Gordon Downie says opening for the Rolling Stones is like being a golf caddy



By Steve Newton

In 1995, it’s as if the Tragically Hip can do no wrong. Late last February, the Ontario guitar-rockers played a Pacific Coliseum gig that sold out in 20 minutes flat. Not long after that, you could have flicked on Saturday Night Live and seen singer Gordon Downie and company tearing it up for an audience of millions with the incendiary new track “Nautical Disaster”.

Then the word came in that the group had nabbed the prestigious opening spot on the sold-out Page & Plant tour. Things were going almost too well for them, leading you to wonder whether the pride of Kingston had sold their souls to the devil in return for a quick shot at worldwide rock domination. And when Downie calls from Denver on the Canada Day weekend, bearing news of four recent dates with the Rolling Stones, it looks as though Messrs. Jagger and Richards were in on the deal too.

“It was very strange timing,” admits Downie of the recent concert windfall. “After this Page & Plant thing, I was somewhat stunned and baffled just because of the actual experience of doing it, and then the Stones thing happens. Within a month, we opened up for these two sort of icons, and I realized there must be some kind of fateful activity at work here. It must be some kind of message, telling us that we need this sort of education.”

The Rolling Stones have been an important part of the Hip’s rock education for quite some time. Ten years ago, the band was in lead guitarist Bobby Baker’s basement, struggling and fumbling through such semi-obscure Stones numbers as  “Poison Ivy”, “Stupid Girl”, and “Off the Hook”.

“That wasn’t lost on us when we were standing backstage,” says Downie, “nervously swaying back and forth and breathing deeply, about to go on in front of 72,000 Stones fans. But it has a certain sense of a golf tournament to it, in which you’re probably playing the role of the caddy—which is a necessary function, and they can’t really get by without you—but at the same time, it’s tough. You know, you go up and play 30 or 45 minutes and you feel a bit stunted and a bit restrained—which is something I’m not personally used to dealing with.”

Downie won’t have to worry about playing stick-bearer come next Thursday (July 13), when the Another Roadside Attraction tour visits UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium. The Tragically Hip will be headlining that show, and their list of caddies will include Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Blues Traveler, Matthew Sweet, Spirit of the West, the Rheostatics, Eric’s Trip, and the Inbreds. As with the Roadside gig at Seabird Island in ’93, the Hip were in the position of choosing the acts that will warm things up to a summer sizzle.

“That’s a privilege that we’ve sort of gained by whatever success we’ve managed to achieve in Canada,” says Downie, “and it’s probably the thing we cherish most, this ability to put these kinds of fun projects together. When I was younger and in a band, I don’t think I could have ever imagined being able to do that, and it’s funny because even to this day it takes people a long time to get used to that. They naturally assume there has to be some kind of higher power responsible, be it a beer company or somebody else.

“But in this case we pick the bands, and we get a real kick out of it. It’s really fun for us to do, to sit around and try and imagine what bands we think will be suitable. And it’s not really an either/or proposition, it’s just the five of us throwing out many, many, many bands and musicians, some that are totally out of reach, some that are flatly unavailable. It’s just interesting to watch it come together.”

When asked which of the Roadside bands he’s most excited about seeing himself, Downie claims it’s the first three acts on the bill: the Inbreds, Eric’s Trip, and the Rheostatics.

“Those are all bands that I love,” he says, “and they’re bands that I listen to quite a bit at home. In our case, it’s hard to even get out and see bands that much, so in a way this tour is just a selfish way to get a very good seat for a band that you like to watch.”

Whether headlining their own travelling festival, opening for the Stones, or playing the small clubs of their early days, the Hip have always been worth watching, and not just because of front man Downie’s unpredictable, edge-of-chaos antics. The band’s groove-heavy music rarely fails to whip the crowd into a wild frenzy, especially once hypnotic tunes like “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Blow at High Dough” are rolled out.

“It is the theatre of the strange to begin with,” says Downie of the concert experience. “It’s a very manipulated kind of event, and you’re reconciling a lot of different expectations—or maybe you’re ignoring them—but, nonetheless, it’s happening. So there’s many strange and sometimes wonderful and sometimes very frightening and grotesque things that can happen. I don’t particularly like watching fistfights, but in the same respect, I love watching people dancing off to the side.

“It’s a living and breathing thing that’s constantly ebbing and flowing—that’s something that I’ve definitely learned—and just when you think you can figure it out, it changes. I mean, we’re witnessing the rebirth of the girl at the Tragically Hip show. The woman is reborn and alive again in the front row, and that’s good, ’cause I was getting a little tired of the sea of testosterone and regretting the fact that the girls were getting muscled out.”

You didn’t have to be a pushy front-row hog to get a close-up look at the Hip last March when they bombarded North America with their Saturday Night Live debut. Girl or boy, it was easy for Canadians from coast to coast to feel proud of the Kingston quintet as it gave the Yanks a gritty taste of the finest in Canuck guitar-rock.

“That was quite an experience,” says Downie. “I mean, for us it was probably one of the most intimate gigs we’ve ever done; the camera makes it so, because it instantly becomes a very one-on-one sort of relationship. You’re not really so caught up in transporting yourself to the various and sundry households in which the show is being transported, you’re just having an intimate relationship with this camera lens, with this Cyclops, where the smallest gestures could say so much.

“And for me, personally, it was very interesting, because every night you play you’re faced with all these different challenges. You’re trying to figure out what your space requires, how far people are away from the stage, and, ultimately, what they need from you to feel a part of it. And because I don’t sling an instrument, I’ve got my body and my throat to translate some sort of feeling to let the listener and the watcher identify with whatever it is—nervousness, maybe.

“And from what I gather, there was a lot of vicarious nervousness across the land when we played on SNL. My sister-in-law had diarrhea, and various other members of my family could barely keep their food down, let alone their palms dry. So I thought that was interesting; I liked that.”

Downie Tapes #1 (1989)

Downie Tapes #2 (1989)

Downie Tapes #3 (1989)

Downie Tapes #4 (1992)

Downie Tapes #5 (1992)

Downie Tapes #6 (1992)

Downie Tapes #7 (1992)

Downie Tapes #8 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #9 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #10 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #11 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #12 (July 1995)

Downie Tapes #13 (July 1995)

Downie Tapes #14 (July 1995)

Donate to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research by clicking sunnybrook.ca/gord.

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