Features | Concerts

The Tragically Hip / Sam Roberts

By David M. Goldstein | 30 September 2004

Last Wednesday’s Tragically Hip concert in New York City, while plenty full, was not sold out at show time. This was confusing considering that Webster Hall holds a mere 900, and The Tragically Hip is unquestionably Canada’s largest rock band. The key word here is "Canada." On reconsideration, the lack of a sell out was probably due to the fact that the show was on a weeknight, eliminating the ‘ROAD TRIP!’ factor for natives of the Great White North accustomed to seeing their countrymen play hockey arenas. But the crowd was predominantly Canadian regardless, causing more than one lucky Canuck to shout phrases along the lines of “Oh my God! I can’t believe I’m five feet from Gordie!” and “I’m going to be bathed in Gord’s sweat, and I love it!”

Outside of jingoistic morons like Toby Keith (whose brand of nationalism the Hip skewer in the recent “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night”), I can’t think of a single American act capable of conjuring up such levels of pride for the USA that The Tragically Hip do for Canada at their shows. While they’re far too intelligent to use their songs merely to profess that Canada kicks ass, their Stones-derived hard rock songs do tend to contain cultural and historical references that most American fans would not be expected to understand. Furthermore, while they regularly tour the States, and have been to Europe and Australia a handful of times, they’ve achieved a level of success in their home country that they haven’t come close to matching anywhere else. New York is a huge metropolitan center that’s close enough to the border to assure a reasonable turnout for a Hip show, but I can’t imagine how they fill American venues outside of the Northeast.

Any New York City hipster will tell you the same thing; Webster Hall has no business hosting rock concerts whatsofuckingever. It’s been used for the past decade as Manhattan’s answer to central New Jersey; an enormous nightclub catering to 16-year olds and playing host to a variety of no talent DJs. But the kindly folk behind New York’s otherwise excellent Bowery Ballroom got the bright idea to promote rock shows in Webster Hall’s main room, despite the fact that the sightlines are terrible, the acoustics are among the worst in the city, and the lack of exits can lead one to envision all kinds of nightmarish, Great White-style scenarios. The sound on this given night was so horrible that Gordon Downie often couldn’t hear his own vocals, causing him to throw his ear monitors in disgust and requiring him to ride the microphone stand and scream far more than he usually does (which is quite a bit, but still).

The opening slot was accompanied by the Sam Roberts Band (known to most Canadians as just "Sam Roberts"), a hairy quintet bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to fictional rockers Stillwater from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. They played a relatively inoffensive brand of roots rock that would have been far more palatable had they the good sense not to stretch every song to the ten-minute mark. They also lost serious points for having a song containing not only bongos and white boy rapping, but a chorus of “I feel like life is passing me by!” I was surprised to see how many people close to the stage knew every word of the Sam Roberts' songs, but the guy next to me who claimed they reminded him of present day Wilco was indeed guilty of wishful thinking (yes, pun intended).

From the opening strains of recent single “Vaccination Scar,” one could tell that The Tragically Hip was going to be at war with the horrendous sound for the majority of the evening. This was compounded by the fact that every small venue Hip show I’ve seen has usually morphed into karaoke night whenever they break out the hits, and tonight was no different, except that this was the only occasion where the sound was such that the crowd at times managed to drown out Gordon Downie’s vocals completely. Fortunately, the same could not be said about Downie’s antics, and his trademark spastic movements and acts of microphone stand demolishing were on full display. He also has a tendency to insert impromptu rants into nearly every one of the songs that while inaudible, are nothing if not amusing to watch.

I’ve always wondered what must go through the mind of a concert-goer taking in The Tragically Hip for the first time. Simply put, they are five of the goofiest looking guys to adorn a single stage; looking less like a proper rock band than creepy 40-somethings who try to pick up younger girls by telling them that they’re in a rock band. Gordon Downie is strange enough, dripping buckets upon buckets of sweat from his wiry frame, but chest hair bearing bassist Gord Sinclair never fails to wear the tightest acid washed blue jeans in all of rock, and if guitarist Bobby Baker ever tires of touring, he could easily get a gig playing Jesus on TV.

But issues of style and lousy sound aside, the Webster Hall show was still lots of fun, if only because the Tragically Hip songbook is strong enough to overcome myriad technical difficulties and Gordon Downie is perennially one of rock’s most entertaining frontmen. A Tragically Hip setlist will usually contain about half of the songs from the album which they happen to be touring behind, a sizable quota of hits, and three or four variable slots that change from night to night. For the setlist obsessive, part of the fun in attending a Hip concert is to learn what songs the Hip deemed worthy enough from their previous record (2002’s In Violet Light) to qualify for the permanent set (in this case, “It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken”).

In addition to the expected round of songs off of their recent In Between Evolution (which sadly did not include career high point “You Are Everywhere”), The Tragically Hip willingly rolled out the hits in the form of audience singalongs like “Courage,” “Poets,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” and fan favorite “Grace, Too,” which usually serves as an outlet for Downie’s freakiest dancing. While the songs placed in the variable slots were not as uncommon on this given evening as I would have liked, an unquestionably Canadian moment ensued when the band brought out Dan Akroyd to play harmonica on the 1993 hit “Locked in the Trunk of a Car.” Akroyd was also responsible for my first ever exposure to this band, introducing them on a 1994 episode of Saturday Night Live.

A Tragically Hip show is a guaranteed good time for those familiar with their back catalog, and I would not hesitate to see them again. I have however now seen enough shows with horrendous sound at Webster Hall to consider boycotting the place. It was designed for 16-year olds on ecstasy, and should stay that way. While I won’t argue that I’d sooner see more than fewer rock venues spring up in New York, simply throwing a stage into a large room with seven dollar Bud Lights is seldom a guarantee of good sound quality.