Published Feb 13, 2015How is it that after 30 years, the Tragically Hip are a band still operating on all cylinders, playing to large hockey rinks and holding their attention like it's nothing? The concept of playing a revered album from start to finish — a premise that's really starting to tire in 2015 — on a Thursday night (February 12) managed to bring out a near-capacity Rexall crowd.
Everyone was there to hear the Hip play their 1992 album Fully Completely, an album woven into the Canadian music canon, much like the band themselves. But they didn't get into it right away, instead opting to start with a short five-song set of hits to warm up the crowd. Frontman Gord Downie looked on edge dressed in black leather pants and a white dress shirt as he threw himself about the stage with wild abandon, barking and twisting the original melodies the way an excited child might throw some toys about the floor. Save for a heartfelt "Thank you music lovers!" and working an Edmonton reference into "My Music at Work," he said little else to the crowd. Yet all eyes were on him as he shimmied like a man possessed and jerked himself about like a puppet on invisible wire, dancing to the sounds and sights of something none of us were privy to seeing.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band gamely followed Downie's lead, playing highlights including a manic "New Orleans is Sinking" alongside "Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin' Man." It was almost impossible to sing along once the band hit their stride with Downie shouting everything out, but that didn't stop the crowd from trying.
Fortunately, Downie would keep his vocals restrained once the Fully Completely set began, and the band largely kept to following the arrangements found on the recordings. Playing behind a series of long banners and a video screen featuring visuals of scenic Canadian imagery, it was surprising that the show didn't feel like one where an album was being played from front to back, given how ubiquitous most of the songs from Fully Completely have become. The album hasn't aged as well as some of the Hip's later work, though, so while songs such as "Fifty Mission Cap," "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" and "Wheat Kings" have always been staples of their live show, the strict adherence to the arrangements found on the recordings gave for a somewhat stale feel at times.
Strange enough, this tightness disappeared completely once the band returned for the ensuing encore, sounding far looser and more relaxed. Three decades on — and a good chunk of that spent touring large arenas like Rexall — the Hip are still one of the best live bands around, and last night found them in fine form, with an energized "Blow at High Dough" getting the most feverish response of the night. Perhaps they just needed to loosen up a bit.