On Monday September 9th, one of Canada’s national treasures, The Tragically Hip opened the first of three shows over 4 nights at the Orpheum Theatre. This year (2013) marks the 30th anniversary for the band, and in many ways, this tour was as much a chance for both the band and fans to reflect on their prestigious and celebrated past as much as a tour for their most recent certified Gold release: Now for Plan A.

To start the show, Gord Downie (the front man and lead singer) arrived on stage in a slightly nicer suit from the one used back in 2012 when he showcased his bumbling, apologetic, travelling salesman persona to the crowds at Live at Squamish. Many of the same mannerisms were borrowed, the wiping of the brow, wiping of his shoes, the exaggerated motions. It is a character which lends itself nicely to the stage and serves the band well to start.

At Transformation, the first single from the album Now for Plan A

Although the songs from Now For Plan A figured prominently into the selections performed by the band this evening, with five songs being showcased, the show was approximately two hours long, and left plenty of room for a number of their hits, and fan favourites.

In a deal made with a dedicated fan named Frank, a set list was furnished to me in appreciation for taking his photo with the band. Here are the songs which were performed this past Monday:

At Transformation (new)
Grace Too
Escape is at Hand
Love is a First
Man Machine Poem (new)
Gift Shop
The Look Ahead (new)
Ahead by a Century
Streets Ahead (new)
We Wanna Be It (new)
In View
Fully Completely
New Orleans is Sinking
Blow at High Dough


At the Hundredth Meridian
Locked in the Trunk of a Car

While photographing the start of most shows, the focus tends to be toward the stage and what is visual. I remember the songs as they were performed, starting with the exceptional melody of At Transformation, moving to one of their most beloved songs, Grace Too, and then continuing with Escape Is At Hand, an emotional 1996 song written by Gord Downie in response to his personal feelings over the suicide of friend and colleague, Jim Ellison.

The Orpheum is an interesting choice for any rock band: with seats lined almost up to the stage (a six foot break) there isn’t much space for the crowd to go wild, and this perhaps led to a more subdued performance by the band, but The Tragically Hip have always had a tremendous presence on the stage, and this evening was no exception. Gord Downie toyed with the mic throughout the latter half of the show, occasionally showing the crowd his Rockette moves, and joined in on guitar to add some extra “oomph” to the links traded by guitarists Paul Langois and Rob Baker.

It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, from the album In Violet Light

Put another way, when the weakest song in the live set is the sublime, Poets, then you know the selections were wisely made. Of course there were missed songs, the rocking Fifty Mission Cap and the lushly beautiful It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, both come to mind, but then there are limits to how much any band can to accommodate it’s back catalog.

In fact, the only detriment to the evening was the overall sound. The hot hot, over-driven audio, served moments of most every song well, and lent a “garage rock” sound to the whole experience- especially with the arrangements, but it also nearly destroyed key moments. The only musician who seemed properly miked through was bassist Gord Sinclair, who deftly anchors so many of the band’s greatest tunes. It is fair to note that this was the first of three nights and, no doubt, the audio was still being tweaked.

In the hands of a less experienced band, poor audio may have festered into a disaster, but the Hip are a veteran group, with a library of great songs, and they performed as though it weren’t an issue, and made the evening a success in ways that few artists can… with will and determination.

Noteworthy moments for the evening include:

– Gord Downie taking Fully Completely by the throat, punching his voice into every corner of the Orpheum Theatre.
– the lights dropping and the spotlight falling onto Paul Langlois for the start of New Orleans is Sinking, and the full out RAWK as Gord Downie put the emphasis on the word “SWIM!” in the lyrics.
– the fantastic mallet work by Johnny Fay throughout the song, Scared. Johnny Fay had an amazing evening behind the kit, but his beautiful mallet work stripped almost bare of every other musician, was a special moment.
– Every lick from Rob Baker’s guitar.
– The brief diversionary jam during the performance of At the Hundredth Meridian and it’s sequence into Courage with the sing along with the crowd.
– Locked in the Trunk of a Car. This is a great song on the LP, but it feels that it was written for the live show.

There is a reason why The Tragically Hip have earned 14 Juno awards, have a shelf full of other prestigious awards and trophies, and even a postage stamp bearing their image. The band never seems to tire of proving their mettle, to never rest on all those laurels. Thirty years on, you can see the grey hairs and lines of wisdom on their faces. More than anything, you can hear the experience of the band, and it was their experience that made this evening exceptional.

Photographs and words © Gerry Toews / anditrocks.com
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