REVIEW: 2009-05-01 – Montreal, PQ (Metropolis)

Tragically Hip ringmaster Gordon Downie defined his band’s two-set marathon at Metropolis Friday night when he introduced their latest disc, We Are the Same, as an album “full of conversations.” Not paranoid rants, not existential conundrums – two of the Hip’s stocks in trade – but something more reasoned and rational.

Reasoned and rational are risky selling points when a band is known for manic propulsion. But whereas the relentless pace of the Hip’s two most recent tours left audiences gasping, Friday night’s considered pace left lots of breathing room. As a result, the Hip we saw was more multi-dimensional, more full and complete, if not more fearsome.

Selecting the nine-minute-plus Depression Suite as an opening number sent a clear message that this wouldn’t be a race to the finish. Afterward – and not for the last time – Downie acknowledged the challenge being posed: “You passed the initiation.”

There were early rewards for fans who embraced that rite of passage: a darker, swampier New Orleans Is Sinking, with Downie casting himself as a hell-bound bluesman; the failsafe Bobcaygeon, with its nuances lost but its latent desperation revealed. There were also more challenges: a creaky Throwing Off Glass, and Now the Struggle Has a Name – a subdued choice for a set-ender, with a particularly committed vocal driving its mid-tempo crunch.

Some party-starved grumblers overheard during intermission probably weren’t assuaged when the band re-emerged and sat down for a few acoustic numbers, but the arrangements spotlighted the weathered beauty of Are We Family and Lake Fever. After Downie thanked the enthralled “for your kind indulgence,” the distracted got what they came for: Nautical Disaster’s night terrors; Springtime in Vienna, featuring an extended intro and combustible chorus; and an unstoppable Grace, Too, highlighted by Downie’s triple-jointed writhing.

The latter was the moment awaited by those who came purely to see steam shoot from the frontman’s facial orifices. Other ticket holders came away with something less fleeting: a thoughtful portrait of a mature band that is, in its way, more confrontational than ever – challenging its fans by not always giving them what they want. Every group should be so brave after 20-plus years of existence.

The Tragically Hip perform again Saturday at Metropolis.

— Jordan Zivitz