The Tragically Hip and Arkells at Canalside (2011)


Say what you will about Canadians’ boorish behavior at Bills games and proclivity for leaving tips that wouldn’t attenuate a four-year-old, because, when it comes to contemporary rock music, the Great White North’s output is second to none. Those of us who live in and around Buffalo know this first-hand as we’re treated to the furious sounds of Rush, Neil Young, Triumph, The Guess Who and The Tragically Hip on a regular basis, but what about everyone else?

Would the no-nonsense occupants of Texas experience the same emotional tumult listening to the frantic beat poetry of Gordon Downier that we do?  Would the subdued falsetto of Matthew Good resonate with Floridians in the same fashion as it does with Western New Yorkers?  Are Americans outside of the Niagara Frontier even aware that prodigious bands such as The Tea Party and Sloan even exist?

These are questions that I think about whenever a Canadian band comes to town, because Buffalo has a bond with this music that goes beyond mere puppy love.  Anyone who happened to be patrolling the  sold-out muddle at Buffalo’s Erie Canal Harbor on Saturday night for The Tragically Hip and the Arkells could tell you that much.

Of course, the kicker to the whole situation is that The Tragically Hip is anything but a mainstream product for people to consume with passive intentions.  You have to feel it on both an intellectual and psychic level, and allow the majesty of their live performance to heighten your senses.

For example, you’ll come across a host of haters who don’t get it and utter rubbish like “I liked them better when they were called R.E.M.” but, other than the fact that both bands have inimitable showmen at the helm, such a comparison misses the mark on all fronts.  Then again, neither the band nor its fans care what anyone else thinks, let alone anyone whose knowledge of the band stops at radio singles.

Hamilton, Ont.’s own the Arkells warmed up the crowd with a strident assortment of rock gems from their last album “Jackson Square” and mixed in the new songs “Whistleblower” and “Kiss Cam” from their upcoming fall release.  Max Kerman has the makings of a dynamic rock star with his voice and jaunty stage presence and I can’t wait to see where the group goes from here, because headlining arenas can’t be too far off.

When The Tragically Hip finally took the stage just after sundown, the crowd was anxious to start belting out the hits and the band didn’t waste any time obliging them.  Firing off “Blow at High Dough,” “Grace, Too,” “Love is a First” and “Poets” all within the first six songs was a sign that they came to party.

Singer Gordon Downie was in rare form as he rattled of his usual mélange of disjointed banter and the venue’s proximity to the skyway gave him plenty of fuel for the fire.

Because the band didn’t have an album to promote, the setlist contained nearly every classic Hip fans could have asked for.  “Fiddler’s Green” was a beautiful moment, “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)” had more crunch than on the record and “Bobcaygeon” made its case for being one the best summer tunes of the last 25 years.

What pushed this show over the top for me was a chill-inducing rendition of “Wheat Kings” that reminded me of why I love this band in the first place.  Saturday night marked my third time seeing them in four years and the combination of the people, the weather and the band’s flawless operation left this examiner thinking that it may have been the finest of them all.


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