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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thoughts on the Tragically Hip's last (?) concert

The Tragically Hip played what was likely their final concert ever last night. In front of a sold-out crowd at the K-Rock Centre in the band's hometown of Kingston, Ontario, and also witnessed by a national television audience watching a commercial-free broadcast on the CBC.

I gave up luxury box/corporate suite seats at the Lansing Lugnuts baseball game in order to stay home and watch the concert--alone in my living room with only two cats and a dog for company (my wife and my two sons went to the ballgame). There you have it, the life of an American Hip fan.

I know I've probably been driving my Facebook friends crazy over the last several days with all my Hip-related posts. But this has simply been "the Summer of the Hip" for me, ever since that terrible morning in late May when the world received the news about Gord Downie's cancer diagnosis.

A month after that, I bought the Hip's new album Man Machine Poem and have watched the band's tour unfold from afar. My attempt to obtain tickets for the London (Ont.) show were immediately obliterated, both in the pre-sale and when tickets went on sale to the general public. I underestimated demand, and the stealth of the "bots" that also scooped up tickets. I eventually resigned myself to sitting this tour out--and considered it as primarily an event for Canadians to celebrate their band. Meanwhile, I've followed the shows on Periscope and through first-hand reports on the Tragically Hip Facebook Fan Forum. Along with all other Hip fans, I've marveled at Gord's flamboyant stage attire and his utter defiance in the face of mortality.

So if January of 2016 brought on "the Winter of Bowie," and the shocking April death of His Purple Highness ushered in "the Spring of Prince," "the Summer of Gord" commenced on May 24. Of course, the major difference is that Gord Downie is still very much with us. He is beautifully, defiantly, gracefully still with us; wearing his shiny metallic leather suits, designed so brilliantly by Toronto's Izzy Camilleri. Gord is staring down cancer and has given every fiber of his being into his performances. Oh sure, he may not be as physical and free-wheeling as in the past, but considering what he is enduring, he has been a dynamo. It is truly remarkable that Gord has been able to perform so brilliantly on this tour.

Last night was no exception. Gord and the band brought it strong in a show that lasted almost three hours with three encores; including a raw display of emotion by Gord at the end of "Grace, Too" in which he unleashed several cathartic screams near the end of the song. And in what is a rarity for Gord Downie, he made a pointed political plea--directed towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance--demanding attention be paid and help given to the depressed First Nations people in northern Canada. (Thank you, Gord, for educating me on the troubles and struggles of the First Nations people).

I always knew that the Hip were big in Canada (duh), but even I have been overwhelmed by how much love and adoration has been showered on the Hip by Canadians. As some have already stated, the Hip are so adored by Canadians perhaps primarily because the band never broke big in the United States or elsewhere. Add to that the fact that the Hip pepper their songs with Canadian cultural references, and their countrymen have fully, completely embraced them and become protective of them.

When the concert ended just shy of 11:30 PM, I simply felt dumb. I didn't weep--though there were some misty moments throughout the concert--I just turned the TV off and sat on the couch for several minutes, blankly staring and attempting to absorb it...and I'm still trying to process it.

I can honestly say that I can't imagine my life without the Tragically Hip, much like I can't fathom life without my kids. (In fact, it's sometimes hard to imagine that I once had a life before my children entered the picture). Just as my kids have taught me such lessons as how not to be completely self-absorbed (just a little self-absorbed), along with the joys of grade school orchestra concerts,
chess club tournaments, Forza Horizon and GTA 5 on the Xbox; the Hip have taught me about Bobcaygeon, Tom Thomson, David Milgaard, Attawapiskat, Algonquin Park, and Bill Barilko. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Tragically Hip "Road Apples" (1991) review

(The third in my series of Tragically Hip album overviews, in which I investigate the discography of this criminally undervalued Canadian band).

I'm beginning this overview of the Tragically Hip's Road Apples with a warning that this ended up being a much deeper dive than even I anticipated, but the Hip deserve the full attention of my (dubious) analysis. So don't say I didn't warn you.

For the follow-up to their debut LP Up to Here, the Tragically Hip headed down south to record in New Orleans. Don Smith was once again behind the desk as producer. The resulting album, Road Apples, refines the barroom and heartland rock of the first album. But while the Hip perfect the sound that they'd developed on their first two records, they also close the chapter on this phase of their career. The Hip would change course on their next album, Fully Completely.

But back to Road Apples. In 1990, the band convened at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio with the fore mentioned Don Smith. There is no doubt that the Crescent City influenced the raw and bluesy feel of the music, yet the lyrics are the most "Canadian" that Gord Downie had penned to that point. The album was such a reflection of the Hip's life on the road in Canada that the original title was Saskadelphia. MCA balked at the title, so in a fit of cheeky humor the band opted for Road Apples, slang for horse shit. One could view this as either classic Canadian modesty for the Hip pulling the wool over the record execs' eyes. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

On the opening track, "Little Bones," the Hip start off where they left off on Up to Here. It's a full-on rocker with lyrics inspired at least in part by the band's stay in New Orleans. ("It gets so sticky down here..."). An insistent guitar riff introduces the song, with Johnny Fay soon joining in on drums. Initially--for the first 32 seconds, in fact--the guitar and drums are both in slightly different tempos. When they finally lock in, it's like a jockey and racehorse trying to get in rhythm after the starting gates open. The Paul Langlois/Gord Sinclair/Johnny Fay rhythm section is one of the band's major strengths, and once they lock in, "Little Bones" is one of the most propulsive tunes in the Hip canon.

I read somewhere, can't remember where, that the Hip considered the album's second song, "Twist My Arm," to be their "Red Hot Chili Peppers song." Considering that around the time the Hip were recording Road Apples, the Chili Peppers were riding high on their Mother's Milk album, it's conceivable that was where the inspiration came from. "Twist My Arm" is the Hip's stab at funk. It is not one of my favorite songs by the band, as it goes on a bit too long and funk workouts aren't the Hip's forte. This is a song that is actually much more effective in a live setting.

"Cordelia" is named after a character in Shakespeare's King Lear, and this is the first indication that Gord Downie's songwriting had taken on weightier and more literary concerns. Cordelia is King Lear's third and youngest daughter. She refuses to profess her love for her father, in return for one-third of his land, and is thus banished. One analyzes Gord Downie's lyrics at one's own peril, and I won't pretend to know how Cordelia fits into the song, other than the protagonist comparing his own plight to that of Cordelia's ("I'm not Cordelia/I will not be there"). Whatever the lyrics mean--if they have any linear meaning whatsoever--the shifts from intense to subdued and back to intense are clear markers of the band's growth as songwriters and performers.

Gord Sinclair's bass leads the way on "The Luxury," a song with a jazzy feel and a story of sordid desperation--a former prisoner living in a seedy motel with a (presumed) prostitute--that would not be at all out of place on The Doors' L.A. Woman.

Canadian cultural history is revisited in "Born in the Water," which explores a Sault Ste. Marie city council declaration that attempted to make the city "English language only." The declaration was struck down in 1994. (For more information about the origins of this song and many others, I urge the reader to investigate the outstanding web site, which has incredible detail about the many geographical, historical, cultural, and literary references in The Tragically Hip's music).

"Long Time Running" is the Hip channeling Stax/Volt soul via Kingston, Ontario, and then with a Kingsway Studios/New Orleans additive. Rob Baker's arpeggios owe a lot to Steve Cropper, and Gord Downie does his best Otis Redding.

After the Stonesy "Bring It All Home," which sounds like a holdover from Up To Here, the Hip unleash the furious and stomping "Three Pistols." It's more Canadiana from Gord Downie's pen. Early 20th century Canadian artist Tom Thomson, who died of mysterious circumstances in Ontario's Algonquin Park, is seen "paddling past/I'm pretty sure it was him." Thomson is also described as "shaking all night long/but my hands are steady," perhaps alluding to Thomson's ability with a paint brush in the shivering cold of Algonquin Park, or his ability to use a gun (a pistol?) under duress. It might also refer to a theory that Thomson was murdered and did not drown, as is conventional thought. Thomson's "little, lonely love" Winnifred Trainor--the real-life paramour of Thomson--shows up in the song and, in a bit of impressionistic flight of fancy, takes the singer to an opera house (nearby Gravenhurst Opera House?). She is later described as sweeping trinkets off Thomson's grave on Remembrance Day.

So what is "Three Pistols" about? Like most Gord Downie songs, the lyrics are loaded with evocative imagery but without anything remotely resembling an easy interpretation. Having said that, here's a stab in the dark. Tom Thomson was a reclusive, revolutionary artist who died under a shroud of mystery, a subject that would have obvious appeal to a young, idiosyncratic artist like Gord Downie. Downie identifies with Tom Thomson and his quest for artistic purity. And with that, I could be completely wrong. In any case, when you get right down to it, when a song blows the roof off with the power of "Three Pistols," it almost doesn't matter what Downie is singing about. The fact that the lyrics are as fascinating and evocative as they are is just an added bonus.

After the fiery rock of "Three Pistols," the Hip slow down the tempo on the bluesy "Fight," which seems to be about a couple at their wits end with each other ("Do you think I bow out 'cause I think you're right/Or 'cause I don't want to fight?"). "Fight" has a solid groove, but is one of the weaker songs on the album. This is not to say it's a bad song, just that on an LP with so many outstanding tunes, "Fight" is near the bottom.

I remember seeing the Hip for the first time, at the State Theater in Detroit. In their encore, they played a tune that brought the house down. At the time, I still wasn't completely familiar with the band's discography, so I couldn't quite place the song that the crowd was going nuts for. I later discovered it was "On the Verge," a shit-kicking rocker that might get a little lost among better-known ravers like "Little Bones" and "Three Pistols." "On the Verge" seems to be about someone who finds himself--or herself--in a strange community of hucksters, con artists, and charlatans but begins to find the place exciting and is "on the verge" of fitting right in. ("We got horse-throated hucksters whispered gimmicks/Rubbernecking all the curious cynics...well, I don't know what came over me/I'm too dumb for words/Well, I didn't think I'd like it here at all/But I swear I'm on the verge"). It's yet another lyric in which Gord Downie sympathetically explores the underbelly of society with its oddballs and outcasts.

"Fiddler's Green" might be the Hip's most revered song. It's a country-folk meditation on the death of Gord's young nephew. The name "Fiddler's Green" has a dual meaning. It's both a road in Ancaster, Ontario and, in mythology, an afterlife where there is eternal happiness, a fiddler who never stops playing, and dancers who never tire. A wonderfully idyllic place for a child who has left this earth too  early. The song was so emotional for Downie that the band did not play it live until 2006.

A view into the band's future arrives with Road Apples' final track, "The Last of the Unplucked Gems." It is a brief bit of folk-rock impressionism, similar to Fables of the Reconstruction-era R.E.M. Gord's inscrutable lyrics are a harbinger of the next few Hip albums, Fully Completely and especially Day For Night.

Many of the elements that made Up to Here such an energized and promising debut are also on display with Road Apples, but the songwriting is better and the music has added depth. At the same time, this is still fundamentally a bar band/roots rock album, and the band's musical influences remain obvious. The band had yet to fully develop its own signature sound.

In retrospect, it's clear that the Hip must have concluded they'd taken the road as far as it could go, and it was time for a new direction on Fully Completely, the album that would prove to be their artistic and commercial breakthrough.