The Globe and Mail: Thinking outside the box (set)

The Globe and Mail: Thinking outside the box (set)

Picked up today’s ( November 8 ) Globe & Mail and on the cover of the “Globe Review” section is an article about The Hip and Hipeponymous…

Full story:
1,250,000 Number of copies sold of Up To Here (1989), The Tragically Hip’s bestseller
The Tragically Hip may be pushing a new compilation, but singer Gord Downie has no desire to look back, BRAD WHEELER writes

Nobody likes to be boxed into corners or tight spaces, and Gord Downie is no exception. Watching the wriggling, bursting singer on the concert film That Night in Toronto, there is a strong sense that he would not make a tame prisoner. The film, a DVD component of The Tragically Hip’s new box set Hipeponymous, documents what the title suggests — a single performance at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre in November, 2004.

“Do you want it fully?” Downie asks the audience. “Completely?” It’s what the fans want, and the band inches into Fully Completely, the second of 24 songs. Downie, who is also the band’s lyricist, sings about shackles and the measures for ending things (“You’re gonna miss me, just wait and you’ll see”). The song ramps up to a furious pace before collapsing, exhausted.

Almost a year after the concert was filmed, Downie sits at a downtown Toronto café, discussing the box set that he’s not so sure about. This kind of compilation tends to arrive when a band is winding down, and Downie’s not there yet — not full, not complete.

“A friend of mine once said if you’re a farmer, every once in a while you have to stop your tractor and look over your shoulder and look at the fields that you plowed,” says Downie, 41. “But that’s not my inclination.”

In front of him sits a package that holds 48 pages of poetry and artwork, a double-CD best-of collection (Yer Favourites), the aforementioned concert film and another DVD of videos, vignettes and a short film. The box set is available now, and today Universal releases separate versions of Yer Favourites and That Night in Toronto. (Yer Favourites is so named because the track lineup was chosen by fans who participated in an on-line poll. Two previously unreleased songs fill out the collection).

When discussing the box set, Downie speaks slowly, as if half his brain wants to promote the thing, while the other half warily considers the product’s message. “It’s something that someone felt like we needed to do,” he says, indicating that the project’s initiative came from the band’s label. “It’s not a career retrospective. When we do one, I’ll guess you’ll know it.”

But if he’s concerned that the box could be seen as a career-capping sendoff for the band, which formed in Kingston two decades ago, he’s not ready to buy all the copies and bury them in his backyard, either. He’s enthusiastic about the concert DVD: “As a music fan, I’m excited when I watch it.”

That is interesting, because an excited Downie is certainly something to see. In addition to his quirky physicality, there are the stream-of-consciousness raps — words that come between verses, not just between songs. A career retrospective seems alien to a performer so utterly in the moment. Physically and mentally, Downie is flexed for the concert’s length, and that can’t be an easy chore.

“I’m exhausted at the end of every show, to the point of where I’m staggering away,” Downie says. “That doesn’t make me a heck of a guy, but ultimately I don’t think I ever feel closer to Howlin’ Wolf than I do at that moment.” Downie refers to a blues artist — a gigantic Mississippi-born legend who was already over 40 years old by the time he first recorded for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in the early 1950s.

Wolf, whose real name was Chester Burnett, was known for his voice — a hellish, commanding instrument — but it is the bluesman’s astounding determination that earns Downie’s respect. “He was in his 60s, climbing up the curtain in the auditorium and perching 30 feet above the stage with a microphone under his arm, singing.”

What the blues crowds didn’t know was that Wolf was quite ill towards the end, and that the performances were punishing. When Downie speaks of an affinity to Wolf, the pain is what he’s thinking of. “Going on stage, there’s a lot of trepidation, a lot of fear, concern, anticipation,” he says. “Because it’s going to hurt, I suppose, and I couldn’t experience that anywhere else, with any other group of guys.

“I think that’s what keeps us all interested and moving forward. . . just sort of plugging into that idea that blues have to hurt.”

What also keeps the Hip propelled, according to the band’s singer, is what’s around the next corner. Currently, the group is working on a new album with Bob Rock, a producer whose name can be found on the credits of top-selling albums by Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Bryan Adams and Cher. The partnership with Rock might indicate an attempt by the band to halt its commercial downturn — while earlier albums Up to Here and Fully Completely sold more than a million copies each, the Hip’s last three releases registered sales of less than half a million combined.

Despite slumping numbers at the record stores, the band is still a formidable draw on the road in Canada. It’s hard to imagine that changing any time soon, but for Downie nothing is assured. “We’ve played to three people in Hoboken — we’ve played to every crowd imaginable. That kind of thing can go on as a band for a long time, when you’re outnumbering the crowd.” You wouldn’t think that a band that uses the home-side dressing rooms of hockey arenas across the country would be worried about single-digit crowd counts, but Downie still remembers the slow days. “You’re never past that,” he says. “I have no illusions of the future — or maybe it’s all illusion, I don’t know. I’ve always been ready for it.”

When asked if he’s prepared to play in front of the Hoboken three again, Downie offers his quickest reply of the interview: “Sure.” With that, he scans the room for sugar for his coffee, finally tracking down a near-empty container. With a minor look of disgust, he shakes his head while considering the paltry supply. “Look at this,” he says. “Think I can get a spoonful?”

That is always the question. Howlin’ Wolf sang about spoonfuls — of diamonds, of gold, and everybody fighting for just a little taste more. The great blues artists performed to their end, and Downie is strongly taken by their ethic. “I love that,” he says, mulling the idea over. “Performing to our end — that’s something we haven’t done yet.”

1,250,000: Number of copies sold of Up To Here (1989). The Tragically Hip’s bestseller

101,000: Total sales for the band’s last album, In Between Evolution (2004)

Tragically dipping

The Tragically Hip has sold more than 6-million records in its 22-year career, but album sales have dropped dramatically of late.

The Tragically Hip (1987) 350,000
Up To Here (1989) 1,250,000
Road Apples (1991) 935,000
Fully Completely (1992) 1,035,000
Day for Night (1994) 780,000
Trouble At The Henhouse (1996) 575,000
Live Between Us (1997) 375,000
Phantom Power (1998) 405,000
Music @ Work (2000) 210,000
In Violet Light (2002) 130,000
In Between Evolution (2004) 101,000