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It's convenient to know that our apparently unassuming and placid northern neighbors are so easily irritated. When cornered -- ask them if they keep polar bears as pets or why that stupid-sounding "eh" pops up, Tourette's-like, in conversation, for instance -- Canadians are unapologetically quick to set you straight on why they're different (and perhaps cooler) than their American friends. Admittedly, a country where the recent state funeral for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau drew honorary pallbearers like Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro does convey a certain élan, but it's still a stretch for most Americans to associate terms like "cerebral" or "sexy" with those poutine-eating hordes from the Great White North.
That's why it's such a joy (especially from a north-of-the-border perspective) to see the growing stateside popularity of Kingston, Ontario, rockers the Tragically Hip, a surprisingly un-Canadian band that's slipped under the Distant Early Warning line and been causing damage to the indigenous U.S. music scene. Led by enigmatic vocalist/lyricist Gordon Downie, who channels equal portions of Michael Stipe and Crispin Glover in concert, the group has built a reputation for arty lyrics and a heart that's straightahead rock and roll. As a result, the band is both cerebral and sexy -- and more engaging than most of the current rock canon. Could this be the band that finally topples Rush as the hottest Canadian import since high-test British Columbia hydroponic?
With limited airplay, the Tragically Hip does remain a bit of a mystery south of the 49th Parallel. U.S. audiences have likely felt the presence of the band only since the American release of 1998's Phantom Power, with its easy-going single "Poets." If you've ever been exposed to Canadian radio or watched MuchMusic on satellite, you know that the group's alternately folky and power-chord-heavy mojo has made it an unshakable staple at home since its start as a college bar band in 1986. Singles such as "Courage," "New Orleans Is Sinking" and "Blow at High Dough" have helped the Hip occupy a niche in its native land that verges on bigger-than-Jesus status, quite an accomplishment considering the nation's normal abhorrence for hero worship. A free benefit concert mounted by the band this summer in Winnipeg drew 80,000 fans, and the Another Roadside Attraction tours (featuring such imported guests as Los Lobos and Sheryl Crow) set attendance records on both sides of the border. The Hipsters have also heightened their visibility with performances on Saturday Night Live and a pre-mud/fire set at Woodstock '99.
8 p.m. Saturday, October 28
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Bassist and vocalist Gordon Sinclair said the band's current touring strategy will see it hitting mid-sized venues like the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins and the Paramount in Denver in support of the American release of Music@ Work, a CD produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. For the most part, it's been the band's live performances -- with guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois, and drummer Johnny Fay rounding out the lineup -- that have earned the Tragically Hip a stunningly loyal group of followers. "For the most part, we're going back to places that we've been before in the U.S., more centralized locations in various regions," Sinclair says. "It's pretty flattering that we have fans who are prepared to travel those kinds of distances to see us, so we always go out of our way, in deference to them, to change our sets night after night." Word of such a fan/band love-in might immediately set off a patchouli-and-smoothie alert for those not hip to the group's sound, but Sinclair said that near-fanatical dedication is where the Hip's similarity to Phish or Widespread Panic ends. "We've been compared to jam bands before, but we've never really looked at ourselves in that regard. We do leave things open-ended on stage, with a lot of room for improvisation, but that's just one aspect of what we do. We use a traditional rock instrumentation, but we're really fortunate to have an insightful lyricist whose intelligence is reflected in what he writes."
Over the course of nine albums -- more than a million sold in the U.S. -- Hip fans have been interactive participants in Downey's cerebral lyrical journey, with songs spinning off more allusions and literary imagery than a Dennis Miller rant. Backed by feedback-soaked rock riffs, cuts like "Nautical Disaster" (from 1994's Day for Night) and "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" (on 1992's Fully Completely) glow with a complexity that will make you feel as if you've taken a course in Symbolism in Contemporary Canadian History. It's unlikely that you'll find fellow Canucks Shania Twain or Bryan Adams crafting pop songs that contain heartfelt nods to the World War II tragedy on the beaches of Dieppe or the collective hand-wringing during 1970's FLQ terrorist crisis in Quebec, as Downey does. Sinclair said he hopes the concrete imagery lends an extra air of emotion to the band's creations, even if American audiences don't immediately identify with the references. "We don't feel like it's necessarily an alienating thing. The concept of a wide-open space or the isolation you might feel in the wilderness is something we've always considered fairly universal, and the themes that Gord's been developing in lyrics are very, very universal."