Gord Downie has never been shy about stage banter. Whether it’s exchanging dialogue with fans, reciting poetic thoughts that rattle between his ears or exhaling casual observations about the evening in front of him, the Tragically Hip troubadour likes to share.
So as the region’s apparent rain king faced yet another one of his precipitation-soaked Buffalo crowds on Thursday night, he simply tilted back his black fedora, looked through the falling drops over Canalside and tried to take his audience elsewhere.
“Picture yourself at a summertime party, on a rooftop somewhere.”
Such high and dry accommodations would have been nice, but Downie and fellow countrymen The Sadies delivered the summertime party part, rolling through a lean, hard-charging set of collaborations and covers to kick off the area’s extended Independence Day weekend.
The evening gave local fans an Ontario two-for-one, merging the legendary stage and vocal prowess of Kingston native Downie with kaleidoscopic instrumental talents of Toronto’s Sadies. For Downie, this latest collaboration joins past solo work with his Country of Miracles band as another way he spends down time during Hip hiatuses. After the Hip’s 12th full-length studio album – 2012’s “Now For Plan A” – you would think the man would like to give his cleanly shorn scalp a rest. No dice.
He had another plan, first considered when he and the frequent Hip openers – who have previously worked with such names as Neil Young, Neko Case and the Band’s Garth Hudson – joined for some Stooges covers on CBC Radio back in the late aughts. Years later, they finally joined for last spring’s “Gord Downie, The Sadies and The Conquering Sun,” a multitextured, guitar-driven album that opens with the same kind of boot-to-the-face grit that would make Iggy Pop proud.
That’s what came out of the studio. But what happens when you put one of rock’s most histrionic frontmen on stage with musicians as adept at playing bluegrass as blistering power chords – then throw in some intermittent downpour off the Great Lakes? As those who toughed out Thursday’s show will tell you, a soggy and enjoyable exhibition of electrical force, sprinkled with Downie’s Tragic touch.
After summoning the night’s clouds by simply approaching the mic, Downie joined Sadies’ guitar brothers Dallas and Travis Good to drive in aforementioned crushing album opener “Crater” under Mike Belitsky’s crashing cymbals. After this introduction, they seamlessly transitioned to the comparatively sedate “Conquering Sun” and “Los Angeles Times,” each off the new album.
On both songs – as well as with others like “Budget Shoes” and the “New Orleans Is Sinking”-esque “One Good Fast Job” – Downie and his current bandmates were able to show flashes of their full-time selves, the former with classic Hip vocal cadence and the latter with echoing alt country chord exchanges featured in spots of last year’s “Internal Sounds.”
But their hardest rockers and covers gave both a chance to bust free of their most recent molds. “It Didn’t Start To Break My Heart Until This Afternoon” was a runaway locomotive, with Downie’s vocals keeping the brothers Good, Belitsky and bassist Sean Dean on the tracks. On their encore pairing of Guided by Voices’ “I Am A Scientist” and Stooges’ finisher “I Got A Right,” the collaborative teamed for a stiff-lipped finishing salvo atypical of their expected selves while the meteorological powers of Downie summoned one more surprise: suddenly clear skies. Not a bad end to another Canadian-led communal experience at Canalside.
Before the night’s headliner, early arrivals were rewarded with another solid twofer in Boy and Bear and Hey Rosetta. With Bear, the Sydney, Australia quintet offered tracks from 2013’s “Harlequin Dream,” including college radio favorite “Southern Sun.” With Newfoundland, Canada’s Rosetta, the seven-piece evoked memories of Outer Harbor visitors Vampire Weekend with percussive beats on “Young Glass,” then called on comparisons to Arcade Fire with swirling, string-led anthemic explosions on “Yer Spring” and “Red Heart.”