On July 3rd, 2008 one of Canada’s biggest music festivals kicked off their season in fine fashion by booking one of Canada’s biggest bands. Rush playing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival? you may be thinking. Or perhaps Nickelback at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal? Both good guesses but no, I’m referring to The Tragically Hip at the Ottawa Bluesfest and with apologies to Rush, there’s no place I would have rather been.
(Okay, the festival actually kicked off with TV on the Radio, but my work-related belated arrival left me hearing just their last two songs, and even those were from the very social and chatty beer line. And frankly, with regards to the headlining slot the festival had booked some pretty solid entertainment for each of the other stages too, but my love for The Hip made it easy to miss what would have been my first time seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama or Taj Mahal, and what would have been my only time seeing Cassandra Wilson. It was no contest, really.)
Though at the time The Tragically Hip had been in a slump that (in my opinion) enveloped the triumvirate of their career (ie writing insanely good, relevant rock music, recording iconic albums that just begged to be played start-to-finish, and performing unforgettable and unmatchable live shows that were the among the best concerts that many people had ever seen), this concert would prove that the band was back on all fronts.
Their recently released album World Container had already taken care of the first two areas of concern. Hiring Bob Rock for the first time, the legendary Canadian producer clearly kicked their butts all over the studio and squeezed an utterly fantastic album out of the band, one that was stacked with truly great rock songs grounded in blanket Canadiana like hockey and oceans, antlers and elk, and even namedrops to Mistaken Point, Newfoundland and Moonbeam, Ontario.
And man, the concert was awesome! The sound was probably the best I had ever heard at a Hip show. Generally it’s Gord Downie’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings that brings the jam (ie: the excitement and unpredictability) to The Hip, but I usually have to struggle to hear him. At this show he came through loud and clear but he uncharacteristically handed off much of the jam to Bobby Baker, who uncharacteristically (I’m a huge fan, but let’s be honest here) stepped up and laid down the best guitar playing I had ever heard from him. Downie was happy to satisfy himself with theatrical antics that got the most of a couple of microphone stands and thoroughly captured the attention of the approximately 35,000 fans squeezed in next to me. Baker even pulled out a Dobro for Wheat Kings and played it lap-style while we all soaked in the quintessential Canadian moment in the shadow of the Peace Tower with the moon rising behind. It was breathtakingly lovely.
The band only played a smattering of material from World Container but that was just fine. They dug deep into their iconic discography and had the entire crowd singing along to every word, which was also just fine because the sound was so crisp that the crowd participation created merely a hushed backing reverb to Downie’s stellar singing.
And then for the encore The Tragically Hip blew my mind by inviting the unspoken man of the hour to join them onstage. Yes friends, Bob Rock (remember The Payola$? How about Rock and Hyde?) strutted onstage with his guitar and led (and I mean led) the band through the opening track from World Container Yer Not the Ocean and a show-closing cover of David Bowie’s Queen Bitch, in which Bob simply rocked the guitar solo, dropping every jaw in the room. Hearing the ferocity and honesty in his guitar playing I could see how the guy who produced Metallica, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe and so many others might have reminded The Hip of a thing or two once he got them in the studio.
Bottom line (I promise) is: As of this show The Tragically Hip were back, and as a guy who stayed with them up to (and including) the very bitter end I can assure you they remained on top of their game for the rest of their career.