A Tragically Hip Fourth of July at CMAC

The Tragically Hip is no stranger to New York, although many New York residents may offer a puzzled look when told the band is in town. The Hip is a band who has drawn stadium sized crowds across its Canadian homeland for a couple of decades, yet Stateside fame has been elusive.

tragically hipagically Formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1983, Canada’s ambassadors have continually drawn large crowds to major venues on either side of the border ever since.  Tonight was just slightly different than in years past. Knowing that Fully Completely would be played in its entirety may have removed some of the element of surprise and the crowd wasn’t the sellout, push-to-the-front type from the 90s, but the music itself was as fresh sounding today as it was 23 years ago.

Fresh off a Canada Day show in Toronto and another in Windsor, The Hip, as they are affectionately known by the faithful, ventured across the border to grace American (and traveling Canadian) fans with the gift of their music on our Independence Day at the beautiful Constellation Brands Melvin Sands Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, New York.

This tour is a celebration of their breakthrough album Fully Completely, released in 1992. The Hip is playing this album in its entirety at each show of this tour and this reviewer couldn’t have been happier with this revelation as this album contains a couple of holy grail songs I have yet to see performed live. Some follow Phish; back in the mid to late 90s, I followed The Hip. This is a band that begs to be seen live to fully appreciate its musicianship and the showman who is lead singer Gord Downie.

tragically hip gord downie
Gord Downie assessing the situation in Canandaigua.

While Downie is the obvious focal point of the band’s performances, the rest of the musicians are what makes The Hip ‘The Hip.’ Gordon Sinclair and Johnny Fay are two of rock’s more formidable artists at keeping the beat and guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker play well off each other with the balance of the solos tipping Baker’s way.

‘Grace, Too’ kicked off the evening as it often does. Following Gordon Sinclair’s lilting bass intro, the opening line states, ‘He said I’m fabulously rich, c’mon just let’s go,’ which Downie has changed to ‘He said I’m Tragically Hip, c’mon just let’s go,’ hereby welcoming you to the experience you are about to encounter.

The evening was heavy on the classics, with only two more recent tunes, 2006’s ‘In View’ and 2012’s ‘At Transformation’ making the setlist. ‘At Transformation’ evokes the ominous riffs of mid-aughts era Hip such as 2007’s ‘Vaccination Scar’ and fit well within tonight’s setlist.

The pre-Fully portion of the show closed with the standard ‘New Orleans is Sinking.’ In the past, the Hip used the mid-section of this song as a vehicle for working new songs into the set or Downie’s stream-of-consciousness poetry. The most famous version being the oft-bootlegged ‘Killer Whale Tank’ version:

Tonight’s version of NOIS was rather straight forward, which could indicate either that the Hip currently have nothing in the hopper to work into the song or that this one has been retired as such a vehicle. Either way, the song was rocking and a good prep for the main portion of the show.

Following a very brief intermission, dark curtains were lowered at the front of the stage, Downie switched from a bowler hat to a cowboy hat and it was time to become fully and completely immersed in Fully Completely.

The album was played in its entirety in its original playing order beginning with ‘Courage (for Hugh MacLennan).’ CMAC quickly turned into a group sing-along for the next forty minutes.

Tragically Hip Cancer Gord DownieDownie scatted his way through the ‘get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy’ section of ‘At the Hundredth Meridian’ with the aplomb of Cab Calloway, while the audience chimed in to provide the necessary emphasis of the refrain.

Views of Canadian landscapes and history appeared on the screens at the back of the stage to accompany the songs. It was here where I felt as if I were able to see my Toronto Maple Leafs finally win the Stanley Cup.

Growing up a Maple Leafs hockey fan, I’ve become accustomed to their failure to win a Stanley Cup in my lifetime. The song that really won me over as a fan of the Hip, ’50 Mission Cap,’ was one written about Bill Barilko, a former Toronto Maple Leaf who scored the Cup winning goal in 1951. The following summer he disappeared on a fishing trip in northern Ontario. As the song tells it, the Leafs didn’t win the Stanley Cup again until the year Barilko’s body was found in 1962. The video that accompanied the playing of ’50’ showed footage of Barilko’s winning goal as Downie sang, ‘The last goal he ever scored (in overtime), won the Leafs the Cup’ to the delighted roar of the fans. This site offers a nice tutorial behind the song.

As the band wound its way through the remainder of the album, Downie’s theatrics contrasted with his band mates’ stoicism. Whether using makeshift props to pretend he was a horse or shining his shoes, the theater of Downie is why you attend a Hip show. He is a poet as well as a showman.

The main set closed with a rare appearance of the Fully album closer ‘Eldorado.’ Prior to this tour, the song has only been performed live a handful of times.

After a brief break, the boys came out for the first of a five song encore,  their most recent single ‘At Transformation.’ The pavilion seating gradually filled as the night wore on and by the encore, it was packed with standing fans singing along with Downie and high-fiving their neighbors.

‘Poets’ followed, which has a special relevance to my wife and I. A song from the album Phantom Power released in 1998, this song had a prominent location on the set list for The Hip’s Thruway theater tour of New York to support the album. My wife and I attended the Albany, Syracuse and Rochester shows on consecutive nights during that tour, fighting to keep our seats in the first few rows as scores of eager fans rushed to the front to get closer to the band. It’s a memory that stays with both of us to this day and something that cemented our love for the band.

‘Nautical Disaster’ was a highlight of the night. As the title suggests, it tells the story of a ship wreck, the origins of which are left to the listener’s imagination. Is it about the Titanic? The sinking of the Bismarck? The setting is ‘off the coast of France.’ It’s a song that takes you on a journey of hopelessness and the desperation of man in the face of disaster. One thing about The Hip, you’ll often get a history lesson while listening; perhaps another reason for this history geek’s love of the band.

Downie spun his tale of nautical woe, using the microphone as a prop to pantomime pulling ‘overboard’ audience members back into the ‘ship.’ It was pure Downie, pure Hip.

The finale, ‘Blow at High Dough,’ a hard charging, blues-inspired rocker from the band’s second release ‘Up to Here,’ sent the adoring crowd into a frenzy. Baker’s slide guitar during the solo sent echoes of Duane Allman through the lakeside air in Canandaigua. A fan shot video from earlier in the tour gives a taste of what was experienced. Sinclair takes on a more prominent role with the bass in this version than what was played this night but a tasty nugget of Hip nonetheless.

For a tour that was designed as a nostalgia trip, it served its purpose well in that regard. However, its also obvious that this band still loves what they do and the songs don’t sound dated nor trite. Downie is still a performer at the top of his game and while I would have liked to have seen guitarist Langlois take a more prominent role in this set, this reviewer walked away impressed with yet another Hip show.

Canada’s treasure gave the Americans a show for the 4th and it was pretty Hip.

Setlist: Grace, Too, My Music at Work, In View, Ahead By a Century, New Orleans is Sinking, Courage (for Hugh MacLennan), Looking for a Place to Happen, At the Hundredth Meridian, Pigeon Camera, Lionized, Locked in the Trunk of a Car, We’ll Go Too, Fully Completely, 50 Mission Cap, Wheat Kings, The Wherewithal, Eldorado, E: At Transformation, Poets, Bobcaygeon, Nautical Disaster, Blow at High Dough.

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