Bruce Allen’s anti-Hip rants can’t tarnish Canada’s best band

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 3, 1997

By Steve Newton

The last time I tuned in to Bruce Allen’s Soundoff show on CFOX, I caught the loudmouthed rock mogul in one of his favourite on-air acts: slagging the Tragically Hip. The band had just released its live album, Live Between Us, and Allen was revelling in the supposedly lukewarm reviews the disc had gotten in the Vancouver dailies.

If memory serves, Allen was crowing that the Vancouver Sun’s Katherine Monk had given it only a moderate rating, and that Tom Harrison had described it in the Province as “unnecessary”. Allen’s anti-Hip rant was no doubt intended to outrage the band’s die-hard fans, and it worked for me—mainly since it came from the man behind Bryan Adams, whose latest hit was that excruciating middle-of-the-road duet with Barbra Streisand, “I Finally Found Someone”. Adams was once again wallowing in sappy Hollywood-soundtrack fodder, and his manager had the nerve to attack a band as legit and overtly Canadian as the Hip?

I flipped the station in disgust, but my anger soon dissolved as I recalled something that Gordon Downie did during the Vancouver stop of the ’95 Another Roadside Attraction tour. At one point in the concert he pointed up at an airplane that was buzzing Thunderbird Stadium with a huge SUBWAY banner and exclaimed, “Look everybody, Bruce Allen!”

Now, I don’t know what’s at the root of the Allen-Hip feud—maybe it’s a West-versus-East thing. Another guess is that Allen’s a tad jealous of how overwhelmingly the Hip have won the hearts and minds of Canadian rock fans, creatively evolving outside of the U.S. star system that his MTV-approved roster relies on.

The Tragically Hip are certainly as Canadian as they come, with tunes such as “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”, “Wheat Kings”, and “Fifty-Mission Cap” (which makes mention of Quebec explorer Jacques Cartier and the mysterious story of ’60s NHL player Bill Barilko). Local classic-rock station CFMI has even gone so far as to dub the Ontario quintet “Canada’s house band”. But if that’s the case, why did the group record its historic live album in the almighty U.S. of A.? When lead guitarist Bobby Baker calls the Straight from his home in Kingston, I lay that burning question on him, and it turns out I’m not the only one who’s concerned.

“There’s a certain segment [of the press] that gets sort of nationalistic,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Why didn’t you record it in a Canadian city?’ But ultimately it just came down to the fact that there were four shows on the tour that really stood out, one of them was Detroit, and that was the one that we kept coming back to. It was the show that we thought was the most solid from start to finish. You know, if we were looking for the best possible version of ‘Gift Shop’, and the best version of ‘Ahead by a Century’, we could have pieced it together that way, but we thought that was opening a big kettle of fish.”

According to Baker, the Hip taped every show on their 1996 Trouble at the Henhouse tour—including their three Vancouver dates last November—but it was only after the fact that they decided to go ahead and release a live recording. “It was actually something we had talked about a little bit,” he points out, “because we were a little upset at the number of bootlegs out there. Not that we really care about people making bootlegs, but some of the quality of these things was really lousy, and we thought our response would be to put out our own bootleg and maybe just sell it through the fan club or something. And it just kinda snowballed from there.”

Although the more patriotic factions of the Hip’s immense Canadian following might begrudge the live CD its Stateside setting, there really isn’t much they can complain about regarding the disc’s 14 tracks, which offer a representative cross section of tunes from the band’s back catalogue. But even though the 70 minutes of music on Live Between Us offer a fair-sized document of the band in concert, there are always those greedy buggers like myself who want to know why Canada’s best rock band doesn’t rate a double CD.

“Well, that was another option,” says Baker. “We were very close to doing that, but…um…it seemed a bit indulgent to me. It’s one thing to go and sit through a two-hour concert, it’s another thing to sit through a two-hour record. But, I mean, when we originally decided to go ahead and do this, the idea was that it’s got to be warts and all.”

Local guitar-rock fans who can’t think of anything they’d rather do than sit through a two-hour Tragically Hip gig will be able to experience the band in all its warty glory when it headlines the Another Roadside Attraction show at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium on July 17. The band’s third Roadside tour includes appearances by Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Wilco, Ashley MacIsaac, Change of Heart, the Mutton Birds, Ron Sexsmith, and Van Allen Belt. It’s a diverse lineup that took a little more work to arrange than previous Roadside tours.

“It’s gotten progressively harder, in a way,” says Baker. “The first year we did it we wrote up a wish list of about eight bands, and five of the eight said yes, so it was kinda like, ‘Whoa, that was so easy!’ The second year it was a little harder, and this year it was harder again, partly because people are already booked, or aren’t going on the road. But having said all that, I’m thrilled with the lineup we have. Los Lobos is an example—they were on our wish list for each of the three Roadside Attractions that we’ve done. The first two times they said that they would really love to do it, but both times they had previous commitments, so we put ’em on the list again this year and made sure we asked them with lots of time in advance.”

As wondrous as the Tex-Mex blast of Los Lobos can be live, there’s no doubt what the main attraction of any Roadside show will be. Like all great rock acts, the headlining Hip really are in their element on the concert stage. Bruce Allen might not like it, but one run-through of Live Between Us and the telepathic bond between the band’s seasoned players is undeniable. Also revealed by the CD’s sterling production is the oft-overlooked role of rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois, who shows great instincts while laying down the group’s chordal flooring.

“He’s developed into an excellent guitar player,” agrees Baker. “It’s funny, because when he first joined the band he was playin’ like he knew about four or five chords. He was tryin’ to master the barre chord at that time, but it didn’t really matter. The fact that he was a friend was much more important.”

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