The Spirit Of Music

It’s been a strange few days; often finding myself suddenly disarmed; close to tears…

The foothills of the 90`s had been a difficult time for me; a life turned on its head due to the fateful roll of the health dice. It was during this time that the UK television schedules began running 24 hours a day; without enough programmes to fill the schedule they began buying in shows from around the globe to fill the gaps. One such show was Canada’s MuchMusic [still running today in Canada]. And by equally fateful accident I was given a gift. That summer I would sit lazily in the passenger seat of a car flashing through English countryside roads, and The Tragically Hip’s Fully Completely was the soundtrack. A distant love affair had begun. It would be another 7+ years before I finally got to see the band live, and what proved to be one of the most memorable gigs of my life.

Earlier this week the band released a statement which began, “Hello friends. We have some very tough news to share with you today, and we wish it wasn’t so. A few months ago, in December, Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer…” I’m still getting my head around the news. The band, but especially the enigmatic poet and performer tour de force that is Gord Downie, have weaved a musically spiritual legacy through my life. But even when a diagnosis hurts like a loss, their joint band statement still bristles with that spirit “… after 30-some years together as The Tragically Hip, thousands of shows, and hundreds of tours… we’ve decided to do another one. This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us. What we in The Hip receive each time we play together is a connection; with each other; with music and it’s magic… we’re going to dig deep and try to make this our best tour yet.”

There are so many memories and connections entwined throughout the intervening 25 years, but it seems appropriate to revisit that very special night when I saw The Hip live for the first time at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, England. Well, it was kind of England … On 9th June 2000, the day after, I sat and wrote this for the alt.music.tragically-hip forum:

8th June 2000 : The Tragically Hip : Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, England

I make no apologies for this l-o-n-g post. I hope you choose, and the writing is entertaining enough, for you to read it all [particularly those that know me and therefore know how long I’ve waited for this day…Hip Day!], but just in case … If you want to skip the Pre[r]amble, you’ll find the Gig and Setlist and a beautiful [preordained (?)] slice of fortune…further down the page.

Pre[r]amble:

You’ve possibly heard of Little Venice [a scenic part of London infamous for its canals and moored boats] … Well, a corner of Shepherd’s Bush became Little Canada last night. I felt strangely like a stranger in a strange land.

We reached London later than hoped, but we still just had time to wander into The Walkabout, an Australian pub apparently temporarily annexed to Canada for the crepuscular! Even the atmosphere in the pub contained a distinct frisson and flavour of what was to come; the place was buzzing with a fervent anticipation. After settling on the corner of a table a young dark haired girl caught our conversation and suddenly interjected.

“You’re not Canadian are you? Where are you from?”

“Uh … here. Well, when I say here, I mean…Bristol, England … here,” responding a little nervously, fearing we were about to be deported.

“Born and bred?” said the girl.

A trick question? Should we have forged some Canadian citizenship  documentation?! “Uh  … yeah, born and bred.”

“Wow!” she exclaimed excitedly, “You guys are my heroes! English Hip fans! Oh, oh, I must take a picture,” and she eagerly fumbles in her bag for camera, somehow smiling even more broadly than we are as she presses the shutter and the flash pierces the air. Quite possibly the most surreal beginning to a conversation I’ve ever had with anyone!

Note: I’ve edited out a significant chunk of the original post here that refers to meeting many people from the alt.music.tragically-hip [an early internet forum], but as well as other rare English Hip fans, there were also ex-pat Canadians and even a dedicated few who’d flown in from Canada for the gig. 

 

It was a suffocating, humid evening, so we decided to grab 15 minutes of fresh air on Shepherd’s Bush Green before heading into the venue. Although, fresh air could be considered a Central London oxymoron if ever there was; even the grass of the Green was a dusty grey! So, we gasped for breath on Shepherds Bush Grey for about ten minutes, then the final countdown had really begun …

The Gig, er, Pre[r]amble:

Okay, I introduced another category … sue me!

The venue was outrageously sticky and airless. We were in the general admission stalls, stood towards the back of the lower floor when the support act [Sloan] were competing for our attention, but long before they had finished the room-to-breathe quotient was fast evaporating. Being in possession of a slightly vertically challenged other half and being a bit of a fragile old fella myself [Ed: this was 16 years ago!], we decided to try and head for the seated upper levels. We squeezed out to the back of the room, only to be met by a burly security guard with a face like a bag of spanners – and all the charm to match – who turned us around and sent us straight back. Fate had seemingly decreed we would dance with the lions in the pit …

So, deciding to make the most of a bad situation, we then squeezed our way back through the throng to within about 40 feet of the stage and found ourselves stood next to the only other two English people in the house; attracted by a subliminal osmosis? With perspiration now dripping from the walls and us unavoidably exchanging bodily fluids, we struck up a conversation. To cut a long conversation short [uh, yeah right! you all say] they had Level 2 tickets, but had “sneaked down”, so offered to swap. After a moment’s ponder “Hmmm… Nah, we’re wedged in here now!” Anyhoo … I was in the perfect position for potentially being able to describe to Sue, my other half, probably just the top of Gord’s sweaty pate, now only a matter of minutes away … when suddenly …

The lights dim, an almighty roar rises from the crowd, Gord mutters something completely incomprehensible through the tumult, the band rip into Something On, the floor disappears from under our feet and we’re now swooping like kelp in a pounding surf!

Mid-song, another decision is made: we feverishly swap tickets with our new friends and fight the tide in an attempt to beach ourselves at the back of the stalls! We eventually reach dry land, towel ourselves down and head out through the door, climbing the now deserted staircase to the brooding bass lines of Grace, Too … we stealthily open the door to Level 1. Our timing is perfect, security are distracted by some fool completely [fully] lost in the moment, apparently contemplating a leap from the balcony! We swiftly nip inside, slide down the aisle and are somewhat surprisingly confronted with the very front of the lower balcony, with the most perfect view you could ever imagine.

Throughout the gig, people would occasionally come and stand right next to us and were immediately ejected [for blocking the aisle]; it was like we were completely invisible to our spanner-visaged friends in the yellow T’s. Lucked out doesn’t even come part way to describing the series of coincidences that led us here. And sitting at my desk today, I still find it hard to believe. Clearly, fate and the Go[r]ds had certainly been smiling …

The Gig:

Well, over the years I’ve been to, quite literally, 100’s of gigs [of varying shape and size], but in all those times I’ve never experienced an atmosphere quite like this – the U2 Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree tours had their moments – and the sheer sustained intensity of emotion at this gig was altogether remarkable. The energy and enthusiasm just swept though the entire building, to all four levels. In fact, I would say there was probably enough energy generated in those two hours to keep a medium-sized Scottish Isle lit up like a Christmas tree for a year! Just breathtaking.

The air was constantly charged with the sound of 2,000 voices carrying the band’s songs around on their collective shoulders, no more apparent than when they played a new song, when the unfamiliar cast an almost reverential hold – it wasn’t exactly quiet but the contrast did possess a fascination in itself. Then, with batteries suitably recharged, the next familiar intro would reignite the blue touch paper and the ocean in the stalls below became alive again.

The band: Gord Downie was undeniably the permanent focus of the collective attention. Whether it was simply tossing and catching the small percussive beads [actually a bunch of grapes!], in perfect time, throughout Springtime In Vienna [he did drop them once, only to deftly flip them back up over his head and catch them again!]; revealing exaggerated high jump techniques over his bent microphone stand during a jam; or curled up on the floor in the foetal position to close-out another song [damn!…what was that?]; he possesses a quite remarkable presence and his quirky movements and gestures seem to have taken ‘dad dancing’ to a whole new level! Meanwhile … the band played on – seemingly oblivious to both Gord’s antics and what was happening in front of them – a pure focused unit cranking out this wonderful stream of atmospheric plankton.

So, my personal highlights from a truly magnificent set … I especially reveled in Ahead By A Century, Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin’ Man and Scared [when the soft plucked chords of the intro to the latter began I exalted a breathless “Y-e-s-s … only Nautical Disaster for the [favourites] full set” to Sue – the guy next to us smiled, but we didn’t get it; my only real disappointment. Churlish really.] Fully Completely and Courage [came together or quite close? – it’s a bit of a blur!] and lifted the roof. At The Hundreth Meridian was, er, intense! The magnificently brooding Gift Shop burned. But the thing that will live longest in my memory, simply as it encapsulated the whole experience: the crowd responses. Somehow even managing to pick up a gear for the encores of New Orleans Is Sinking and Little Bones; and the mention of ‘Toronto’, in Bobcaygeon, brought a response akin to a last minute winning goal in an FA Cup Final [er, that’s a very big English football match/institution!]. I just gazed all around the Empire in awe. This had been a truly special night.

Set List:

[The first four songs and the encores are correct, er, I think! – otherwise the order is approx.]

Something On
Grace, Too
Putting Down
Gift Shop
Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin’ Man
Ahead By A Century
Lake Fever
Courage
Fully Completely
Stay
Poets
At The Hundreth Meridian
700ft Ceiling
Scared
My Music At Work


Fireworks
Bobcaygeon
New Orleans Is Sinking


Springtime In Vienna
Little Bones

 

This blog has been written to preserve this memory. The Tragically Hip remain arguably one of Canada’s best kept musical secrets – staggering, when you learn they’ve had nine No.1 albums there in their 30-year career – and undoubtedly one of the most special live bands I’ve ever seen. I still can’t quite get my head around the tragic news. And couple that with what will be an extraordinary handful of shows that finish in their home town of Kingston, Ontario in a couple of months; emotionally charged would barely be an apt way to describe one of their regular gigs. This … I can barely imagine.

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