The The Tragically Hip – Manchester Academy 3, 2nd December 2009

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You’ve got to love the Canadians. They say, “aboot” instead of “about”, love ice hockey, have names like “Gord” and drink Molson’s beer, so that we don’t have to, but – as I found out from doing my masters degree at UBC in 1991 – they get a bum deal from their cousins south of the border. In the music industry that translates into a lack of international recognition. Delighted I was, then, that Canadian rock veterans, The Tragically Hip, got squeezed into the tiny Academy 3 last night and bought the house down. Every ex-pat in the North must have been there, knowing that they would have to have had lined up for days just to get the chance of a ticket to see these guys back home.

I’d first seen the Hip play Vancouver as part of my studies in the early 1990s, a decade after they had formed (check my article on the cultural politics of sponsorship at their Canada Day performance here). Lead singer Gordon Downie echoed that episode when he explained yesterday that beer and nationalism don’t mix. What was really amazing about his performance last night, though, was how well he was holding up.

In his younger years, Downie, a film studies graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston (home of Canada’s finest scholars), came on like a tranced-out hippie, spiritually lost in his own music. Perhaps he was channeling something. Now in his mid-forties, he affects a neater appearance, the hair gone but the look no less demented. He kept was mugging, aping around like a gorilla and playing with an endless supply of hankies thrown at him by his roadies. His glowing eyes belied a strange combination of distance and intensity, like Kevin Spacey meets Michael Stipe doing a mime act, all the while backed by the Eagles gone a bit punk! Yes, the mad genius of Gordon Downie has not gone; it has just changed. His band have matured and mellowed to include material like the magnificent, rapturous country-folk of ‘Fiddlers Green’ alongside classic rockers like the snakey, bluesy ‘New Orleans is Sinking’ and the tense ‘Cordelia’… Like so many good bands, the Hip seem able to soak up rock influences from across the board. What they give back is uniquely their and subtly Canadian.

Ever the outsider, from a nation of outsiders, Downie summed up global culture by saying, “We didn’t invent the gift shop, but we live next to the people that did.” By the end of the first half, his shirt was saturated with sweat and I realized what a rare treat it was to catch the Hip so intimate and so unbound. Unfortunately my injudicious combination of cider and fast food left me feeling just rough enough to forego the end of the set. Now I feel a little cheated that I didn’t catched their grand finale… I guess there is always Youtube.