We didn’t get the first draft pick. But we got the Hip. So quit cryin’ in your beer.
Speaking of teams, the Tragically Hip have always been a great one, a five-man unit capable of finding the common ground, listening, letting less be more, and turning on the heat when doing so is absolutely necessary.
On Saturday, inside First Niagara Center, the band did exactly that. The place was packed, the excitement level was high, many in attendance appeared to have been treating this as a tailgate-worthy event, and the Hip played the entire “Fully Completely” – the record many label as the group’s finest, though in reality, there are many contenders for that title.
Buffalo music lovers have had the opportunity to see the Tragically Hip on every tour the band has ever done over the past 25-plus years. We’ve been treated to intimate shows – a pair at the Town Ballroom on the “World Container” tour provided the high point of the “in your face” Hip gigs in town, in my opinion – and we’ve had Darien Lake PAC shows, which felt big and slightly removed, but were still pretty great. What made Saturday’s First Niagara Center show different? It was the fire, the glint in singer Gord Downie’s eyes evident from the moment he took to the stage, and the unerring tightness of the band throughout the gig.
The Hip has been celebrating the 23rd anniversary of “Fully Completely,” playing the album in full each night with a varying group of songs on either side of it, and the repetitive set lists seem to have provided a lockstep power to the proceedings. We’ve seen dozens of Hip gigs in Buffalo, but this one was the most agile, the most consistently driving, and during its highest peaks, the most transcendent of the bunch.
Opening with “Grace, Too” is always a great idea, for it is perhaps the one Hip song you might play for a friend unfamiliar with the group, who is wondering what it’s all about. It built slowly on Saturday, as it always does, and then it grew ominous, and finally exploded into an unsettling refrain, with Downie gesticulating wildly and turning a gorgeous modal vamp into a piece of high-performance art. This song gives us everything the band does so well in capsule form. Saturday’s version was dramatic, grandiose, and epic in scope. What a way to get things going.
The rest of the pre-“Fully Completely” set was immaculately presented, jumping from old to new with ease and grace, as “At Transformation” gave way to “So Hard Done By,” the pastoral acoustic beauty “Ahead By a Century,” and one of the band’s first attention grabbers of its career, the swampy garage-rocker “New Orleans Is Sinking.”
Then came “Fully Completely” in full and complete presentation, kicking off with a torrid “Courage,” as scrims emblazoned with the album’s artwork flitted about above the band, and fists were raised in sing-along unison, followed by the sturdy and Stones-y “Looking For a Place to Happen” and the Buffalo-name-dropping alt-blues burner, “At the Hundredth Meridian”.
Downie’s performance art, punctuated by a high falsetto scream that is a new addition to his arsenal – and awesome, it must be said – provided the focal point throughout Saturday’s gig, but the interplay between guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois was also a treat. The two have always traded in a sort of Keith Richard-Ron Wood style of call and response, but after a quarter-century together, their intuitive interplay has become something both earthy and sublime – well earned, and honed over time. The same can be said for the rhythm section of bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay, who doubled down on the “Fully Completely” material in a manner that made it aggressive and arena worthy.
This was an epic Hip show, by any standards.