THE TRAGICALLY HIP at the Air Canada Centre, Thursday, February 19. Rating: NNN
NOW’s recent Swans cover story lauded a handful of musicians who have gotten better with age – a rarity in rock music. The jury is still out as to whether the Tragically Hip qualifies for this list. Last night the 30-plus-year-old band celebrated their 1992 classic album, Fully, Completely, with a stop at the Air Canada Centre. I saw them for the first time at the ACC on January 1, 2000, and 37 times since then. Here are the changes I’ve observed, good and bad, in the Kingston five.
Gord Sinclair and Bobby Baker have time to shine
With his endless bag of oddball frontman tricks, lead singer Gord Downie still possesses a quirky charm. Last night he had a penchant for parading across the stage like a caged lion. If you lost sight of him, childhood friends guitarist Bobby Baker and bassist Gord Sinclair were still a treat to behold. Thirty-plus years of playing side by side has allowed them to mesh up in near-hypnotizing sync. At Utrecht, Holland in 2006 Downie spent most of the show on guitar and required constant attention from those two, poking his way into the natural synergy the two boyhood friends have but then effectively throwing them off. That didn’t happen last night. With Downie now totally guitarless, Sinclair and Baker could focus on unleashing a winding and engrossing finish to Ahead By A Century.
In a very similar seat to the one I had at their December 23, 2000, Air Canada Centre show I was doused by a cup of overpriced beer during Bobcaygeon. As a young Hip fan, I was intimidated by the band’s sauced-up, testosterone-driven crowds. Perhaps it’s that both the band and fans have aged, but the crowd was genuinely enthusiastic and respectful. Even the one lout I saw getting ejected for over-consumption did so without making a scene. Or maybe the Hip should always play school nights.
Just the hits, man
They can now keep an entire arena, even back in the 300s, on their feet for an entire show. Sure, there’s barely any time to breathe as the band pummels fans with hit after hit. There’s nary a deep cut in sight and even slower tracks like Pigeon Camera are rushed through in an effort to get to the next big summertime Hip classic. It’s a struggle for any band in this day in age to keep a crowd’s attention but the Hip did it. Quite a change from the June 22, 2009 show at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, when I was pelted with insults for staying on my feet during the damn opening track, which was a new song at the time.
They’ve become overly streamlined
It was hard for most of the crowd to comprehend what exactly was happening during a 10-minute-plus rendition of At the Hundredth Meridian in Oshawa on January 31, 2007: Downie napped onstage with a hankie over his eyes and the band free-jazzed through improvisations before finally landing on a sampling of the Police’s Walking On The Moon. But The Hip, who made their name as a freewheeling blues-inspired band have forgone their ability to take their songs to strange places. Instead, live cuts are punchier but mostly follow album renditions note-for-note. Gone, too, are Downie’s improvised poetry and his penchant for testing out new lyrics. And without much crowd interaction, I couldn’t help but feel as if the band were punching a time clock.
Where’s the spontaneity?
Sure, it was great to hear Looking For A Place To Happen. But given that the band was playing Fully, Completely start to finish, there was little in the way of spontaneity in their set. This from a group that once prided itself on making each set different from night to night, using songs from all 12 albums. I was speechless when the band crashed into Looking For A Place To Happen at the Odeon in Cleveland on September 19, 2004. They hadn’t played it in years. Nowadays they rarely make it out of the shallow end of their insanely deep back catalogue.
A night at the theatre
The Canadian imagery broadcasted on giant screens (crowds slipping on snowy streets, buffalo roaming great plains, grainy footage of the Leafs, salmon heading upstream) only played up the hyper-Canuckness of the band. Strange, as they’ve seemed eager to move away from that over the years. The concert felt like theatre at times, and the imagery detracted from the musicianship. Having clips of a barren highway shown on a thin screen in front of the band during Locked In The Trunk Of A Car undermined the pervasive nature of the lyrics and removed any subtlety – quite the change from when it slowly grew and snuck up on the crowd as it did at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton on December 30, 2002.
But last night the band left the roaring crowd on a high note with a pulverizing Blow At High Dough. Downie ended by singing “Down at the speedway / same Tragically Hip thing.” More or less, Gord. More or less.