Manitoba Legislative Building ::: photo by Brittney Bush Bollay
My brain wonders why I only slept five hours last night, and my stomach wonders why I felt it necessary to eat poutine four times in the last three days. I’m loading up the car with a backpack full of dirty sweaters and brushing four days of glittery snow off the windshield. We need to fill the gas tank. We’ve got 1500 miles of snowy road ahead of us, and I wish to god I had my sunglasses.
But this is not a story about poutine. This is a story about mythology, about the stories and legends you love and the words that you hold dear, the sacred places you have imagined and populated in your mind.
This is a story about a band.
Neil Young is Winnipeg’s most famous export, but the Weakerthans are the band most emotionally linked to the city. Winnipeg lives and breathes in every song, serves as backdrop and metaphor, appears as a character. To fans, the Weakerthans are not just from Winnipeg, they are Winnipeg, and in loving the band we’ve come to love the city by proxy.
So when my friend Drew and I decided to travel to Winnipeg to see the Weakerthans play four shows in four nights, it felt like more than just a vacation; it felt like a pilgrimage. Winnipeg, One Great City, snowy city of the plains, home of Our Dear Weakerthans: this was our sacred goal.
We decided to drive. We were both half-broke, and neither enamored with the TSA, but also there was a certain sort of belief: epic times call for epic measures. We would propel ourselves thirty hours across our country, through states people forget exist, creating more adventure where adventure already existed. (I mean, it’s not like any sane person decides that December is the absolute best time to visit Winnipeg.) We rented an SUV, stocked the backseat with goldfish crackers and string cheese, and set off.
I have just a few things to say about the drive: driving an SUV may make you feel like an asshole, but the Acadia’s heated seats are nice; Northern Idaho is lovely; North Dakota is almost exactly what you’d expect. A lady in a diner restroom in Bismarck volunteered that my skull-printed puffy vest was “very… unique.” We drove to Fargo and turned north.
It was 6:30 when we arrived in Winnipeg, and we quickly checked in and set off in search of poutine, Canada’s second greatest gift to the world (after the Constantines). I had prepared a list of recommended poutine establishments – once a Girl Scout always a Girl Scout – and we carried the weight of four layers of clothes through the snow to the nearest one. This trip was full of strange moments of fate. The diner was attached to that night’s Weakerthans venue.
The diner no longer served poutine, but we stayed anyway. Through the kitchen we could see over a half door into the venue. After months of Ticketmaster apology screens, fruitless eBay searches, and unanswered Craigslist ads, this was as close as we were going to get. We eventually wandered off for beer, but later in the evening came back and secreted ourselves in the lobby, whose wall seemed to back the stage. I stuck my ear to the crease of the door to hear John K. Samson sing “They called here to tell me / that you’re finally dying / through a veil of childish cries.” “Anchorless,” Fallow, track 11. We stayed for two songs, then wandered smiling into the cold.
That wasn’t it, though — what happened next was just as important. Our hostel housed a pub on the ground floor, and Drew and I decided to wander in.
Behind the bar stood a man in a Constantines sweatshirt. It was the same one that I have, the red one with “CONS” on the front and “Constantines” in (partially fake) Russian letters on the back, with white piping and a zip up the middle. The zip on mine is really hard to close. “I have that same sweatshirt,” I told him, and instantly we were friends.
Granted, everyone in Winnipeg wants to be your friend. It turns out they call it “Friendly Manitoba” for a fucking /reason/. Our server at the restaurant in the first venue tried to find us tickets for that night’s show. A woman who stopped and offered directions on the street later recognized us in a bar and invited us out for drinks with her friends. Meaning to go for lunch, we’d spend half an hour on our way out the door chatting with the hostel staff. Best of all, it seemed genuine — not “niceness” or “friendliness” but a real interest and desire for camaraderie.
Still, Jack (that turned out to be his name) and the staff at the Lo Pub (that turned out to be the bar) were something special. Drew and I soon realized we’d driven 33 hours to stumble, by dumb luck, into a home away from home. A place where we all loved beer and music and people and the Weakerthans and Winnipeg. And a place where, in another gift of fate, the Weakerthans afterparties were being held every night.
The next morning I put on tights, wool tights, socks, a tank top, a thermal, a blouse, a sweater, some pants, boots, a coat, a scarf, a hat, and some gloves, and journeyed nimbly into the cold. We had no real mission save poutine and beer: “Eat, drink, and be curious.” What was Winnipeg like? What did The Holy City like to eat for lunch? Where did it sell its outerwear and its hockey memorabilia? Was it true that you could walk halfway across the city completely underground? (Answer: yes, but only if you can find the bloody entrance.)
Truthfully: despite my music-nerd idolization of the place, I didn’t really expect much of Winnipeg. We’re all led to believe that there’s basically nothing between Vancouver and Toronto, that every other Canadian city is just a hamlet, a bleak outpost town. But Winnipeg has a larger population than Seattle, and with full-time opera and ballet companies, if it is a hamlet, it’s a remarkably sophisticated one.
Other things that Winnipeg has: an excellent record store, the world’s best Goodwill, 4 am Chinese food, a full day’s worth of toy store, a hockey team named the Moose, and excellent vegetarian poutine, located, fatefully, at the restaurant in our hostel.
Drew and I had tickets for nights two through four, so our Weakerthans experience began in earnest Thursday night. The West End Cultural Center is roughly the size of Neumos, the largest venue the band plays in Seattle. In Winnipeg, it had briskly sold out. This night was both a beginning and an apex for me, as the band would be performing Left and Leaving, my favorite of their four studio albums.
As the title implies, Left and Leaving tells of journeys and farewells, of sadness and loneliness and just the sweetest bit of hope. As the band played through the album, everyone in the room sang along. I looked around and saw soft smiles reflecting the blue lights of the stage. Everyone in this room loved this band. Everyone was just so happy to be there.
I was with my people. Read the rest of Brittney’s Winnipeg and Weakerthans adventure after the jump (more…)