GORD DOWNIE with Jeff Martin and the Tea Party, Jim Cuddy, Todd Kerns, Holly McNarland, Gordie Johnson and others as part of the Sixth Annual White Ribbon Benefit Concert at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Tuesday (June 3). $26.75. 416-870-8000. www.whiteribbon.com
GORD DOWNIE and the Country of Miracles at Radio Monday at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Tuesday (June 3). 416-596-1908.
GORD DOWNIE and the Country of Miracles with All Systems Go!, the Salads and Cuff The Duke as part of the NXNE launch concert at Dundas Square (Yonge and Dundas), Thursday, June 5, at 5 pm. Free. www.nxne.com
GORD DOWNIE and the Country of Miracles as part of NXNE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Saturday, June 7, midnight. $20. 416-532-1598.
walking down a west-end ware-house's narrow corridor, with its wobbly teak urns taller than a 10-year-old kid and stacks of raw wooden skids guarding freshly imported intricate glass lanterns, I feel like I'm in a scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I follow the faint whiffs of pot smoke, the trail of beat-up bikes and the sounds of a cranked-up Fender and pummelling drums coming from the doorway at the far end.
There, a bunch of blissed-out dudes in a late-night jam session take swigs from their beers. One guitarist in a Johnny Cash T-shirt busts out a creaky slide riff. The drummer kicks in a boogaloo beat. The second guitarist, a towering guy with a ratty baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, adds a quirky run and quavering vocals.
It could be any random crew of wannabe rock stars. Except that the tall dude in the hat who keeps tripping over his patch cord is Gordon Downie, enigmatic frontman of the Tragically Hip.
I start to understand what he was talking about a few days earlier when he was trying to explain why an anthemic rocker who's made it big in Canada's notoriously forbidding music scene would take a stab at a solo career playing vaguely limp-wristed, artsy indie tunes.
"Think of it like guys who get together to play pickup hockey," smiles Downie.
Battle Of The Nudes (MapleMusic), his new solo disc, echoes with the hushed, oblique introspection of, say, Tom Waits's Closing Time or Elliott Smith's XO.
Lyrics cribbed from Downie's dreams swirl around carefully crafted soundscapes of effects-warped electric guitars, staticky found-sound snippets and trash-can percussion. He rocks out on Battle, but it's more art school than Up To Here. Which is a pleasant surprise, since I find the Hip's frat-friendly anthems a bit of a yawn.
One thing's for sure - Battle's a better record than Coke Machine Glow, Downie's first solo disc, mostly because it transforms the latter's loose, meandering jams into cohesive songs. Downie's snagged some of the solidest local talent for his Country of Miracles crew. The new album retains the rickety charm of the first, but what you hear is a tight band operating as a unit.
"I've been living in Toronto all this time and I finally got a good combo together and I can go to rehearsals and they're no different from rehearsals I had when I was, like, 16."
The night I sit in on their practice, everyone except for Dale Morningstar and drummer Dave Clark is a no-show. (MIA are The Dinner Is Ruined's Dr. Pee, Skydigger Josh Finlayson and indie poster girl Julie Doiron.) When they improvise songs (some about the missing members, including a running joke that Finlayson got booted out), it's evolution in action. The deconstructed jam heaves itself out of the primordial ooze, sprouts feet, and all of a sudden there's an actual song echoing around the room.
Downie's a star, but during this session he's just kicking back with his pals. He's as subtly deliberate in conversation as he is with his improvised riffs.
His attention to language makes sense - this is a guy who in 2001 released Canada's top-selling poetry book, the Coke Machine Glow volume he dropped in conjunction with the disc of the same name.
His face lights up when he recalls seeing his book on the poetry shelves, sandwiched between "John Donne and T.S. Eliot, of all people!"
Coke Machine Glow is not a Jewel-style Night Without Armor exercise in precious musician-turned-scribe self-indulgence. Downie's writing is spare, evocative and, considering the macho boys' club of the literary establishment he likes to cite (Layton, Leonard Cohen, Al Purdy, American tough-guy Raymond Carver "and b.p. nichol. Let's not forget the machismo of b.p. nichol!"), not so far removed from the testosterone-friendly domain of the Hip.
"Now I know the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. A lyric has the music that's standing there waiting, tapping its toe. 'Got anything yet? Come on, let's go! We're together in this!'
"There's really nothing, no voice around a poem. It's just paper and pen and you."
Curled up on a couch watching him rehearse with the Country of Miracles, I'm more impressed by the sensitive Renaissance man who's proud to play the anti-violence-against-women White Ribbon Show and the tunesmith who writes songs about his fears that his seven-year-old daughter will grow up into a mascaraed rebel who'll turn away from him than by the stoic Hip frontman.
I think of Downie's kooky tale of the Arizona soul reader who told him he was female in all his previous lives, and about his memories of writing Coke Machine Glow at the kitchen table just after his daughter was born.
"Late at night, new dad, trying to eke out your time when you can find it. I only had three hours of quiet. When Raymond Carver realized he needed to do things he could start and finish in a night, he decided to concetrate on short stories.
"I wrote on my little nylon-string guitar, so everything sounded so beautiful to me. And then gradually the songs grew. That album was about the kids, about reconciling daily life with the need to work on your craft. Or the interplay, cohesion and dovetailing of the two. "
When I get up to leave at around 1 am, Downie, concerned about the deserted neighbourhood, tries to give me money for a cab. We argue, but I'm touched.
"Be safe," he mutters, punching me lightly in the shoulder. And I turn and walk, like the dream of his daughter, into the night. firstname.lastname@example.org
Gordon Downie and the Country of Miracles have been through their share of North By Northeast festivals. You can catch them at Thursday's NXNE kickoff and Saturday at Lee's Palace, but here's where they'll be when they're not onstage.
young ideas midnight Saturday (June 7), Oasis
"What the world needs today."
The Populars 9 pm Thursday (June 5), Horseshoe
Great Lake Swimmers 1 am Saturday (June 7), Healey's
Warsawpack 1 am Thursday (June 5), Kathedral
Blinker the Star 1 am Thursday (June 5), Rivoli"Young Jordan Z. has watched videos in Courtney Love's bed."Peter Elkas 9 pm Thursday (June 5), El Mocambo "Does great illustrations and has a nice-looking Telecaster."The Donnellys midnight Friday (June 6), Black Bull
"Didn't they put the Donnellys in jail decades ago?"
Jay Clark and the Jones 1 am Saturday (June 7), Silver Dollar"Is this a Jay & the Americans clone band?"
("No. They're not." - Gord Downie)
The Neutron Stars midnight Friday (June 6), Oasis"Good boys, fine stories."Peter Elkas 9 pm Thursday (June 5), El Mocambo"Look out! His CD is top-shelf."Jack Breakfast 10 pm Friday (June 6), Victory Café"New CD. Great voice."Precious Little 9 pm Saturday (June 7), Clinton's"Phenomenal depth in songwriting. Joey Bechta is one of the finest drummers in this town."