Friday night in Six Flags Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.
Over the course of 120 minutes and 21 tunes, the Tragically Hip turned a Friday night at Darien Lake's Performing Arts Center into a sweaty rock 'n' roll club gig, a private party for some 10,000 close friends. It was the sort of evening that reminded us why we fell in love with rock 'n' roll in the first place.
In their 17 years together, the Hip -- vocalist/guitarist Gordon Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay -- have turned the concert stage into a forum for improvisational flights of fancy melded to hook-heavy, twin-guitar mini-epics.
In the studio, the Hip explores different sonic terrain, and always brings together a batch of organically linked tunes under an overarching theme, either explicit or implicit. In concert, the band roars mightily, but just as often pulls the audience inside its own ethereal space -- few bands currently performing can boast the Hip's command of dynamics, drama and the emotional arc and sweep of the concert experience.
All of this was brutally evident throughout Friday's show. Of the dozen or so Hip shows I've seen, this stood out as being the most compelling, in both a visceral and emotional manner. It was simply a killer set, from start to finish, bolstered by the extremely evident enjoyment being shared amongst the musicians on stage.
And, as ever with Hip shows, the audience played no small role in making the evening magical. They -- we -- were with the band every step of the way, standing before they took the stage and remaining on their feet until the house lights came up after the final encore, along the way singing along loudly with nearly every lyric, and making their love for the Hip tough to miss.
It was like an old-school rock concert, the sort that seems to be a dying breed these days -- an event where band and audience share a common goal, smiles abound, smoke clouds fill the air, and beers are hoisted high above heads, in praise of not just the band themselves, but of the whole zeitgeist, that spiritual bond and sense of community offered by the music that is beyond language and defies full description.
This was, in part, a party put on by the faithful to celebrate the release of the Hip's new album, the stunning, knotty and complex "In Between Evolution," and several tunes from that record peppered the band's set, including opener "Vaccination Scar." The new material was well-received, and offered no lull in the relentless progression of the set, so seamlessly was it woven into the evening's fabric.
Downie, as ever, carries a significant portion of the band's on-stage magic on his shoulders. We knew it was going to be a special night when, following "Vaccination Scar," Downie whipped his acoustic guitar from his shoulder, grabbed the mike stand, and led the band through an absolutely torrid "Grace, Too," singing his butt off, improvising complex stream-of-consciousness raps, and gesticulating like a lovable madman.
The twin guitars of Langlois and Baker, as they would throughout the evening, commingled to provide a sort of bowery orchestra, a roughshod-but-elegant interplay reminiscent of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, yes, but also stamped indelibly by their own idiosyncratic musical personalities. Baker finger-picked on his Music Man electrics, blending a country flavor into his blues-based stylings, while Langlois' Les Paul filled the space around his bandmate. It was dense, sonically alluring, awesome.
Fay and Sinclair are clearly one of the finest rhythm sections in rock. Thunderous when they needed to be, subtle and supportive when the tune called for it, the two seemed linked telepathically. Man, are these guys tight.
Even on paper, the set list is impressive.
Read this (You can almost hear the fire, passion, elegance -- er, and grace, too): "Vaccination Scar;" "Grace, Too;" "Summer Is Killing Us;" "Poets;" "It's A Good Life if You Don't Weaken;" "Goodnight Josephine;" "Courage;" "It Can't Be Nashville Every Night;" "Bobcaygeon;" "Nautical Disaster;" "Are We Family;" "Fireworks;" "At the Hundredth Meridian;" "Mean Streak;" "Springtime in Vienna;" "New Orleans Is Sinking;" "Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park;" "My Music at Work;" "Heaven Is a Better Place Today;" and encores of "Fire in the Hole" and the heart-wrenching "Ahead By a Century."
We came. We were transported, taken somewhere heady, and then safely returned. And we headed for home. . . .