ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, NOV. 18, 2004
By Steve Newton
Has the Tragically Hip finally lost its standing as Canada’s top rock band? There’s little doubt that Kingston, Ontario’s favourite sons have been on a downward slide, popularity-wise, for the last few years. Back in ’96, the group came close to selling out the Pacific Coliseum three nights in a row; last Sunday, it couldn’t even pack GM Place for a single night–and this after the promoters offered discounted tickets to any of the 55,000 football fans who’d spent the afternoon across the way at B.C. Place.
As far as album sales go, the quintet’s last couple of releases haven’t flown out of stores the way mid-’90s discs like Day for Night and Trouble at the Henhouse did. Hell, even the band’s long-time manager, Jake Gold, is out of the picture now. Apparently he found his true calling as a judge of homogenized pop singers on the vacuous talent show Canadian Idol.
But guess what? None of that shit matters. It doesn’t matter who’s handling the Hip, how many units they’re moving, or how big a crowd they can draw, because–as far as gritty, honest, compelling guitar-rock goes–there’s not a band in the land that can touch them. They proved that unequivocally Sunday night in a triumphant, two-hour show that made you feel sad for Americans and their Nickelback fixations.
The group walked on-stage and immediately tore into “Vaccination Scar”, the bracing first single off its latest CD, In Between Evolution. “So, the chemistry’s set,” crooned frontman Gordon Downie in the tune’s opening line, “and I’m not the saddest cheerleader to forget the American word”. Who knows what the eccentric wordsmith is on about with lyrics like that, but once Rob Baker starts wailing away on steel guitar, who cares?
(According to the band’s current bio, “Vaccination Scar” was inspired by the fatal bridge washout that occurred near Whistler in October of last year. The Hip was rehearsing up at the ski resort when the tragedy occurred, and soon after played two benefits there under the phony band name The Fighter Fighters, raising $100,000 for the victims’ families.)
At one point, Downie gave an on-stage plug to another worthy cause, the environmental group Riverkeepers (he mistakenly called them “Waterkeepers”) that had info tables set up across from the concessions where cups of draft were being sold for the jaw-dropping price of $7.75. But few people seemed interested in learning how to keep our lakes and rivers clean. Most were intent on becoming card-carrying members of the Beerkeepers, even if it meant making multiple trips to the nearest ATM. Others were happy to lay down $125 for Tragically Hip hockey jerseys, although those nifty items actually looked like they might be worth the investment.
One guy standing in front of the stage was sporting a jersey with the name Barilko printed across the back, in reference to Bill Barilko, the Toronto Maple Leaf whose mysterious disappearance was immortalized in the Hip’s “Fifty-Mission Cap” song of ’92. But even without that gem in the set list, you couldn’t complain about the well-balanced mix of electrified barnburners (“Nautical Disaster”, “Blow at High Dough”) and acoustic mellowers (“Bobcaygeon”, “Ahead by a Century”).
Although Downie’s unique body movements and stream-of-consciousness rants kept him the focus of attention, special mention must go to powerhouse drummer Johnny Fay. The Ayotte custom kit he used on the Hip’s fabled Day for Night tour is currently being auctioned off, with proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Considering the brute force with which Fay routinely attacks his instrument, let’s hope the highest bidder doesn’t wind up with a stack of rubble.
To hear the full audio of my 1989 interview with Gord Downie, just after the release of Up to Here, become a patron of the Newt on Patreon.