Gordon Downie thanks Bruce Allen for making the Tragically Hip famous

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 18, 1999

By Steve Newton

I’ve always been mightily impressed by the Tragically Hip’s live presentation. It didn’t matter which venue I’d see them in—whether it was the wee Railway Club or sprawling T-Bird Stadium, the classic Commodore or scenic Seabird Island—I always went away fully, completely satisfied.

But last Thursday’s (March 11) show at GM Place was a different story, simply because the sound of Canada’s top band was so poor. From where I was sitting, anyway, the instrumental heart of the group—the propellant chords of rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois and choice leads of Bobby Baker—was a muddled mess. I realize that sports arenas are notorious for soul-stealing acoustics, but the Hip sounded just fine at the Pacific Coliseum when they did a three-night stint there in ’96. Either their sound people were snoozing last Thursday, or GM Place is a lost cause when it comes to guitar-driven rock shows.

Sad as it was from my vantage point, the sound must have been all right from the on-stage monitors, because the band seemed unconcerned during its two-hour, 23-song set. “It’s you! It’s really, really you!” exclaimed a giddy Gordon Downie as the quintet took the stage, launching directly into “Something On”, a highlight of its latest CD, Phantom Power. The propulsive title track from 1992’s Fully Completely followed, replete with Downie’s trademark geek-getting-a-wedgie stage moves. By the time the band got around to “So Hard Done By”, he was showing his true nut-case colours by handling a banana as if it was a tropical tambourine, a wacky habit he’s displayed in the past. Downie cut out the horseplay for a few minutes when delivering the tragedy-inspired lyrics to the band’s best song, “Nautical Disaster”, but Baker’s soaring solo was disastrously drowned out amid the high-end din.

“This is for Stanley Kubrick,” Downie announced when introducing the late-’80s rave-up “Blow at High Dough”, and for a while there, the sheer power of that rocking arrangement threatened to overcome the show’s sonic limitations. During its first encore, the band made the mistake of offering up the languid “Greasy Jungle” and mellow “Bobcaygeon” when the hyped-up hordes would have been better served by the likes of “50 Mission Cap” or “Little Bones”, both of which were strangely absent from the set.

The encore did include “New Orleans Is Sinking”, thankfully, during which Downie proclaimed: “I’d like to thank Bruce Allen for making us famous.” He was being sarcastic, of course, as Allen and the Tragically Hip have been throwing barbs at each other for years. Hey, maybe it was Bruce Allen who was responsible for the crummy sound! The hot-tempered music mogul might have sabotaged the soundboard to get back at them for assuming the Canuck-rock throne previously held by Bryan Adams.

If that’s the case, then Allen’s vengeful act also took its toll on the show’s openers, By Divine Right, who had to endure even worse sound than the headliner. But the Thornhill, Ontario, quartet didn’t seem bothered by either that or the crowd’s indifference to its buoyant brand of feel-good pop-rock: it just reeled off catchy tunes from its latest CD, Bless This Mess, and pranced around in yellow, red, orange, and purple pyjamas.

“After the show, we’re heading up to Section 113, so come visit us,” invited singer-songwriter-guitarist José Contreras, whose casual outlook helped win me over to the promising youngsters. My wife said she liked their “spirit”, although I’m pretty sure those nifty PJs had something to do with her positive impression.

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