The Tragically Hip rises above poor sound in Vancouver to peak with “Nautical Disaster”



By Steve Newton

Are the Tragically Hip, long thought of as Canada’s best rock band, finally losing their grip on that title?

The fact that it just played two shows at the 12,000-seat Pacific Coliseum might make you think the Kingston quintet is as popular as ever, but don’t forget that a few years ago it did three concerts at the old hockey rink, two of which were sold-out. (There were still seats available for both of last week’s shows.)

And although the group’s latest album, Music @ Work, has sold 150,000 copies in Canada since its release last summer, there’s also the fact that the CD is nowhere to be seen on the current sales charts of local retailers such as A&B Sound, the Virgin Megastore, and HMV Robson.

It’s not really surprising that the Hip’s latest disc hasn’t been tearing up the charts, since it’s by far the least commercial release of the band’s 15-year recording career. In fact, it includes a couple of tunes—“Wild Mountain Honey” and “Tiger the Lion”—that you could describe as trudging and tiresome.

While flagging concert attendance, slipping CD sales, and a change in musical direction could all be seen as signalling the Hip’s fall from grace, there’s no better way to gauge any group’s current worth than by attending one of its concerts.

But after weighing for myself the pros and cons of last Wednesday’s (November 15) Pacific Coliseum gig, I still can’t decide whether or not the Hip are ready to relinquish their Rock Kings of Canada crown.

Weird, eh?

The worst thing about the gig, by far, was the sound, which was mushy and devoid of life. I find it hard to believe that Canada’s (supposedly) top band can’t get decent sound in an arena these days. It was so lame that it tore the guts out of rowdy tunes like “Fireworks” and “Something On”.

And maybe singer Gord Downie was tuckered out from the band’s charity gig at the Commodore the night before—the group still has its heart in the right place, it appears—but he didn’t seem like he was giving his all on lacklustre versions of “Twist My Arm” and “Gift Shop”.

The show picked up considerably during “Ahead By a Century”, as if the poignant lyrics of that ’96 hit were recharging Downie’s batteries. The gig started to resemble the magical Hip shows of old, but one song later the band left the stage for a 20-minute intermission, as if it had earned itself a breather. At this point I was pondering the exits myself, but decided to stay, thinking things could only get better.

And they did.

The second half included a nifty rendition of 1989’s “Boots or Hearts”, featuring the boogie-woogie Hammond B3 doodlings of former Bourbon Tabernacle Choir keyboardist Chris Brown; a solid version of the Canuck-rock staple “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan”), made more dynamic by a dazzling display of spinning green and white lights; and a vocal duet with Downie on the punchy “Poets” that showcased the considerable talents of backup singer Kate Fenner (also formerly with the BTC).

When the band performed “Nautical Disaster”, the sheer emotional power of that brilliant tune was enough to make me momentarily forget the substandard sound that had been evident all night. At that point I decided to split while the show was on a high note, before there was any chance of that buzz being tainted by a painful application of “Wild Mountain Honey”.

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