The Performances of Gord Downie

If you’ve heard of The Tragically Hip, you’re doing well. If you’ve actually heard them, you’re doing even better. I’m not sure why they’ve never really hit the States with much force; they’re an amazing band for a number of reasons. One of the most amazing things about them is their lead singer, Gordon Downie, often just referred to as “Gord.”

I got into them late in their career. One that that drew me to them as a band was the collection of live recordings my brother bequeathed unto me. Gord is especially well known for his mid-song rants and story-telling tirades. EVERYthing he does and says is pure improv. The most famous, at least as far as I can tell, is simply known as KWT–Killer Whale Tank, performed during “New Orleans Is Sinking,” for those on the outside. The story is about him as a clean-and-scrub man at an aquarium where he befriends a killer whale. That’s all I will say. If you want to know the rest of the story, you’ll have to listen to the song.

As a college graduation present, my brother and his wife bought my wife and me tickets to see them at the House of Blues in Las Vegas in August 2002. Very nice of them … except my wife and I decided to move to Phoenix a week after graduating, just to test the job market and see what we could do down there. After discussing it with my brother, we decided that the Vegas trip was still on; all we’d have to do is meet them at the hotel, and we’d go to the show, spend the night in Vegas, then head home the next day.

So we went. It’s about a 6-hour drive from Phoenix to Vegas, and there is little to nothing to see along the way until you get to Hoover dam, which is extremely cool to see. Anyway, we checked in to our hotel, met up with my brother and his wife, and we went to the show. Like I said, it was at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. If you’ve never been to a HoB show, you really owe it to yourself to check one out. the entire venue is open floor, except for the balcony, which also is open, but generally the unspoken rule is that it’s for those who want to enjoy the show but not be bombarded with foreign bodies. The balcony does offer a great location for getting video and/or pics though. No jostling, no harassment … just a great line of site to the stage.

However, on this particular night and show, we came nowhere near the balcony. Instead, we were about as close as we could get to the stage. And what a view it was.
To describe the show adequately is difficult. It was so off the charts on every single level: the music was intense and perfect; the atmosphere was intimate and moody; and Gord Downie … well, he was on a totally different plane of consciousness. He danced and moved like he was the epi-center of an 8.0 earthquake; his rants were so out of left-field that you really have to wonder if this guy is really not on meth, or heroin, or acid … or what he’s on cuz whatever it is, as a writer, I’d love some.
On a scale of 1-10 of intensity and pure entertainment, I would give this show about a 13. Mock the cliche’ off-the-scale reference all you want; it is precisely what it deserves.
So that was the Vegas show. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel, and my brother discovered that they were going to be playing in Phoenix the next night. He and his wife talked it over, and they decided to drive back with us, and he and I would go to the show while the wives stayed back at the apartment and hung out–something they hadn’t gotten to do in months, and they were longing for some “girl time,” which we were all to happy for since it meant we got to go to another Hip show!
We got up the next morning, drove back, got to our apartment, got them situated, then we went to find the venue and buy tickets. Amazingly, with 2 hours left before the show, we were able to secure 2nd row seats just to stage right. Totally different venue atmosphere, totally different vibe to the show. This show was beautiful. It was much more … haunting? I guess? Same band. If you were to blindfold someone, play tapes from the two shows and ask “Is this the same band?”, I would dare say that 8 out of 10 would say “no way.” Gord was much more subdued–more loving with the mic and his guitar, more gentle … more caressing. It was the polar opposite of the show from 24 hours previous, and it was just as amazing as the Vegas show.
What it showed me was that this band–specifically, Gord himself–has more of a range of emotion to his ability to perform than anyone I’ve seen. His swing from one night to the next could almost be construed as schizophrenic, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s as down to earth a person as it gets. As a human, he’s very private; he doesn’t like sharing the minute details of his day to day activities. On stage, he becomes The Hip Gord, and it’s a complete toss-up as to which show you’re going to get to see. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter because either way, you’re going to get an amazing treat.

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