November 29th, 1996 was night two of The Tragically Hip’s two-night run in Ottawa (okay, just outside of Ottawa). This was the era when the Hip were selling out two- and three-night runs at some of the country’s biggest and most famous venues in mere seconds. They were touring Trouble at the Henhouse, their hit-laden album that had followed up what was arguably their greatest release, Day For Night, so the material was strong, the band was on fire, and the crowds were simply delirious with ecstatic rock & roll joy.
I had taken a chance and only purchased tickets to the first concert, hoping against hope that my friend Huss would come through with tickets for the second night, and he did. Huss was old friends with The Hip’s road manager at the time, and not only did the tickets come free, they were pretty good seats too.
The Rheostatics opened both concerts. I had hoped to arrive in time for their whole set at this show but alas, the crew I was travelling with got slowed down in the common vortex of procrastination and we plunked ourselves down in our section off to stage right shortly before the Rheos stepped off the stage. Ah well.
When the house lights came up during the gear changeover Huss said he was pretty sure he could get us backstage if he could only spot his buddy. With nothing else to do I asked what his friend looked like and joined Huss in scanning the vast arena. “Is that him?” I asked, pointing to a guy on the floor standing about two hundred feet away.
“Yeah, it is!” Huss exclaimed, surprised as I was that I had somehow managed to find the right guy that was “you know, about average height, with brown hair.” It didn’t matter either way though, for Huss’s bluff was called. “He looks pretty busy,” Huss said when I suggested he get down there and try to drum up those backstage passes. “I don’t think I should bother him.”
Which was fine, I was thankful enough just to be sitting in a free seat. Or more accurately, standing in front of a free seat.
What a show it was. Back then it was easy to take The Hip for granted. Every song was going to be a monster, every venue was packed tight, and everyone in the crowd was going to be standing up and singing along with every word. Gift Shop, Twist My Arm, Grace, Too, Springtime in Vienna, Three Pistols, Ahead by a Century…and that was literally just the first six songs of the show! And here are the last six songs from this show: The Wherewithal, Wheat Kings, Escape Is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man, New Orleans Is Sinking, Locked in the Trunk of a Car, and Fire in the Hole.
The band had so much great material to draw on, and more importantly, they only had great material to draw upon. At that time they had yet to put out a full-length album that was anything less than epic.
Want proof? Here’s a mere sampling of the songs that were sandwiched in between those dozen songs: At the Hundredth Meridian, Fully Completely, The Luxury, Nautical Disaster, and Blow at High Dough.
Also of note was the fact that the band only repeated about half of the songs from night one, and those were not only presented in a completely different order, but they all featured utterly different improvised utterances from The Hip’s main jammer Gord Downie, and of course they all contained altered musical jams at the behest of the other four guys on stage (Bobby Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay, and Paul Langlois of course).
Sure, it wain’t no Phish/Grateful Dead-style no-repeat weekend, but for a standard-ish rock outfit that wasn’t too shabby at all.
And man, were they good concerts. Though I do wish I had caught more of the Rheo’s. I would have been richer had I seen their sets both nights.