City and Colour at the Fox Theater, by Jess Luoma
City and Colour (photo: Jess Luoma)

I was once a much bigger fan of City and Colour. I came across Dallas Green’s melodic folk-rock project early on in my middle-school-era journey of discovering the music beyond what was played on FM radio. At the time most of my search for sounds that would define my musical tastes revolved around alternating between Pandora stations for The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Strokes as each went on commercial break, and through this process I heard Green’s sensitive and somber voice for the first time. City and Colour’s music came across as polite, but potent — and either I identified with the feelings of longing and confusion Green emoted or I anticipated being old enough to one day relate. Something in the Canadian singer-songwriter’s approach hit me at what seemed to be the right place at the right time.

As I grew older and my interests were further refined, I assumed that City and Colour was meant specifically for that moment in the past. I fell out of touch with Green’s songwriting and only revisited him occasionally as I paid half-attention to new singles or radio plays of old ones. I returned, however, to the band last night at The Fox Theater during their tour in support of this year’s If I Should Go Before You. I decided that as my interest in the project keeps dissipating as I age, I should take this opportunity to see the man who once meant so much to me before my window of desire closes completely.

Opening duties for the evening fell on to the New Orleans folk-blues band Hurray for the Riff Raff. I was only shallowly familiar with the group coming into the performance, but singer and founder Alynda Lee Segarra and her crew met expectations right away with song verses that fixated on common Americana idioms such as “down by the river.” What did surprise me, however, was the pleasant but powerful nature of Segarra’s songwriting, her acoustic guitar bolstered primarily by bass, keys, fiddle, and drums for most of her 40-minute set. “End of the Line,” which featured repeated iterations of the previously mentioned worn-out phrase, was dedicated to all songwriters in the crowd and turned out to be a particular highlight, with lead harmonica and a breezy violin melody carrying side to side my swaying head.

Hurray for the Riff Raff’s assured performance was uncharacteristic of an opening set, with Segarra deftly navigating the emotions of the crowd. She played to the locals, launching off the night with a solo rendition of “The New SF Bay Blues” in what was the first of a number of nods to the venue’s location. “When I first came to the Bay Area I was a runaway kid sleeping in golden gate park,” she told the crowd before going into the inspiring “Blue Ridge Mountain” by reminding us that we are all “capable of more than

[we] think.” The most affecting moment of the evening came when she performed “The Body Electric,” a “plea for peace” that lay bare a poignant message after the horrific events that took place around the world this past week. The anti-war sentiments of the song translated more broadly into a message of anti-violence with the lyric, “Tell me what’s the man with a rifle in his hand/Gonna do for a world that’s some sick and sad?” taking on a notable weight in the wake of the tragedies.

The venue was already nearing capacity before Hurray for the Riff Raff even began playing, a delight that Segarra remarked upon before noting that audiences have been arriving early all across this tour — a phenomenon she attributed to how great City and Colour fans are. However, while listeners of City and Colour may be the type to treat the opener with respect and attention, Segarra is probably discounting how eager Hurray for the Riff Raff fans across the country are to see the band bring her already fleshed out songs even more to life.

Nonetheless, she had a point — Green was the obvious center of the evening. He and his band took the stage in front of a display of tiny white illuminations that emulated a star-packed night sky, a backdrop that remained throughout the performance as overhead lights draped them in bursts of bright yellows, reds, and a number of other hues. As the memorable riff of the new record’s opening track “Woman” became recognizable within the haze of distortion that the band was brewing, the crowd cheered enthusiastically. The song sauntered and dripped with tension, like a rollicking Led Zeppelin burner slowed down to a pleading crawl. Another new song, “If I Should Go Before You,” came soon after and surprised me with it’s weighty bounce. The band found the sweet spot of the song early on and carefully held within it for it’s run time.

Despite this energy the band brought to the stage, most songs didn’t have much forward momentum or sense of urgency, but rather patiently kept time and hit all their expected marks. While it at times could prove underwhelming tame, the band showed off a consistent muscle that made for an unwaveringly enjoyable performance. “Killing Time,” “Lover Come Back,” and “The Grand Optimist,” were all expertly executed, but came and went without stirring the space any. “Bring Me Your Love” seemed to be going that same way until it burst into an incredibly heightened last third that picked up the impact of an otherwise somberly meandering song.

Another unexpected turn came with a stripped and solemn version of “Hello, I’m in Delaware” that Green warned the crowd would be unlike how it is on record, and instead “how [he] always wanted it to sound.” While the studio version echoes the desperate longing and anxiety of separation, the live translation encompassed a feeling more akin to solemn resignation. The difference resembled my general attitude towards revisiting City and Colour’s music years later: not better or worse, but different — and a bit more subdued. I’ve lived more of what Green sings about at this point, and those experiences didn’t hit with the intensity I expected they were going to when I was younger. They came and went and left me marked, rather than bruised, as they drifted into becoming memories.

Throughout the night I turned inward and reflected as I rode a wave of nostalgia for a band that better soundtracks my current situation than I could have imagined. “Hello, I’m in Delaware” was and still is my favorite song by the band, and it kept me company last night as I reminisced over my past summer with a long-distance girlfriend who couldn’t. As a kid hearing that song for the first time I had no base of reference to how the pain of being apart with a loved one would feel, but it still left its impression on me as I ached envisioning Green’s scenario as my own. Watching him perform it live now that I’ve gone through what he has was bittersweet — I don’t know why I romanticized feelings of loss and longing as a child, but at least now I can recognize the sincerity of Green’s words and find greater solace in the song.

“Sleeping Sickness,” coming halfway through the set, was the initial song that introduced me to City and Colour’s music — I discovered it on that same Pandora station that introduced me to the other bands that became stuck to my youth like Sublime and Interpol. From falling in love with that song in junior high to seeing it in concert last night — with my tastes having evolved whereby once City and Colour was on the fringes of my mainstream to now being squarely in the center — the song’s message of restless nights up alone with your thoughts still hits me just as hard today as it did back the first time I heard it. The performance left me with the poignant impression that there will always be a place for Green’s music in my present — cause the past is not just an island in time, but a road to where I’m at now.

I was lifted squarely out of my introspection when Green walked back on stage by himself at the start of the encore. The star-resembling lights behind him lit up in vertical columns of blue, white, and red to resemble the Paris national flag as he addressed the atrocities of the past week. “This is what we do every day — we stand in a room and we just want to play songs for people,” Green said through a choked-up throat. “We played that night and we’ll keep playing because what else can you do but keep playing.” He dedicated his subsequent performance of “Against the Grain” from 2008’s Bring Me Your Love to “everybody still thinking good thoughts and who want to be kind to each other.” The moment was somber, but sweet — and presented hope to lift ourselves out of the remorse.

The night seemed to reach it’s obvious conclusion with the hopeless romanticism of City and Colour’s biggest hit, “The Girl” — a predictable crowd sing-along that hit, as most of the night had, exactly as it was supposed to. But it was still warm, inviting, tender, and touching — and was everything you would want it to be. Green remarked that he is still figuring out this far into his career how to best thank the crowds he plays to for actually caring about his music. But to me it isn’t surprising that audiences pay so much attention given his unique ability to relate with an uncalculated earnestness. He often stumbled with his banter, but his inability to be concise as he addressed the crowd felt expressly human and undeniably charming. After closing “The Girl” by inviting his band back out to get the crowd dancing for what would have been a fitting conclusion to the whole set, he surprised me one last time by performing “Hope For Now” off of 2011’s Little Hell as the true end of the evening. The song didn’t have the nostalgia or immediateness that makes for a classic show closer, but it enveloped a swaying thunder of a mood that, finally, shook me that evening. It was the final reminder I needed that Green has much to offer for me in 2015 after a night of falling for his music all over again.