This country may boast a lot of rock n roll bands, but few can match the intensity and righteous fervour that was the Constantines. When the Constantines went on indefinite hiatus in 2010, the Canadian music scene suddenly became a whole lot quieter. A decade of sweaty stage shows, defined by impassioned driving rock delivered with fists raised in solidarity, was suddenly just a memory. But it is a memory buoyed by a vague hope pinned to the promise of “we'll see you around”.
The Constantines formed in Guelph in 1999, when frontman Bry Webb and drummer Doug McGregor left the hardcore band Shoulder to join former members of Captain Co-Pilot—bassist Dallas Wehrle and vocalist/guitarist Steve Lambke (who also holds a degree in physics). With a driving sound blending traditional rock with dub-punk and impassioned vocals, the Constantines burst out of the hometown bubble in 2001, following a move to Toronto and the release of a self-titled debut album on the now-defunct Three Gut Records.
The mix of impassioned and brooding songs felt like a call to revolution and instantly cemented the Constantines as purveyors of righteous rock n roll. With a complex driving beat, Webb's full-throated guttural growl, and lyrics that smacked of urban revolt, The Constantines was a surprisingly powerful debut album that still maintains its sense of urgency and passion more than a dozen years later. It was nominated for a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album and topped college charts throughout North America.
The Constantines fast became a steady fixture on the southern Ontario circuit, as they built a fervent following with their energetic live shows. Keyboardist Evan Gordon joined the band in 2002, but left shortly after the release of the EP The Modern Sinner Nervous Man that same year. He was replaced by Will Kidman who became renowned for his frantic antics on the piano, involving sliding leaps across the lid and chords pounded out via buttocks.
In 2003, the Cons released Shine a Light, their first album to be released outside of Canada (on Sub Pop Records). Reception of the tightly crafted album, along with the band's increasing tour range, introduced the Cons' intense and intelligent music to an even greater audience. From the head-thrashing rush of the lead track “National Hum” to the mesmerizing drum beat of the anthemic “Young Lions” to the broody darkness of the final track “Sub-Domestic”, Shine a Light proved that the Constantines' gift for making edgy, passionate and intelligent music was no mere fluke. Sales of the Constantines' debut album spiked along with those of Shine a Light, as throngs of fans sought out the band's earlier material.
The Constantines perform “Young Lions” on Q.
The Constantines perform “Sub-Domestic” on Q.
The 2003 EP Nighttime, Anytime contained cuts from Shine a Light, as well as an early (rather trippy) version of “Hotline Operator” and a truly satisfying cover of Talking Heads' “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”.
Webb's deep and impassioned growl often draws comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, not unreasonably. His powerful voice is unquestionably one of the defining characteristics of the Constantines, but it's Steve Lambke's delicate whisper, which fronts one or two tracks on each album, that provides the perfect foil to the raw power that the Constantines often project. Lambke's yin balances Webb's yang in a surprising but satisfying manner.
Cementing the Constantines' growing reputation as a Canadian rock institution was their 2005 Rolling Tundra Revue tour with the much loved Canadian literary rock band, the Weakerthans. It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities and passions—the intelligent bookish catchiness of the Weakerthans with the equally intelligent politically-driven passion of the Constantines. The impact of that partnership is borne out in the phrase, Tournament of Hearts, a title jointly shared by the third Constantines album (which came out a few months after the combined tour) and a Weakerthans song released two years later. Rumour has it that Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson, an avid curler, was the one who suggested the album title to the Cons.
A rather more refined album than its soulful but raw predecessors, Tournament of Hearts felt more personal, less blatantly political, with themes of love, work and responsibility creeping in amongst the battle cries of young offenders. “Work and love will make a man out of you”, Webb sings throatily on “Soon Enough”, a subdued ballad with a slight country feel. It's a touch-point for the entire album.
By 2006, members of the Constantines had begun to explore solo efforts and started to branch out into side projects. Will Kidman, under the name Woolly Leaves, released a solo album in 2006 entitled Quiet Waters. Steve Lambke, performing as Baby Eagle, released the first of four solo albums in 2006. His self-titled album was followed up by No Blues in 2007, Dog Weather in 2010 and Bone Soldiers (released by Baby Eagle and the Proud Mothers) in 2012.
Bry Webb, now living in Montreal, formed a second band, Harbour Coats, which caught the attention of Feist, leading to collaboration between Webb and Feist, including a contribution to her album, Metals. Webb's work on the soundtrack to the film This Beautiful City garnered him a Genie Award in 2009. He released a solo album,Provider, in 2011.
The Constantines have been known to perform Neil Young covers under the name Horsey Craze and in early 2006 released a split vinyl with The Unintended, featuring four Neil Young covers by the Cons and four Gordon Lightfoot songs by the Unintended.
With the demise of their long-time label, Three Gut Records, the Constantines signed to Arts and Crafts, and in 2008 released their fourth and final (for now) full-length album, Kensington Heights. Too Slow for Love, a stripped-down acoustic version of selected songs primarily off Kensington Heights, was offered as an electronic-only accompaniment in 2009.
Constantines– “Hard Feelings”.
Constatines– “Our Age”.
By this point, after ten years as an incessantly touring, high energy band, the Constantines began to drift in various directions. Newly married and looking to start a family, Webb and his wife moved from Montreal back to Guelph, Will Kidman left the band, and Dallas Wehrle started a new band, Deloro. Finally, in 2010 the Constantines played their final show at the Dawson City Music Festival.
Without a great deal of fanfare, and leaving the future open for possibilities, the band quietly confirmed what many fans had been fearing. Ten years of visceral and fervent rock n roll, ten years of relentless, high octane Cons shows had finally come to an end. But the Constantines left an indelible mark on the Canadian music psyche. They burned hot and fast and left a smouldering pile of beautiful ash.
“Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)” stage performance.