ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 14, 1996
At a private party in Yaletown last Friday (November 8), after the first of three Tragically Hip shows at the Pacific Coliseum, vocalist Gordon Downie leaned determinedly over a pool table to set up what he hoped would be a game-winning shot. He slammed the eight ball directly into a corner pocket, but it did one of those weird tricks where it rattles around right above the hole and then comes rolling back out. Then, to top things off, the cue ball disappeared into the opposite corner pocket: game over.
The double-edged defeat didn’t faze Downie, though; he just grinned, shook his head, and sauntered back to his seat to take solace in a swig of Spring Lager. Maybe he was pleased that the blunder had occurred in the presence of a handful of friends and music-industry schmoozers, rather than the 13,500 Hip fanatics who witnessed his self-described “screwup” onstage three hours earlier.
It was during the early stages of the haunting “Titanic Terrarium” that Downie suffered a bout of singer’s block and couldn’t remember the lyrics for the tune. Less forthcoming “rock stars” might have tried to cover their mistake, hoping that the crowd hadn’t noticed, but not Downie. “I screwed up,” he confessed, “let’s start over.” His bandmates didn’t realize at first that Downie was serious about his intention to abort the tune, and they kept on playing for a while before the song derailed to Johnny Fay’s damage-control cymbal crashes.
When they started up again it wasn’t to give “Titanic Terrarium” another try, but to blast away memory of the misfire with the raucous single “700 Ft. Ceiling”. Rather than drawing attention to any weakness in the Hip’s live show, Downie’s unpretentious scrubbing of the tune helped drive home the fact that—Canadian rock god or not—he’s only human. If anything, his boo-boo endeared him even more to the assembled masses, whose devotion to the band owes much to its total lack of pretence and posturing.
Six songs earlier, the Tragically Hip had received a hero’s welcome when they started into “Gift Shop”, the opening track from their latest CD, Trouble at the Henhouse. Hordes of jubilant fans stood up to sway and sing along to Downie’s abstract lyrics. “The pendulum swings for the horse like a man,” sang Downie and a few thousand accompanists, “out over the rim is ice cream to him.” The antithesis of your typical boy-meets-girl pop lyrics, Downie’s esoteric words seemed etched into the hearts and minds of his fans, and the obvious devotion to each tune would continue throughout the two-hour-plus set.
“This is a song about a man who lost his identity,” declared Downie about “Grace, Too”, the simmering opening track from 1994’s Day for Night. Like “Gift Shop”, “Grace, Too” exhibits the moodier, more atmospheric approach the band has taken in recent years, while the group’s early, riff-driven style was revealed in selections such as “Everytime You Go” and “New Orleans Is Sinking”.
Strangely enough, those were the only tracks offered from the band’s top-selling 1989 release, Up to Here. The decision to skip such proven crowd-pleasers as “Thirty-Eight Years Old”, “Boots or Hearts”, and—especially—“Blow at High Dough” revealed the band’s brave desire to focus on untested material and not rely on the conventional greatest-hits routine.
Downie’s current attraction to the acoustic guitar resulted in the previously free-to-roam front man being anchored at centre stage for much of the show, and it wasn’t until halfway through the gig that the chrome-domed crooner started moving around, punctuating his minimalist gestures with cryptic pronouncements. “Arnold Palmer is now president of the United States,” declared Downie at one point. “Bill Clinton has fallen ill and died. Al Waxman is the prime minister.”
Since the Tragically Hip are about as Canuck as a band can get, it was fitting that they played in a hockey rink, but unfortunately it wasn’t one of the famously iffy Coliseum’s finer acoustic moments. I’ve experienced the Hip at superior-sounding outdoor venues such as Seabird Island and Thunderbird Stadium, and the tinny cacophony of Friday night detracted plenty from my overall enjoyment of the concert.
The ringing in my ears didn’t stop until Sunday—but in the meantime I discovered how cranking up the Fully Completely CD could drown that interior drone right out.