Canadian Beatles and the Maritime Elvis

Canadian Beatles and the Maritime Elvis

The Aspen Daily News

Jason Hood – Time Out Music Columnist

Fri 10/12/2007 06:01AM MST
To many Canadians there are only two indigenous bands of note: From the mid-’70s to the late-’80s it was Rush and from the later-’80s to the present it has been The Tragically Hip. Of course there have always been pugnacious fans of Canadian artists like Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, The Barenaked Ladies and Anne Murray, but Rush and The Hip are national treasures akin to Elvis Presley here in the States or the Beatles in England (or to a lesser extent, Bjork in Iceland).

For those of us who can remember the birth pangs of the alternative music movement, The Tragically Hip was like a collective firstborn; the fraternal sibling of The Pixies, Husker Du and The Replacements. Their sound was then and has always been fresh, adventurous, bold and haunting like a dream, both strange and erotic.

Those early days of alternative radio as pioneered by the still influential KROQ in Los Angeles will forever stay with me. They represent, for millions, the heady days of summer and slumber and of thinking you were at the forefront of a cultural revolution. This fair was not for the weak of heart; it was music that groomed a generation of forward thinkers and idealists as well as cynics, clackers and slobbering, ne’er-do-well alt-geeks like myself and my good friend, Jimmy the Pitbull. The Hip was part of that experience.

The Tragically Hip will be playing Aspen’s Belly Up on Monday, Oct. 15.

The band was formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1983 and by 1987 they had released their eponymous E.P., The Tragically Hip.” There was an immediate visceral response to their sound and steadily increasing buzz about their weird and wild live performances. It was a word of mouth and shared cassette campaign that led The Hip to release their much-anticipated full-length album “Up To Here.”

“Up to Here” is awash in gritty thick guitars and the passionate nuanced vocals of Gordon Downie. And while there is not a song on the album one might skip, the third track, “New Orleans is Sinking,” is a standout. Recorded 15 years before the Hurricane Katrina disaster, “New Orleans” is an eerie forecast of that city’s catastrophic flood. On the track Gordon Downies’ voice is reminiscent of dark balladeer Nick Cave and when he sings “My memory is muddy what’s this river that I’m in? New Orleans is sinking man and I don’t want to swim,” it is hard not to get a lump in your throat. From the beginning of the song, the guitar sounds like a parade of bubbles dancing up from an Atlantic on the rise. The steady rhythm of bass and drums could be the terrible crumble and crack of a levee breaking. Just as powerful as the recording is the re-shot video that captured the brutal, sad aftermath of government incompetence and Mother Nature’s cruel wrath.

The attraction of the sea in all its horror and glory is a recurring theme in The Tragically Hip’s lyrics. Like the now defunct dancehall punk band, The Murder City Devils, The Hip have a penchant for maritime lore and nautical chanty’s that invoke the tragedies and romance of sea faring angels and devilish rapscallions.

Vocalist Gordon Downie is indeed a gifted lyricist. He truly knows how to spin a yarn. Turns of phrase and poetic license make for enjoyable reading, as well as intense listening pleasure. But it is in The Hip’s live shows where Downie truly lets his imagination roam.

Incorporating stream-of-thought rants, antidotes and accents, it sometimes sounds (and looks) as if he is suffering from Tourette Syndrome. The stories he tells in his digressions read like a compendium of modern literature. Oftentimes they are autobiographical mini-stories, which are of course completely fictional. One story involves him getting his arm ripped off while working as a diver in an amusement parks killer whale tank. Another story tells how he tied his friend to the railroad tracks but was unable to rescue him from the oncoming train. Yet another has him rescuing a family trapped in their car at the bottom of a frozen lake. These tales go on and on and he never repeats them. Every Tragically Hip show is a completely unique experience; a trick that has kept them relevant for more than 20 years.

I believe wholeheartedly that catching The Hip in such a small venue will be one of my great concert experiences. I hope you all will come and share the spectacle with me.

Also, just announced local rockers and all around good guy and gal The Friendly Dictators will be playing a free show at Belly Up on Friday, Oct. 19. Come check ‘em out. You won’t regret it.