Lancaster asks “Too Hip for America?”

By JOHN DUFFY, Correspondent
Sunday News

Published: Apr 15, 2007 12:02 AM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa – For serious music fans and semi-serious rock scholars, it’s a common topic of discussion: Why can some Canadian bands cross over to the United States and find success, while others can’t?

There’s no consistent rule of thumb.

For every Bryan Adams there is a 54-40 (who?), for every Nelly Furtado a Sarah Harmer or Kathleen Edwards.

One of the bands that tops the shortlist of great Canadian acts most people below the 49th parallel have never heard of is the Tragically Hip.

Formed in 1983 by Gordon Downie (vocals), Bobby Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass) and Johnny Fay (drums) — all childhood friends growing up in Kingston, Ontario — the Hip didn’t appear on record until six years later.

Over the next 15 years, the Hip became one of Canada’s most revered and respected bands through its frenetic live shows and pursuit of a distinctive sound.

The blending of loud, angular guitars with Downie’s wildly poetic lyrics gave the band a truly original sound: melodic, earnest, aggressive and demanding.

Hip songs often examine elements of Canadian history and identity in ways outsiders can’t understand. In the same way Bruce Springsteen conjures images and icons of American culture, from Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie to Charlie Starkweather to the anonymous Sept. 11 widow, the Hip speaks for Canada.

But for some reason, a band that has sold 6 million records in its native land and can fill hockey arenas with ease can’t break through in the United States.

The Hip will play Lancaster’s Chameleon Club at 7 p.m. April 22.

In the 1990s, the band made serious inroads into New England and the upper Midwest, regions served well by college radio, but failed to break through nationally.

A 1995 performance on “Saturday Night Live” at the urging of fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd, who gave them an enthusiastic partisan introduction, didn’t do the trick.

Earlier this year, the Hip opened several arena-size shows for the Who, and the band has sold out most of its current U.S. club tour. Perhaps this will be their year.

The band’s latest album, “World Container,” was released in the United States in early March, and the excellent two-disc set “Yer Favorites,” an essential introduction to the Hip, is widely available.

There’s no reason why the Tragically Hip couldn’t be as big in America as an REM, with cerebral lyricist Michael Stipe being a close analogue to Downie.

“I could do hours on this subject,” Downie told the Toronto Sun. “You know, why not? Why isn’t Canadian film big down there? Is Paul Martin big down there?

“Who are you comparing us to? The Barenaked Ladies? Our music is entirely different. Nickelback? Avril? Because of the people we are and the music we make, we get the success we deserve.”

In other words, Downie isn’t really that concerned with breaking open America. He realizes that what makes the Hip unique may or may not be some Canadian “otherness,” or perhaps it’s something of the band’s own making.

Fortunately, the band can laugh about it.

Canada possesses, as Vancouver writer Steve Burgess so aptly put it, a sense of humor that is often directed at its own reflection. Or as Hip drummer Fay once told Billboard magazine: Being Canada’s biggest band is like being “the world’s tallest midgets.”