Hip at Shaw Park: Plenty of hits, no errors 17
By Darryl Sterdan
Gordon Downie knows a concert when he sees one.
“There’s a girl on some shoulders,” the Tragically Hip frontman declared a few songs into the band’s gig at Shaw Park on Thursday night. “We got a rock show.”
Indeed we did. A Can-Rock show, to be exact. And a fine one to boot, as the always-dependable Hip delivered two hours of hits and highlights for a surprisingly sizable and predictably hard-partying crowd at the musically underused downtown sports venue (which provides a cozier, more comfortable concert experience than the massive stadium).
But back to Downie. Looking downright country gentlemanly (and vaguely Amish) in a dark vest, longsleeve shirt, glasses and straw hat, he was his usual enigmatic and oddly possessed self, shifting between shaman, madman, magician, musician, mischief-maker and marionette, his voice shapeshifting from a growling baritone to a wobbly croon to an unhinged yowl — often in the same song. As always, his bandmates — guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, backed by bassist Gord Sinclair and birthday boy Johnny Fay — were the rock to his roll, laying down a solid base for his stream-of-consciousness antics and freewheeling flights of poetic fancy. (He is the only performer I’ve seen who can use the process of changing a battery pack as the basis for a poetic monologue.)
Which is to say: It was a fairly standard Tragically Hip show. But if you’ve seen them before — and if you haven’t, let me be the first to welcome you here from whatever distant and exotic land you recently left — you already know a standard Tragically Hip concert is generally a good thing.
This one surely was, right from the start. It was also a very loud thing. They took to the canopied stage positioned just beyond the infield with no introduction or fanfare. But they made their presence known immediately, filling the space with the big chords of the U2ish Lonely End of the Rink. It was followed by the sauntering swagger of Grace, Too, complete with some serious ear-crushing screams from Downie (“I gotta work on my Howlin’ Wolf; my Muddy Waters too,” he babbled) and the decidedly unromantic Love is a First, whose 4/4 snare beat and baritone vocals were offset by the sight of a happy-face beach ball bouncing through the crowd. I believe that is known as irony.
There might also have been a little of that in Downie’s next query: “Shaw Park; is that for Jimmy Shaw?” he wondered, presumably referring to Metric’s guitarist. “They never name anything after musicians, do they? Except for the Burton Cummings Theatre. That’s why you’re ahead of your time, Winnipeg. You’ve always been ahead of your time.”
The key word in that odd little ramble was apparently ‘ahead’ — as in Streets Ahead, the song that followed. It was one of a few new numbers that were peppered throughout the 21-song set, along with the slow jangler Drip Drip and the midtempo rocker Transformation, which was distinguished by a sharply clanging bassline.
The newbies fit in seamlessly with the rest of the set, which flowed smoothly between dreamy acoustic slowburners (It’s a Good Life, Gift Shop, Ahead by a Century) and funkier, harder-edged crowdpleasers (Poets, At the Hundredth Meridian and Fully Completely, during which the vertical lighting trusses popped like fireworks). An emotional highlight of the night came when Downie opened the poignant Fiddler’s Green by eulogizing recently slain York Region Const. Garrett Styles, saying, “He was a big Hip fan. He was a family man. And as Clint Eastwood will tell you, that’s about the best a man can ever hope to be.” Another, more lighthearted moment came when he got the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to Fay.
Of course, the real audience-participation portion of the evening began a few songs later, when they played the opening notes to their golden oldie New Orleans is Sinking. The crowd went nuts, the beer flowed even faster (and that’s saying something at a Hip gig) and the fans on the field around me began to dance (or at least I assume that’s what all that clumsy lurching and leaping was about; no one is eve going to accuse Hip fans of being especially, well, hip). The momentum of New Orleans (which segued into Nautical Disaster) carried them through the rest of the set, which ended with a three-song encore of Blow at High Dough, the Milgaard-inspired Wheat Kings and the closer Music at Work.
Worked for me, anyway. I’m not the biggest Hip fan around — in fact, like a lot of local music lovers, I had to choose between this show and the second night of Folk Fest. With no disrespect to Tegan and Sara and the rest of Thursday’s Birds Hill lineup, the Hip at the ball park seemed like (and near as I can tell, turned out to be) the more novel and rewarding offering.
Hey, sometimes I know a concert when I see one too.
The Lonely End of the Rink
Love is a First
It’s a Good Life (If You Don't Weaken)
Ahead By a Century
At the Hundredth Meridian
Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)
New Orleans is Sinking / Nautical Disaster
Blow at High Dough
My Music at Work