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Sam Roberts is one of those NDG guys.
As an occasional beer league hockey player, he talks about the change of ownership at Sport au Gus, the local hockey shop. Then there’s the obligatory Habs talk, with Roberts speaking eloquently about the “nobility” of Brendan Gallagher and how he is an inspiring force for the team.
We’re sitting at Café de’ Mercanti, NDG’s trendiest java restaurant, and this former Deeg resident, who could be the new poster boy on the block now that Jay Baruchel has moved to Toronto, is talking about how much he likes it living in the neighborhood that no one really understands unless they live there.
Roberts, one of Canada’s best-known rockers, will embark on his first tour since the pandemic, and the Sam Roberts Band will kick off with a concert Friday at the Théâtre Beanfield (the former Corona Theatre).
“I’ve seen it through the lens of a parent the entire time I’ve lived here,” says Roberts, a father of two teenage daughters and a 12-year-old son.
“It’s a great place to raise a family. It really has the best of both worlds. It has that neighborhood feel that I loved growing up on the West Island, but there’s that contact with the city that I think is really important for kids. I mean, he’s great as an adult too. I can go downtown and feel that kind of energy again, but then come back to the safety of your street here in NDG. I remember growing up in Pointe-Claire, all my friends in NDG seemed so worldly, they seemed to know so much about the streets.
“It has changed a lot. I went to Loyola (high school) and back then there were streets in NDG that you didn’t walk on. “They told you not to venture too far down that road or into that park at night.”
As a fellow NDG, I mention that there is still some harshness here.
“There’s still determination in the heart here,” Roberts says. “My favorite local pub, Honey Martin… it’s the kind of bar I like to hang out at. It’s a local NDG bar.”
Indeed. I mean, it’s not a hipster Plateau chi-chi bar, and I mean that absolutely as a compliment.
Roberts spent his time in Plateau in the ’90s when he was just starting out, just one of many alt-rockers trying to make it. He had a couple of bands that never went anywhere. But at least life was cheap, unlike today. That scene eventually produced bands that made it big worldwide, from Dears to Arcade Fire.
“You didn’t even consider the possibility of success here before those bands made it,” Roberts says.
“I’m not even kidding: (receiving a mention in) Rant Line (a hilarious column in the Montreal Mirror where people phoned in to rant often drunk) was the pinnacle of success at the time,” he says. “Let alone putting your face on the cover of the Mirror or the Hour. To me, that was extraterrestrial measures of success.”
He tells a funny story about his trip to Los Angeles back then. He bought a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88 for $250 (the seller made him a deal because he thought Roberts had good energy), but it cost him a fortune in gas to drive around Los Angeles and the brakes got so hot that he was going to cruise. through red lights. His band at the time was Northstar and they had a mini album. The problem was that the cover was very ugly.
“It was our Spinal Tap ‘Smell the Glove’ moment,” Roberts says.
He and his manager didn’t have a cell phone, so they got a pager and every time it rang, they had to walk a mile across the canyon to the nearest phone booth to call the record company back. He says they met maybe three people in California over three months.
Roberts may not have made it to Rant Line, but a few years later he had the kind of success that was unimaginable when he was getting by on the Plateau. Her first album, 2003’s We Were Born in a Flame, included the hits Brother Down, Don’t Walk Away Eileen and Where Have All the Good People Gone?, and went double platinum in Canada. The album won two Juno Awards and was named Junos Artist of the Year.
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Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of We Were Born in a Flame, and there’s a sense that that anniversary influences Roberts’ latest album, The Adventures of Ben Blank, which came out in the fall. It’s a concept album based on a hypothetical notion: What if it was fictional guy Ben Blank releasing the music, not Sam Roberts? It’s as if Roberts dreams of escaping his story. That desire stems in part from the fact that the first album was by far his biggest commercial success.
“I think it’s natural that there’s a growing frustration with the fact that new things that are created… when they don’t find the same kind of hold in people’s lives, it’s always frustrating,” Roberts says. “Does it mean that old things bother you? I don’t think that’s how I would say it. I think there’s a struggle that every band goes through, including ours, to convince people that what you’re saying now is equally valuable to them.”
TAKE A LOOK
The Sam Roberts Gang plays Friday, February 2 at 8 pm at Théâtre Beanfield, 2490 Notre-Dame St. W.