As a kind of snowbound REM (from the days when REM was great), it’s always been somewhat perplexing how a successful band as The Tragically Hip, who’ve been consistently pumping out excellent albums since the late eighties and selling venues out all over Canada, haven’t caught on south of the border.
As a Canadian, it was exciting to have the opportunity to see them playing in Chicago, at a smaller venue than those they normally play at home. As it turns out, however, the band never really leaves Canada, and this has some unfortunate consequences.
But first, the positives. In many respects, the Hip are a great live band, as their reputation would lead you to expect. They take their live music very seriously, as Robbie Baker, the lead guitarist, stressed in a conversation prior to the show, and this was apparent in their tight and well-executed performance. After all these years, the members of the band are obviously very comfortable playing together. The Hip have many great songs to choose from, and the set list was well balanced between up-tempo rock songs like “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Poets” and intriguing ballads such as “Courage,” “Nautical Disaster,” and “Bobcaygeon” (with singer Gordon Downie's ever-quirky lyrics). The set also included some strong new material from their new album, In Violet Light [Rounder Records], including “Silver Jet,” “It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken,” and, one of my new favorites, “The Dire Wolf.”
The crowd was definitely revved up for the sold-out show. People were dancing enthusiastically, the drinks were flowing steadily, a beach ball bounced throughout the crowd. But in a strange way, this was part of the problem. The band’s mention of Toronto turned the largely-Canuck audience into something resembling a bunch of maple-leafed Deadheads. It's no exaggeration to say that most of the audience knew the lyrics and sang along to almost every song. Robbie commented on this fact, saying that, "most of the people here will be fairly die-hard. A lot of people will have traveled to be here and will be catching multiple nights. People follow us around and like to catch as many shows as they can."
It has to be strange always playing in front of such dedicated and regular fans. The band responds to the demands of this roaming piece of Canada, by making an effort to vary the performances of their songs. That's great, in principle. It's exciting for both the audience and band members to have these songs being reworked in a live setting, evolving from concert to concert. As Robbie noted, "I think the songs should continue to grow and change. The songs that get fixed and frozen in time tend to fall by the wayside. They pop up from time to time, but the songs that are a bit more fluid tend to stay longer." But songs can evolve for better or for worse, and some of the variations at this show were less than satisfying. Here, the main problem was Gordon Downie's singing. Particularly with older songs, he often sounded like a Vegas lounge lizard, with ironic pauses and long delays on the final words of verses. This was no problem for the transplanted Canadians singing along in the crowd, but it was less satisfying for those focusing on the band's performance of their material. And for those less familiar with the Tragically Hip, as were some of my friends, the concert at times had the feel of an inside joke that they were not being let in on.
That said, the concert still had many good moments. The Hip's first of four Chicago shows was energetic and solidly performed. Newcomers to the band might be better off sticking to the albums, but fans can treat their concerts as an opportunity to visit Canada without ever leaving home.