The summer concert season in Buffalo over the past 30 years has often involved the beloved Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip. But in the years since frontman extraordinaire Gord Downie died in 2017, fans have felt a tinge of sadness, know that the Hip now exists solely in their memories.
As if they sensed that sadness, and shared in it equally, the surviving members of the Hip – bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay and guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – surprised their massive fan base by dropping an album, sans fanfare, on May 21. “Saskadelphia,” its title a hilarious meshing of city names and a nod to the blur of road life, quickly hit the top of the Canadian charts. Perhaps more significantly, it arrived like a love letter from the beyond, an undiscovered and unknown glimpse of the past. The album's six tracks were recorded during the sessions for the Hip’s third album in 1991, “Road Apples.”
The album’s sudden appearance felt like a gift to Hip fans. As it turns out, it was one for the band members as well.
“It's been a long process,” Sinclair explained during a recent Zoom interview.
It began after Baker read an article in The New York Times about the 2008 fire at Universal Studios Hollywood that destroyed, among many other things, somewhere between 125,000 and 175,000 master musical tapes. The paper also published a list of artists who lost material, including the Tragically Hip. The band's first three records were with MCA in the states, leading the band to have a "bit of a panic moment," Sinclair said.
"Rob (Baker) got on the phone right away to Johnny (Fay) to find out if that could possibly be true," he said. "Johnny spearheaded it, trying to track down our material and figuring out whether it was there, and if not, where it could possibly be. And here we are.”
The Hip’s masters had been safely returned to Canada leading to the birth of “Saskadelphia.”
Alive in the voodoo lounge
“Saskadelphia” erupts from the listener's speakers, and reminds us how road-tight and beautifully raw the band was some five years after the addition of guitarist Langlois cemented the lineup that would become one of the most thrillingly interesting alternative rock bands of its era.
When the late producer Don Smith hit the record button at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studios in New Orleans some 30 years ago, he captured a propulsive rhythm section intent on driving the bus, a pair of guitarists with an unerring ability to play off of each other in raucous counterpoint, and a singer committed to inhabiting the moment, take after take, tune after tune.
Smith and engineer Mark Vreeken set the mood, dimmed the lights and fired up the incense. The band then proceeded to lay it all down live.
“Yeah, absolutely, it was all live,” Fay said during the joint Zoom interview.
“Robbie put the package together and picked some really cool photos, and you can see the setup of the band. I was across from Gord Sinclair. Paul was in front of the pool table and Rob and Gord Downie were at the other end of the room. When we were listening to some of these outtakes, depending on the way that Gord was singing or where he was in the room, you could just hear the monitors on the verge of feeding back, which was really cool.
“It's the way that Don wanted to do it. He was a master of this and we're very lucky to have worked with him.”
“Everything about New Orleans screamed 'vibe.' The house itself was haunted. Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen’s cross was hanging in the front hallway. We soaked that stuff up like a sponge. When we weren't eating and drinking beer, we just played and played and played.
“It was just a great time and all credit to Don. He made the band, in no small measure. He got us right when when our skulls were still soft.”
A profound loss
When Gord Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, in 2015, he urged his bandmates to hit the road for a set of deeply emotional, intense and celebratory concerts that sadly became the the Hip’s farewell tour. When Downie died on Oct. 17, 2017, fans across the world mourned. For the immediate Tragically Hip family, the loss was personal, profound and enduring so preparing these recordings was a bittersweet undertaking.
“We've been hanging out recently, which we haven't been able to do, obviously, because of what's going on,” Fay said. “But we all went through our grieving process independently, which we probably needed to do. Coming together and just being in the same room with each other was incredibly comforting. It is bittersweet, obviously. The guy who brought us to the party is not here. And that's hard.
“Robbie has been doing a lot of design work lately, going through all the photographs and that's a huge mountain on its own. The Downies have the journals Gord kept, and he was always writing stuff down. So sifting through this is really good, psychologically, for us now. We needed to just take some time."
“Obviously, losing Gord, I lost my primary creative outlet,” Sinclair said when asked if he’s continuing to write and record music. “The Hip were really fortunate. We did this for so long, and we had a nice routine where we’d start compiling ideas once every 24 months and it was just a beautiful time, where we’d sit together and throw ideas around.
"Being in the Hip, you never had to finish a song idea, because you kind of leaned on the other guys to bring their thing to the party and make it what it was. So now, here I sit in my basement studio, toiling away, trying to find something that rhymes with orange," he laughed. “But you go through this, and hopefully, you put the love back where that hole of pain and sadness is.”
“My reaction was shock, despite the fact that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in December 2015, and had already outlived his predicted life span,” News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers
Memories of Buffalo
When I ask Sinclair and Fay if they are familiar with the Gord Downie mural on Hertel Avenue, it sparked a discussion of what our city meant to the band. There have been so many memorable Hip gigs here, from small clubs like Nietzsche’s, to huge outdoor stages, to Artpark and a pair of club shows at the Town Ballroom.
"We played Buffalo so many times, starting off really small," Sinclair said. "I always loved Artpark. Not only is it a beautiful setting, but on a beautiful summer night, congregating with your friends and like-minded souls around you to see live music – it’s magical, that gorge there in Lewiston. And Buffalo in general on a summer night is just fantastic."
"We even bounced around the idea of coming back and doing a live record there," Fay said about Artpark. "Those nights there were spectacular. Artpark park is a gem. In all the world, it’s one of the great venues to play."
The Hip’s Buffalo connection goes deeper than venues. The late Bruce Moser, who ran Could be Wild Promotions with his partner Doug Dombrowski in Buffalo, was principal in breaking the band in the United States.
“Bruce Moser was a gem of a guy, and he was instrumental in what happened with us in the States,” Sinclair said. “He was just an awesome man.”
“I remember playing the House of Blues in North Carolina, and this couple from Buffalo walked up to me and said, ‘Hey Johnny, we had to come and see you in the Carolinas because you're too big, we can't get close enough to you in Buffalo,’ " Fay said. "And I immediately thought of Bruce, because he was the torch-bearer for this band – he was for many bands, but for us, I remember thinking, ‘Thank God for Bruce. He’s why it happened.’ Much love to Buffalo.”