What drove and drives you drove and drives me too

Gord Downie in Cleveland, Ohio 2015

The Tragically Hip – House of Blues – Cleveland, OH – Jan 16, 2015, by The Tragically Hip; found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the risk of turning this blog into nothing more than a moan at dead musicians (farewell, Tom Petty), I need to write about Gord Downie. I wrote last year when he shared his diagnosis with us all. I stayed up til 2am local time to watch the webcast of the final concert in Kingston. (Canadians abroad – it’s what we do.) And I grieved when word came down last week that he had died. I was just heading out my office door to catch a series of trains to Cambridge, and I was pleased that the usually sluggish wifi on the train perked up, allowing me to dip in and out of Twitter and all the obits and personal memories.

The best resource that’s come out of it (external to Gord himself, of course; we’ll grab his new solo album and learn once more what an artist can teach us about how to die) appeared on YouTube a few days ago. Fifteen videos from Canadian musicians, recorded at George Stroumboulopoulos’s place for CBC – initially for New Year’s Day as part of a four-hour indulgence of our not-so-latent passion for The Tragically Hip.

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I think it’s great, and overdue. It strikes me that, for such a massive band, few definitive covers have surfaced. Short of Sarah Polley’s brilliant and understated “Courage” (recorded, let’s note, by someone who’s primarily associated with film), there’s been pretty much nothing. (Nothing, I should say, in a recorded and shareable way; bar bands from Tofino to Tuktoyaktuk and Sarnia to St. John’s have pulled out “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Grace, Too” at the flip of a coaster, but that’s a different thing.) Justin Rutledge had to carry the can almost singlehandedly, though by inviting Jenn Grant to guest vocal “Fiddler’s Green”, I guess we diversified a little more. Covers seem to draw either from  classics of the past or wry renditions of Top 40 pablum. Covers of The Hip were neither iconic nor ironic, it would seem.

Then we learned that Downie’s days were numbered. And out came the hastily produced covers, the phone-videoed versions from the front row of the first gig various artists played after they heard the news.

This has been an entirely loving trend, but a bit uneven of quality. The benefit of The Strombo Show’s lineup is that they weren’t working on the spur of the moment: the producers could curate it, to a certain extent. Although the artists all would have known that this material, broadcast for a New Year celebration, would at some point soon be marshalled as an obituary (you can really sense this in Martin Tielli’s performance when the Rheostatics played “Bobcaygeon”), they were not under the pressure of immediate response. His diagnosis came in May. The last concert was in August. His death was… some time in the future. October 17, 2017, to be precise, but they weren’t to know. There was time.

So, my first advice: watch all of it, because it’s such a great document. It is itself uneven – the hit-to-miss ratio is really good, but not all of it works. For me. Because this is a totally subjective exercise. But I will give my three lows and three highs. And although my own open-mic special was “Bobcaygeon”, neither version (Strombo commissions two) hits the list – not Blue Rodeo, whose cover is beautiful, straightforward, and just what you’d want or expect from them and the song; nor the aforementioned Rheostratified version.

SATE’s “New Orleans Is Sinking” just did not work for me. Right from the overdriven metal guitar tone on the opening riff, it was in a place not of my choosing. I tried, I sat through to the last verse, but this was the only one I skipped through without finishing. Sorry.

I’m a bit stunned to put the Barenaked Ladies next. They did a clever thing, running two songs together so that both Kevin Hearn and Ed Robertson could take some magic lead. “Chancellor” is a great match for Hearn: the quirky lyrics suit his awkward vocal attack, evoking a certain Downieness that I would not otherwise have noticed. Then they throw to Robertson for the mass-love of “Ahead by a Century”, and it falls apart. Again, the song suits Robertson’s range and vocal quality, but he forces it (and, tragically, fumbles it). The song is too empty for a band like BNL. There’s not enough in it for them to do anything interesting. If they had kept it to “Chancellor”, it would have been much better but less “iconic”, and I have a quiet fear that ego comes into the extendorama decision.

Another disappointment was Jim Bryson singing “Scared”. Again, it ought to work. Seeing the video title, “Jim Bryson – ‘Scared’ (Tragically Hip Cover)” got me all excited. What he delivered was something too self-conscious. He was trying to put his own vocal stamp on it by playing with the rhythm of the lines, but it only served to remind you how not-Gord it was rather than how great or unique Bryson was. Downie’s diction is central to many of his songs: his metrical arrangement of the words is fused to the music. He got away with a lot of lyrical liberties that way. I’m not insisting on slavish adherence to the Hip originals, but it’s like Bryson’s scared to inhabit the spaces in the song that Gord occupied. I wonder if a 25 year old Bryson sang this at open mics around Ottawa, before his own recording contracts and expectations. I have a small hunch it would have been more solid than this.

The contrast with my favourite video in the mix is stark. I’m a big fan of STARS and what they do, and they bring all their skills to a new Hip tune, “What Blue” from the Man Machine Poet record. I first met the song, as perhaps many people did, during the webcast of their last concert. And, you know, it was fine. Good tune, but hard to hear it properly amidst a run of songs from Up to Here down to Phantom Power – The Hip at the height of their powers. STARS found a real gem in it, and without fucking with time or tempo or taking flights of fancy with the melody, they make it beautifully their own. The girl/boy lyrical trade-off, the stunningly executed harmonies in the final chorus, and a subtle touch with the music that sounds like them without sounding like it’s not from The Hip – they are comfortable with the song. This was the one I hit the repeat button for right after it finished the first time.

Coming a close second for me was Julie Doiron with “Titanic Terrarium”. One I totally love in its original form and was blessedly surprised with when I saw them at the Corel Centre in Ottawa in, oh, 2002 or something. Here, it’s just Doiron with her unpretty voice and her electric guitar. No attempt to do “The Hip” with it (though there’s a sly nod to instrumentation with a banjo tucked up behind the piano – a prop rather than a participant), but neither does Doiron’s stripped version evade the original. The only demerit for me is that the spaces between the verses are bereft: she has no bass line to drive us from the end of one to the beginning of the next over the subtle rhythmic tap of the drums; her D4 chords add nothing, really. But the moments are brief, and some low space is needed to punctuate the unusual, well-rendered lyrics.

Finally, Darcys’s outta nowhere take on “Vapour Trails”. If it wasn’t clear already, I’m a deep-cuts kind of guy, though there are many tunes off of Phantom Power alone that I would grab before this one if I were asked to contribute. Nonetheless, “Vapour Trails” a great song, and we get a very cool solo piano rendition here that is dark and sassy. Gord would definitely approve. I do feel that his piano voicings underplay the transition from verse to chorus, but we’re at the point of minor critique, here. All is forgiven when he falsetto scats Rob Baker’s guitar solo after the last chorus: it is such a fitting climax for the song, and he was right to find a way to include it in his solo piano performance. Nice couple of closing chords, too.

Honourable mention must finally be given to Tim Baker of Hey Rosetta! for another solo piano rendition – “Stay” fused with “Now for Plan A”. In fact, “Plan A” bookends the performance, and its poignancy comes from the fact that Downie wrote the lyrics for his wife when she was being treated for breast cancer. In between, and so seamlessly it seems planned by the author, Baker gives us “Stay”, which of course is what all Canadians asked of Gord. It works.

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