City and Colour – Guide Me Back Home (3LP)

I must confess that, most regularly, live albums don’t thrill me. City and Colour albums do not often thrill me either, for that matter (long story short, while I was a big fan of Alexisonfire back in the day, I found the first two City and Colour albums staggeringly overwrought); I don’t know that I’d call my distaste for the band absolute because I have found albums in the City and Colour canon that I like, but I most regularly take a pretty critical eye first when I begin to review a City and Colour release. Keeping that in mind, it should probably come as no great shock at all that my critical ears were piqued when a THREE LP live album by City and Colour arrived on my doorstep but – you know? – Guide Me Back Home completely won me and totally captured my imagination on first listen, and never let go. From top to bottom and front to back, Green shrinks the size of a group of theatre venues and makes the experience knee-bucklingly intimate; when the singer chats up the audience between songs, it’s hard to resist the urge to smile – if not laugh along and, when some dingbat cracks wise and interrupts the vibe from the back of the room (ONCE), it’s impossible not to get incredibly annoyed at the disruption. No, over the duration of three LPs, Dallas Green captures and holds listeners more warmly than most might anticipate.

The A-side of the 3LP set opens the proceedings unassumingly enough. With some spare but beautiful, mid-tempo acoustic guitar arpeggios and promises of devotion, “Forgive Me” simultaneously opens Guide Me Back Home in the manner that most every fan expects as well as throwing out a spell that listeners will be happy to get themselves entangled in; it’s sweet, it’s short and carries with it a tremendous amount of expectation which Dallas Green manages to exceed so easily that it’s almost disconcerting. When the song ends by simply hitting its final chord and allowing it to just ring into oblivion, it’s saying something that the audience in attendance who was so excited to welcome Green when the song opened pauses before beginning to show its appreciation at song’s end. It’s almost as though they dare not make a peep before Green gives them the sign to do so; they almost seem to hang on as long as they can before the dam finally bursts, because they want to prolong the magic of that last note as long as they can. Such delicacy is seldom seen or heard in the crowd mentality of a concert, but that it happens here perfectly illustrates just how tightly in the palm of his hand Dallas Green is holding his audience here, and how quickly he’s achieved that feat is remarkable. “Two Coins” follows that introduction with a slightly more formal presentation of the educated and and artistic self-assessment that fans are accustomed to hearing from City and Colour (“I’ve always been dark with light somewhere in the distance”) but, by then, those who began with the set will already know they’re all in and won’t be lifting a needle before the side closes. Granted, that doesn’t mean they won’t have to do the lifting often – each of the six sides of Guide Me Back Home bring with them between three and four songs – but it will be a chore listeners will find they’re happy to do if it means they can prolong the magic just a little more.

And, side-by-side, listeners will find that there’s no shortage of magic along the way through the running of Guide Me Back Home too. While each side of the album looks a little light in print (three or four cuts per side), there is no place which feels that way as the record plays. On the B-side, for example, listeners will feel their eyes get spontaneously misty as “If I Should Go Before You” sees Dallas Green’s rumination on mortality become absolutely transcendent as the acoustic guitar/piano/voice arrangement plays so cleanly and without any ambient noise during the performance that listeners KNOW they’d have been able to hear a pin drop (if one had done so) while the performance was happening – it’s that clear and miked that intimately. The same is true of cuts like the end-of-the-world examination that is “Silver and Gold,” the very Neil Young-ian “Against The Grain” and the city-checking live staple “Comin’ Home” (which, in this case, also features a drop into Alexisonfire’s songbook for a few barres before fading out) – each is presented as about as close to nude as possible and with a staggering amount of love and care put into making the songs come to life for both those who were in attendance at the shows as well as those listening to the record at home.

Now, that is not to say that everything about this set is all about the darkness and drama which regularly colors City and Colour’s music. There is no shortage of stories between songs on Guide Me Back Home that Green recounts to the express amusement of the audience, and the combination of those stories with the music seeks to (and succeeds at) ultimately present a very human experience. Through the running of Guide Me Back Home, all emotional colors are included and thereby makes a very complete – a very human – production that enriches the experience exponentially until the needle lifts from the album’s F-side. When that happens, listeners will realize that they finally have the opportunity to exhale heavily and take a deep, fresh breath. In that, the satisfaction is absolutely palpable.

All that said, and I’m pretty sure going on to relay that  Guide Me Back Home exists as one of the rare occasions where a live album really broke through or won me over would be redundant, but it would also go a long way to extolling the album’s rarity. It’s funny; the set plays regularly with contrasting large and small images and ideas (3LP set is large, two-musician performance is small, the venues on the tour from which Guide Me Back Home was collected and the sound in them is large and so on) but, in the end, the album has the ability to capture listeners and hold them in fits of enraptured adoration which does not fade with repeated listens. That’s huge.

(Still Records/Dine Alone)

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.