Gord Downie turned 51 years old on a rainy Friday in Vancouver doing what he does best – bellowing poetry while dancing spastically in front of a packed hockey rink.
Perhaps as a birthday present to himself, he took a night off from playing the Hip’s signature hit “New Orleans is Sinking.”
The Tragically Hip don’t have a new album to promote on their latest North American tour, which instead sees the familiar fivesome playing the tracks from their biggest album, 1992’s Fully Completely, in sequential order. They also opted not to bring along an opening act, which is probably for the best. Dave Bidini wrote a great book partly about the often frustrating experience he had with his band, the Rheostatics, as the openers during the Trouble at the Henhouse tour, when Hip fans often made it abundantly clear they only had ears for the headliners.
At the risk of sounding like a total hipster, I was into the Hip before it was cool. My older sister had gone off to university in Kingston, Ont. – the band’s (still) home stomping grounds – and she sent me a copy of an up-and-coming local bar band’s self-titled EP that was soon played on heavy rotation. So it was fun to see the rest of Canada (if only Canada) eventually come around to them through Up To Here, Road Apples and Fully Completely – widely considered to be the band’s high-water mark. The album was also uniquely, unapologetically Canadian, featuring singles with CanCon concerns such as the October Crisis, lionized novelist Hugh MacLennan, a missing Maple Leaf and where exactly the Great Plains begin. Fully Completely offered a hard-hitting, homegrown answer and alternative to alt rock at a time when grunge ruled the airwaves, and Canadians loved it.
Downie sensibly decided against wearing a Boston Bruins jersey like the one he sported in the video for “Courage” when the band played in the Canucks’ barn last night, opting instead for a plain white button-down and leather pants. The Hip hit the stage to Day for Night‘s plodding, moody “Grace, Too” before segueing into the high-energy “Music at Work” followed by “A Beautiful Thing” from 2002’s In Violet Light. Judging by the set list from their gig in Victoria two nights earlier, the band plans to mix in other songs from their lengthy career as they head back east before getting to the meat-and-potatoes of the show with Fully Completely in its entirety.
The band were in fine form, with Downie doing his patented Asperger’s-on-Ecstasy shtick behind rumbling, layered bass and guitars powered by Paul Langlois, Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair on top of athletic drumming from Johnny Fay. As always, Downie was the centre of attention while band members rarely acknowledged the audience – who ranged in age from teens to boomers – or even each other’s presence. The sole bit of non-frontman audience interaction came when Baker, who spent most of the evening hiding behind his Cousin Itt wall of hair, chucked back an empty plastic bottle some idiot had thrown onstage.
But if their hearts are perhaps no longer in it after more than three decades playing together or if Downie tires of having to perform in character all the time, it certainly didn’t show in the intensity put into the music. There was a nice moment during the encore when the band played the softer “Scared” with the crowd singing along. Downie put a big emphasis on the line “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, the feeling is very much mutual.