Vancouver band Portage & Main, have a familiar ring to their name. Although ostensibly titled by the windy and biting Winnipeg cross streets, the group makes bolder reference to the serene intersection of rural and urban Canada. Both with family in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, lead singers, guitarists, and band instigators, John Sponarski and Harold Donnelly, aim to juxtapose their remote country roots with the notion of city, as represented by a main street. The idea is that when you stand at these metaphorical cross-roads, you’ll find Sponarski and Donnelly’s city-kid selves running in one direction, and the sweeping country sound they’ve come to craft running in another. Portage & Main is where they overlap.
With staggered arrival, I meet the many members of the country/pop band in their enormous East Van jam space. Amid Persian rugs and purple graffiti, Savannah Leigh Wellman (vocals), Ben Appenheimer (bass), Georges Couling (keyboard, vocals), Dave Gens (drums), Sponarski (lead vocals, guitar), Donnelly (lead vocals, guitar), and I sit and chat near the door, while the statuesque figures of assorted musical equipment balances our company on the opposite end of the room.
Immediately, something about Portage & Main strikes me as unusual. Searching for an official start to their timeline, they tell me that their debut show took place on March 18, 2011. The same date as the release of their first, self-titled album – not a typical sequence of events for a band.
As the story goes, old friends Sponarski and Donnelly accidentally wrote a song together while jamming one day. What began as an enjoyable incident, then evolved into a routine musical exercise. “We would get together like once a week in Harold’s basement and hash out tunes,” Sponarski explains. Soon enough, the pair had authored a whole collection of songs. Cataloguing them was the next step, and as Sponarski reasons, “We thought, ‘Well if we’re going to record them, maybe we’ll play them sometime, and then maybe we’ll be a band.’”
As Sponarski and Donnelly make clear, this unique band approach is largely a reaction to being in so many bands that never put out records. “I didn’t want to spend three years playing the Railway Club,” says Sponarski. His disdain is not directed at the venue but rather the idea of getting stuck playing a rotation of shows attended by people who just want to drink beer. There is also the reality that audiences like to walk away with something in their hands. Having a band immediately armed with a record, website, and touring plans, helped Portage & Main attract fans right from the get-go. Sponarski sums up the band’s initial and still existing attitude, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”
After spending their high school days gigging in punk bands, Sponarski and Donnelly realized that country music is what comes naturally to them. Their newest album, Never Had the Time, is evidence of how effortlessly they are able to draw from this genre. Continuing as a progression of their first record, Never Had the Time is about as sincere as music comes. Produced and recorded by Couling at Deep Cove Studios, its songs are lush and heartfelt. Threaded with notes of pedal steel guitar, the title track starts the album off with a distinct hat tip, while soft and stomping tunes like “Oona Jean” and “Sweet Darlin” wave forward the Western introduction. According to Donnelly, “This album is an evolution. It’s just us trying to get better at what we do.” For an example, he cites the lovely Wellman/Sponarski duet “This Old Heart.” This lament uses a delicate ripple of guitar chords to emulating the grieving tenor of heart strings played one time too many. Like Sponarski explains, “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s pretty much a band that’s firmly rooted in a tradition.” That tradition is apparent not only in the album’s five-piece-plus country instrumentation, but also in its lyrical content. Themes of personal growth, compromise, and heartbreak colour each song. Though warm and determined tunes such as “Lied to Me” and “As a Child” use the charisma of chorus and carefully timed guitar build ups to challenge their sombre subject matter.
Rolling forward with Never Had the Time in their rear view mirror, Portage & Main can also gaze back on the stirred dust of their past four tours. Although a group of friends, the band might be more aptly described as a family of passengers. And owing to their country sound, Canada’s prairie roads have suitably hosted some of their most memorable experiences. For example, the time they were heading to a tour-end show in Lethbridge, and Donnelly drove the band’s bus over a dead deer, thinking it was an oil slick on the road. Or there was the intimate show they performed in a Yorkton, Saskatchewan coffee shop. Apparently Donnelly’s attempts at stage banter went awry and he ended up saying, “I’m sure any other night of the week this place would be crawling with strippers,” in front of a particularly sparse, particularly elderly audience. Experiences like these have brought both humour and camaraderie to the band’s character.
As Sponarski says, “Since the beginning of the band, it’s been a real homegrown family. The people who are involved are like our best friends and the people we trust and have known for a long time. Everything is kind of like a team.” Considering all that their teamwork has already accomplished, Portage & Main seems to be heading in a direction worth following.
Never Had The Time drops on January 22, 2013. Catch the album release show at the Biltmore Cabaret on January 25.