It’s nothing personal, Canada. But a friend and I used to drive around the Great Lakes without stopping—our low-rent version of Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady’s transcontinental odysseys—and we would see nothing. Nothing. Grain silos, lots of absolutely pointless nature, and the occasional truck with a dead moose strapped across the hood. Or, conversely, the occasional truck with Bachman Turner Overdrive strapped across the hood.
So it comes as a personal surprise to me that Kingston, Ontario’s The Tragically Hip are so great. Where have they been hiding, I wonder, behind one of those grain silos? And I’m not alone, Yank that I am. Up in the Great White North, The Tragically Hip play arenas, down here they play the 9:30 Club. As usual, Canada gets it right. The Tragically Hip has everything U2 has, plus a long-haired guitarist who looks like the last surviving member of the Doobie Brothers.
The Hip, as the band is known in Canuckian environs, derives much of its strength from Gord Downie’s full voice, never-dull front man theatrics, and oblique but richly evocative lyrics, which have grown significantly darker over the years. To put it bluntly, he’s the best Canadian poet since Gordon Lightfoot, whose “Black Day in July” the Hip has covered. But the band—all of whom have been around since The Tragically Hip’s blues-based bar band beginnings in 1983—is a powerhouse too, covering a widely divergent range of styles with equal aplomb, from the folksy “Bobcaygeon” to the REM-ish “My Music at Work” to the industrial strength bash and crash of “Tiger the Lion.” Yes, they’ve written a song about hockey, but it’s metaphorical, so no foul. And yes, they’ve written a song called “Save the Planet,” but it offers no hope or solutions, so that’s okay too.
The band is in the States to promote their latest release, 2012’s Now for Plan A. It’s a far cry from their bluesy early material, such as “Small Town Bringdown,” which brings to mind John Cougar Mellencamp. It’s also far from a wholly successful album: Downie’s dark vision seems to have temporarily abandoned him. “Man Machine Poem” may be the worst song in the band’s substantive repertoire, and “The Modern Spirit” may be a great spirited runaway of a tune but the lyric is jejune and far below Downie’s normally high standards. Still, the album has its strengths, such as the title track, “At Transformation,” and the tragicomic “Goodnight Attawapiskat.” And “The Lookahead” is a deceptively simple but simply infectious trifle that ends far too early at 2:27.
The night of the show the 9:30 Club was filled to capacity with obvious hardcore fans calling out “The Hip! The Hip! The Hip!” for the band to start playing, and from just listening in it seemed there were a fair share of transplanted Canadians in the audience. When The Tragically Hip finally did come on stage, the crowd let out a great cheer for the opening chords of “At Transformation.”
First of all, let me say that the song selection was not entirely to my liking; it may sound like pique, but early in the set I was beginning to think that perhaps the Canadians had established an embargo on playing my dearest songs. Then again, when a band has 13 albums’ worth of songs to choose from, you takes what you can get. I was beginning to think I was back in Ontario and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, when the band broke into it’s fourth song,“Gift Shop,” a personal fav, and I brightened up and joined in the excitement.
In many ways, The Tragically Hip is Gord Downie. Never, ever have I seen such an animated front man. He danced, did spins around the microphone, flounced about waving a handkerchief over his head, took leaps into the air, and talked talked and talked. Mostly, though, he talked. The man had motor mouth. He talked before songs, after songs, and, quite frequently, during songs. Although talking might not be the right word. He prattled on in a hipster patter, issuing non sequiturs left and right, telling jokes, and talking in a kind of neo-beat poetry about this and that. I wish I could give you the flavor of his diatribes, but they were issued too fast and it was too dark to write them down in my notebook. Suffice it to say he was, as the poet Delmore Schwartz once said of himself, “manic impressive.”
The band followed up the brand spanking new “At Transformation” with “New Orleans Is Sinking,” a creaky old crowd pleaser—it dates back to 1989’s Up to Here—that the Hip recorded when Downie still had lots of hair on his head. The old stuff isn’t my favorite, but the band did a commanding job of making “New Orleans Is Sinking” sound like it was first recorded last week. Not so fresh sounding was the slow blues “Long Time Running,” another old one—from 1991’s Road Apples—they performed during the encore. God, if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a slow blues.
They followed up “New Orleans Is Sinking with “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park,” a could-be-novelty-tune-that-isn’t which begins, “What’s bothering you Gus, you sound demented.” The band concluded the song with a very tasty min-jam before breaking into my bête noire, “Man Machine Poem.” About all I have to see good about it is that Downie did a funky dance and the song is short.
Other songs off of Now for Plan A included “The Lookahead,” which was as charming live as it is on record, “Take Forever,” a raucous one about flying that won’t make you want to take any transatlantic flights any time soon, “Streets Ahead,” a sprint of a song which as far as I can tell is about racing sled dogs, and “We Want to Be It,” a good song with a great chorus which unfortunately begins with the lyrics “Drip drip drip,”which brings to mind somebody suffering from a bad head cold.
The Tragically Hip included two slowish “girl” songs in their set, the ever popular “Coffee Girl” and “Thompson Girl.” The former, released in 2009 on the We Are the Same album, includes the lyrics “Your favorite mix take, you pop it into the deck, don’t care it’s out of date, old Cat Power and classic Beck.” As for “Thompson Girl,” I would have been satisfied not hearing it.
One of my personal faves for the night was the mid-tempo rocker “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” from 2004’s In Between Evolution, which begins with the memorable lyrics, “He said fuck this and fuck that, and this guy’s the diplomat.” Other favorites included the fast “At The Hundredth Meridian,” during which Downie pointed an imaginary rifle at the audience, the band somehow sped up the tempo to twice the speed, and Downie sang faster than I’ve heard anyone sing in my whole life. And “Ahead by a Century,”—a real cloud pleaser—which Rob Baker (the erstwhile Doobie Brother from the group) closed with a guitar solo that would have made J. Mascis proud.
And lucky me, the band did both “Bobcaygeon,” and “Nautical Disaster,” the first a neo-folk song about a state mountie who is considering giving up his job after breaking up a Neo-Nazi riot, and the second an imagining of a ship wreck in which “4,000 men died in the water here, and 500 more were thrashing madly”—The Tragically Hip’s very own “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” only with a better jam at the end of it.
For the encore—and nobody can say The Tragically Hip doesn’t give good encore—they played five songs, including the aforementioned “Long Time Running” and “And Grace, Too,” one of the band’s very best songs. “I come from downtown, born ready for you,” sings Downie. “Armed with determination, and grace, too.” During the song he gave out two great shrieks—greatest shrieks I’ve ever heard from a non-animal, then the band moved onto the unreconstructed rocker “An Inch an Hour (“I want a book that’ll make me drunk, full of freaks and disenfranchised punks”), followed by the aforementioned “We Want to Be It,” with its nasal congestion.
The band closed the night with the impossibly catchy “My Music at Work,” which made me happy the whole taxi ride home. It includes some “la la las” and a great rebuke to workaholics everywhere, “Everything is bleak. It’s the middle of the night. You’re all alone and the dummies might be right. Outside, the darkness lurks. My music at work. My music at work.” I don’t undersand it:this song should have been a hit everywhere, even here in the backwards U.S.A.
What can you say after all that? I owe my apologies to Ontario, and in fact to all of Canada. When I think of Canada generally all I think of are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Molson’s Beer. Now I’ll have to add The Tragically Hip to the list, and wonder what other musical A-listers are hiding behind those grain towers in Ontario.
Photos by David Hartman