Early on in the Tragically Hip gathering, Saturday night in Cranbrook, front man Gord Downie posed the ultimate referendum question — “Wouldn’t you … ?” (only in Canada can a man on stage say “let’s have a referendum,” and the crowd goes wild.) The answer was a resounding yes from a sold-out, rather tumultuous Western Financial Place crowd. The stage was thus set for an evening of metaphor presented at full throttle.
Rock music is pagan art at its high point of evolution — transporting, humanistic, subversive, interactive and impossible to ignore. Of all art forms, it is the cauldron where poetry, theatre and the expression of our human hungers best combine. And it is meant to be performed live, to carry audiences along with it like a shock wave.
And it could be argued that a dual guitar attack, a rhythm section that keeps our limbic systems in turmoil, and a front man in full poetic frenzy is the ultimate expression of the genre.
The Tragically Hip launched their “Now For Plan A” Canadian tour at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook, Saturday, Jan. 19 — in support of the album of the same name.
If tour openers are a chance for a band to work out the bugs, to warm up for the gruelling trek ahead, the Hip were having none of it. There is no Plan B.
They kicked off their tour at full tilt, their reputation as a legendary live act uncontestable, the energy spontaneous.
Their setlist encapsulated a 25-year body of work into a two-hour showpiece of rock theatre, spontaneous and compelling, that brought the audience along on a strange mystical journey. “Quickly,” they say, “follow the unknown with something familiar.”
Downie is a performer designed for the big venue, for arena work. He can establish an intimate connnection with an audience of thousands without sacrificing nuance or subtlety in front of the sonic wall roaring off the stage. On Saturday, his rock theatre expression carried the audience along several subplots and through-lines, the most intriguing of which was his relationship with his microphone, an inanimate object which he brought to life — à la Fred Astaire’s hat rack — so that it became a character all of its own, with a personality to intrigue us and a message for us to decipher.
He used one other prop — a hankerchief — to create his stage persona, a comic/tragic character like Charlie Chaplin combined with a roaring Celtic bard, so that recesses of our psyche can be lit up on a vaudeville stage.
Despite this larger-than-life stage persona, Downie is sincere. He wants us there with him — the way he moves is the way he feels in his heart, he assured us. As is his wont, he riffed, rapped and free-associated on a variety of themes, quirky compliments to the poetry of the song lyrics.
He addressed the audience as “music lovers” when he addressed it — a sign of respect, when you think about it.
It was a riveting display — it was hard to take your eyes off him, but when he gave you the chance to, you were again aware that behind this kinetic force at the front of the stage were Paul Langlois and Rob Baker on guitars, Gord Sinclair on bass and Johnny Fay on drums: Canada’s greatest rock band.
The Tragically Hip’s music is cerebral, with great depths of meaning and musicianship. But like all pagan art seeks to accomplish, the audience left after this rock journey having been affected at a physical, primeval level.
Opening up the show was a band originally from Hamilton, Ontario, who deserve a much higher profile in the music world and are likely to get it.
A five-piece band whose own front man Max Kerman is carrying on the spirit of Joe Strummer, the Arkells play hard-driving pop music with a punk sensibility and great musicianship. Immensely entertaining in their own right, they did what an opening band is supposed to do — set a good level of electricity and maximum energy, so that when their set is done you know that if they were that good, the main event is going to blow the roof off the place.
Cranbrook rarely gets a show with this level of intensity.
• At Transformation
• Grace, Too
• Love is a First
• New Orleans is Sinking
• Escape is at Hand for the Travelling Man
• Man Machine Poem
• Twist My Arm
• Gift Shop
• Streets Ahead
• Ahead by a Century
• The Lookahead
• Springtime in Vienna
• In View
• We Want To Be It
• Blow At high Dough
• Fire in the Hole
• At the 100th Meridian
• Nautical Disaster
• Little Bones