene, receiving nominations for the Polaris Prize and Juno Awards. While tracks like “The Great Exhale” from New Wild Everywhere and “Zero in the City” from A Forest of Arms follow the traditional songwriting verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula, other tracks run off on tangents of enchanting harmonization or instrumental interludes. When the band played “In a Certain Way,” Arnesen’s banjo riff alone could carry the song.
Great Lake Swimmers are a hidden gem of folk rock music. Although they are based in Canada, their soulful rhythm guitar and sincere lyrics radiate a Midwestern feel, making the band right at home in the Great Lakes state.