For 30 years the Tragically Hip have criss-crossed Canada, documenting the country’s past, present and future in song.
Revered for 30 years north of the 49th parallel, the Kingston, Ont. quintet have remained quintessentially Canadian, singing of hockey and Jacques Cartier, not giving a damn if Americans got them or not.
It’s why we love them. It’s also why we fill arenas coast to coast whenever Gord Downie and company decide to tour.
They made their latest stop Tuesday night at a nearly sold-out Fort William Gardens, the first time in almost six years they’ve dropped in on Thunder Bay.
It was worth the wait, for both the band and the crowd that came to see them.
“It’s good to be back in the old barn. It’s really good,” Downie said seven songs into the set.
The Hip put on a spectacle the crowd ate up, despite largely ignoring two of their most beloved albums, 1989’s Up To Here and Road Apples, its 1991 follow-up.
Turns out they weren’t really necessary, though the band did break out New Orleans is Sinking midway through their 23-song set, ironically a song they stopped playing for a spell after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Big Easy a few years ago.
A little self-disclosure here – this is the 11th time I’ve seen them live, the second time on this tour. The last, a more intimate show in a Minneapolis warehouse on the final day of November, out-shone this one, if only for the setting.
But Thunder Bay fans who ventured to the Gardens Tuesday night got more than their money’s worth, starting with At Transformation, the lead song off their latest disc, Now For Plan A, a fantastic album the Hip leaned heavily on throughout the night.
Grace Too, from 1995’s Day For Night, brought the familiar back into the house, Downie frantically prancing around the stage with that maniacal look in his eyes, a sure sign he’s ready to get down to serious business.
Guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay were plenty content to cede the attention to their long-time ringleader, dressed in a white shirt and tie, a black vest and a black fedora.
The set list, which included Man Machine Poem,The Lookahead, We Want to Be It and the politically charged – and stirringly performed – Good Night Attawapiskat from their latest album, delightfully dipped deep into the band’s sprawling cataglogue.
Downie dusted off a trio of rare finds from 2006’s World Container, The Kids Don’t Get It, Family Band and In View, and plenty more from Day for Night.
Thugs saw the soon-to-be 49-year-old singer chanting the opening lines from Edwin Starr’s War: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing,” Downie jeered, before launching into the song.
There were plenty of favourites for the almost sold-out Gardens crowd to sing along with, starting with Courage, in the midst of which he asked his fans, ‘Oh yeah, you know this one?’ and let them finish the lyrics for him.
Fully Completely, Poets and a Baker-led Ahead By A Century continued the sing-along, Downie thanking the crowd after Fire in the Hole and leaving the stage for a short break.
The encore was a powerful reminder why the Tragically Hip are rock radio staples in Canada, and would be regardless of Canadian content rules.
Downie took a seat and surveyed the crowd before ripping into At the Hundredth Meridian, stopping briefly in the middle for his traditional stream-of-consciousness rant, before once again insisting on Ry Cooder singing his eulogy.
“Let’s do more. Let’s do more. Let’s do more,” he screamed, the crowd mimicking his every word, feverishly repeating it back to him.
“Now that’s a community chat. But the music was coming anyway.”
“Music brings people together,” he added.
And on it went, Greasy Jungle echoing throughout the Gardens and into the south-side night.
Bobcaygeon, from 1998’s Phantom Power, was up next, with an explanation for the uninitiated.
“Here’s a song about a gay cop who lives in the city, along with someone who lives in the country. It’s a dilemma, I know. It’s an hour and 50 minute commute, a two-hour commute.”
A grinning Downie followed with Nautical Disaster, then showed his appreciation for the raucous atmosphere the crowd created.
“Thank you Thunder Bay. Thank you music lovers.”
Then fittingly with hockey back, the Hip wrapped up their two-hour set with Fifty-Mission Cap, the Bill Barilko tribute that reminds Leafs fans everywhere just how long it’s been since they were an NHL powerhouse.