Somewhere between the burgeoning arena rock of 1991’s Road Apples and 1992’s Fully Completely and the emerging eccentricities of 1998’s Phantom Power, Gord Downie — and, by extension, the rest of his band The Tragically Hip — cemented their status as Canada’s most beloved weird uncles.
Like the uncle who slips you mixtapes of his favourite bands, The Hip have introduced the greater populace to all sorts of unplucked musical gems and artistic outliers through festivals like the band’s signature Another Roadside Attraction series and opening slots on cross country tours.
They’ve suggested that we check out semi-obscure works by Canadian literary giants, like Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends The Night, from which the song “Courage” has the final verse ripped wholesale. And, in return, we’ve fondly listened to their wacky stories about killer whales and catharsis, and sung along to their ballads about tragic painters and hockey players.
As such, seeing The Tragically Hip play on Canada Day at Burl’s Creek in Oro, Ontario was like spending the holiday with extended pop culture family. Although the band’s current outdoor concert forays lack the sweeping scope of Another Roadside Attraction’s ’90s heyday, both in size and artistic out-there-ness, they’re still an impressive mix of good old Canadian rock, American tokenism and hey-check-this-shit-out discoveries, and this edition was no exception.
This year’s up-and-comers were the Rural Alberta Advantage, whose giddy cover of “Canada Geese,” a song from Downie’s solo album Coke Machine Glow — complete with an appearance from Downie himself — provided one of the highlights of the day. And if the shirtless, tribal-tattooed youngster proudly clinging to his autographed RAA LP was any indication, the Hip have once again succeeded in bringing a promising, semi-underground indigenous act to the masses.
This year’s potential successors to the Can-Rock throne, The New Pornographers, were entertaining, but somewhat upstaged by what seemed like singer (and honorary Canadian) Neko Case’s slow decent into heatstroke-induced stage banter, which included dry jokes about the band’s punk rockness, and their war against the sun (“Fuck you, sun! We’re playing right in your face!”). 2012’s token Americans Death Cab for Cutie sounded like an unfortunate mix of Treble Charger’s less dynamic moments and Jimmy Fallon parodying indie rock, but some of the kids liked it, and the band provided a nice dinner and/or campsite break for the rest of the audience who had been on-site all weekend.
Satisfactorily sated, rested and smoked up, the crowd returned en masse for The Hip. Downie took to the stage with a message about music’s ability to unite people, and his fans’ behavior during the band’s two hour, career-spanning set certainly did a lot of to support his hypothesis.
The biggest temporary beer tattoo-sporting (and permanently beer-gutted) drunken hoser united with the most bookish and bespectacled hipster as they negotiated the polysyllabic and thematic gymnastics involved in singing along to “Poets” and “At the Hundredth Meridian.” Rockers and activists alike hoisted their lighters (one of the charms of small town concerts is that people still generally eschew the cell phone for the more traditional source of ballad-accompanying light) for the David Milgaard-inspired “Wheat Kings.” And everyone chuckled when Uncle Gord embarked on twisted monologues about his complicated relationship with his microphone stand (he seems to hate the stand, but sometimes feels like the mic itself is the only one listening to him) and warned “Wheat Kings ” guest singer Sarah Harmer about wearing an old hat of his (“I can’t let you do that! I got conjunctivitis from that hat at Ontario Place in 1983. It’s an eye thing.”).
Objectively, it wasn’t the Tragically Hip’s greatest or most accomplished set ever. While drummer Johnny Fay, bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois remain as solid as ever, Downie’s increasingly shouty vocals and erratic stage presence and the band’s musical divergences sometimes cross the line from interesting into ill-advised. But, at this point in their storied and varied career, The Hip have certainly earned the occasional divergence and they’ve moved far beyond the need for objectivity. The band have become part of the country’s creative mythology and seeing them perform has become an experience that transcends the occasional blown note or hint of boredom (we suspect that Downie is taking the piss when he sings “Blow at High Dough” these days).
Like any good family reunion, a big Tragically Hip festival is a reminder of all that our people are and can accomplish, from the embarrassing to the bizarre to the truly great and heartwarming. And as long as we have our favorite weird uncles in the Hip around to remind us, Canadians can stop and take a little pride in the strange balance of hoserism and intellectualism inherent in our national consciousness that could make a band like T he Tragically Hip big enough to stage this kind of festival to begin with.
This story originally ran July 2, 2012 on Spinner.com.