They came, they saw, they concurred: The Tragically Hip put on one heck of a show.
Despite playing to only a half-house in the Keystone Centre’s Westman Place on Monday night, one of Canada’s premiere rock groups of the last three decades delivered a full-on performance, no holds barred. Intense, invigorating and inspiring, The Hip thrilled their fans with total commitment to the task at hand — taking those in attendance on a trip down a musical memory lane that, for many, was the soundtrack to their lives.
It didn’t matter that there were a lot of empty seats. It didn’t matter that they were in a small Prairie city on a chilly winter’s night. The Hip was invested. They dedicated themselves to enjoying the experience fully and making sure their fans did the same.
Arkells, a Hamilton-based alt-rock quintet, opened the show, playing an energetic set of socially relevant yet quirky original tunes. With such cheeky song titles and lyrics as "Oh, the Boss is Coming" (better look busy) and "Whistleblower," Arkells quickly won over the crowd, thanks in large part to their charismatic lead singer, Max Kerman.
Kerman endeared himself to concertgoers when he referenced a pickup game of basketball he’d taken part in at the Brandon YMCA, where he apparently got his butt kicked by "a bunch of older men."
Arkells’ biggest cheer of the night came when they paid homage to Neil Young’s "Ohio" by playing a lengthy segment of that song as a prelude to "No Champagne Socialist."
But while Arkells did a good job of warming up the crowd, and may have garnered themselves a new following thanks to their spirited performance, when The Hip hit the stage, the crowd went wild.
Those on the floor and in the near-to-the-stage sections screamed and leapt to their feet as The Hip hit the stage.
Unapologetically and unabashedly, idiosyncratic frontman Gord Downie attacked the vocals for "At Transformation," the first single from the band’s latest album, "Now For Plan A," then swung into "Love Is A First."
One of the band’s most recognizable tunes, "New Orleans Is Sinking," was next, and drew even more whoops and shrieks from the audience, as did the rest of the pounding 100-minute set.
Ever enigmatic, Downie preened and pranced, strutted and slithered his way around the stage.
His showmanship and delight in performing were obvious from start to finish, as his trademark vocals, not always on pitch and frequently arythmic, soared to great heights and caressed the depths when the melodies, such as they were, required it.
Although he seemed to yell as much as he sang, the crowd ate it up. It was evident that, while The Hip is all about the music, it’s even more about performance, and attendees were treated to a "show" in all senses of the word.
Mixing new tunes with established ones — there were many more of the latter, which is impressive since the group has a new recording to promote — proved a heady combination, with the opening chords of each hit stoking the crowd’s enthusiasm anew.
A half-dozen less-well-known songs were interspersed with Hip standards such as "Bobcaygeon," "Boots or Hearts," "Poets," "Gift Shop," "Ahead By A Century," "Courage," "Wheat Kings," "Locked in the Trunk of a Car," and "Grace, Too."
And as if that wasn’t enough, The Hip bounded back onstage for an extended encore of four songs: "Fiddler’s Green," "My Music At Work," "At The Hundredth Meridian" and "Blow At High Dough." While The Hip’s direction has changed over the years and is now less bluesy rock and more meandering experimental, the Brandon crowd was spared Downie’s famous rambling rants, as music — and published lyrics — won out over digression.
Despite that, not everyone was enthralled.
"I’m not really a Hip fan," said one woman who accompanied her husband to the show. "I don’t buy into the whole Gord Downie mystique. I don’t understand why you would go to a show to listen to somebody sing off-time. I’d rather spend my $70 on a good bottle of wine and sing off-time myself at home."
"I’m not as excited about the Hip as I would have been 10 or 15 years ago," another man said. "Partially, I think I’m just older and so music plays less of a role in my life now than it did, and partially because I think the Hip and I have evolved in different directions over the past decade."
Regardless, those people were both at the concert, along with another 3,000 or so, most of who were true devotees of the band. Corey Morrish, a former DJ for Star FM who now works in Yellowknife, flew back to Manitoba on Saturday specifically to see The Hip play in Brandon.
"It was almost the same price as going to Edmonton," Morrish said, who spent Sunday visiting family and was flying back to Yellowknife yesterday. "The Hip’s music is relevant to Canadians. They’re just a good rock band. The songs are really catchy and they’re easy to sing along with."
Nostalgia, along with admiration for Downie’s novel approach and his unpredictability, were just some of the reasons another man attended the concert.
"Gord is a riot to watch and listen to," he said. "I find his voice rich and distinctive, although it isn’t always perfect. He did yell a bit, but the energy he puts into the show is incredible and he gave 100 per cent the whole time.
"I would gladly pay for a chance to hear Gord recite some of Shakespeare’s work, even if he acted a bit odd at times and yelled parts of it."
» Diane Nelson is a professional singer and vocal coach who was the Sun’s arts reporter and reviewer for 15 years. She now teaches journalism at ACC.