By SHAWN TELFORD
SPECIAL TO THE P-I
Twenty years in and The Tragically Hip are playing like they’re just getting started. For the first 10 years, the Kingston, Ontario, five-piece played it cool as blues rockers. Gradually, the band edged toward country-rock before eventually settling into a straight-up rock persona that culminated in the seminal records “Day for Night” and “Fully Completely,” from ’94 and ’92, respectively.
For the next 10 years, the Hip steadily released albums driven as much by their guitar work as Gordon Downie’s maverick lyrics. Though he likes to focus on the Canadian experience, the singer’s stories run the gamut of possibility. In fact, his microscope seems to know no bounds, a feat matched only by his ability to subsume big, polysyllabic words into songs (pendulum, biosphere, vaccination), many of which have never seen a song before and probably never will again.
Yet, for Hip-heads, and particularly the lesser-known American variety, this was a frustrating time. Each of the five albums from this era suffered a professional malaise that belabored the Hip. It seemed that Canada’s Greatest Rock Band was going through the motions. The root of the problem was drummer Johnny Fay who, for nearly 10 years, would do little more than keep the beat; his lack of excitement and general laziness haunted the band, keeping their songs locked in 4/4 time.
Thank God for Bob Rock, the studio impresario best known for his work with Motley Crue (“Dr. Feelgood”) and Metallica (“Load,” “Reload” and “St. Anger”), not to mention David Lee Roth and Bon Jovi. Rock not only reawakened the Hip but he pushed them to new levels. The resulting “World Container” is the greatest Hip album ever recorded. The proof was seen in their concert Thursday night at the Moore, a spellbinding, energetic and triumphant display of prowess, expertise and most certainly, an absolute love of rock ‘n’ roll.
Quintessential entertainer and dynamic frontman Downie was soaked with perspiration by about the fifth song. By the 18th (an explosive rendition of the bluesy “Blow at High Dough”), he looked as if he had just stepped out of the shower. His aerobic interpretive dances have always made a Hip show into a spectacle, one to be seen as well as heard, but Thursday night Downie was on fire. Not even his microphone stands could handle his vivacity; he went through two and almost maimed a third.
Rarely do the Hip play songs by other bands; in fact, according to my sources, “Sweet Jane” has been the only exception, but add to the list “Jumping Jack Flash,” an apropos encore song, if not a summation of the new era for the Hip: “It’s a gas! Gas! Gas!”
Shawn Telford is a Seattle-based freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.