“Everything is bleak. It’s the middle of the night. You’re all alone and the dummies might be right. You feel like a jerk. Your music at work. Your music at work”. The Tragically Hip
Full disclosure: I’m full of cold medicine. I’m not quite all alone: my daughter’s asleep in the other room. It IS the middle of the night, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the dummies were right after all, but it’s not ALL bleak, not all, anyway. Not yet.
On Ben Gibbard’s recent solo concert in Toronto, he covered The Tragically Hip’s “My Music at Work”. Quite an interesting choice. Not the first Tragically Hip song that comes to mind, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine hearing this song any other way than the way I know it, and yet after listening to a few seconds of Ben Gibbard’s stripped down, acoustic take on Youtube, he owned it. Like a lot of Gord Downie’s lyrics, you can make of them what you will. I like to think of this song as a meditation on song writing and the creative process. I love how he can take a trite radio station slogan, “Your Music at Work” and turn it into something broader: “Your music, working.” For such an intelligent and complex songwriter as Ben Gibbard is, it begins to make perfect sense why he would select this song out of the 30 years worth of material to honour The Tragically Hip. And why honour them at all? What’s the connection here? I’d love to know the full extent of Ben Gibbard’s relationship with Gord Downie. Our friend Carol was at the recent Toronto show and can confirm that Gord Downie was in attendance. I can only weave bits and pieces from the ether, and make up the rest. Just like any other blog post from the crew at Mountains Beyond Mountains, yes?
We do know that Ben’s band mate, Chris Walla, was one of the producers on Gord Downie’s most recent solo album, “The Grand Bounce”. We also know that Death Cab for Cutie made a special appearance at a two-day festival this past summer over the Canada Day weekend, a festival organized and headlined by The Tragically Hip.
At first glance, you couldn’t think of two bands that could be more different: The Tragically Hip and Death Cab for Cutie. On the surface, the first is a loud, dumb bar band that sounds like they should be covering Harlequin or Loverboy. The second is an emo-infused group of sensitive sissies who like to talk about their feelings a lot.
I’m exaggerating, stereotyping and generalizing, of course. I’ve actually come to love and respect both of these bands in their own unique ways, and the fact that their two respective lead singers have a mutual and genuine friendship makes it all the more interesting.
I’ll start with “The Hip”, as I’ve known them for much longer. Growing up in Canada, you just couldn’t avoid hearing The Tragically Hip. In fact, I can’t even tell you the first time I heard one of their songs, or even which song it was. Their music is just around, you know? It was probably either “Twist my Arm”. “Blow at High Dough” or “New Orleans is Sinking”, and I probably heard them first at a wedding social or something. It wasn’t until 1994 rolled around and “Day for Night” was released that I really took notice. It was the first Hip CD I ever bought (or maybe my brother and I split it, I can’t remember) and I was blown away right from the very first notes of “Grace, Too”.
Instead of talking about it, why not check out a bit of it. Here’s Gord Downie and the band doing a little “Grace, Too”. For the record, not everyone in Canada likes them. My friend Ed cannot STAND them. Last year he was given free tickets to their concert, and he only stayed for the opening act, Broken Social Scene, and then took off before “Grace, Too” was even finished! Some people. Me? I kind of get a kick out of Gord Downie and his stage antics, but this is coming from a man who doesn’t think Bono has an ego.
But from 1994 to 2011, I had never seen them live. It was always something I meant to do, and there were lots of opportunities. Just one of those things. I wouldn’t say I was the biggest fan in the world. I bought the odd CD over the years, but I didn’t follow them slavishly. I just sort of kept tabs on them. So when it was announced that they were going to be doing an outdoor concert at our ballpark, I jumped at the chance to get tickets. This was especially great because their most recent album at the time, “We are the same” was more introspective and a little on the melancholy side, almost Death Cabby you could say, and my wife LOVED it. I brought it home from the library and was playing it around the house. “Who are these guys?” she asked. She couldn’t believe it when I told her. Needless to say, “We are the same” made it onto the iPod and into heavy rotation. Unfortunately for her, I don’t think they played a single song off their new album at that concert. You can hardly blame them. No one wants to hear a song about the wistful end of summer packing up a cottage or something called “The Depression Suite” at a rock show. They DID play “Wheat Kings” which aside from everything on “We are the same” is my wife’s favourite “Hip” song, so all was not lost.
Let’s jump over to Death Cab for Cutie. While the Tragically Hip has been a part of my subconscious for about 30 years, it’s hard to believe I’ve only known about Death Cab for Cutie for about a year. It all started last summer when a friend of ours gave us a ukulele. He just happened to have an extra one. It’s true, don’t ask. I played around with it for a few days, but it was really my wife that took a shine to it. “I’ve always wanted a ukulele! I could use this in my children’s story times!” This was news to me, but after an orientation session from our friend, Marla took to the internet to find tabs, chords and Youtube tutorials. She found some dude who was doing a version of “I will follow you into the dark” by Death Cab for Cutie and I guess the rest, as they say, is history. I don’t know which version Marla actually studied, but here’s one of the many out there: He’s actually pretty good, yes?
After that, CBC started playing a lot of stuff off their newest album, “Codes and Keys” and a friend of ours had a couple of their CDs that she lent to us. We got a couple more from the library and before we knew it we had 4 or 5 albums of this band that a month before neither of us had heard of.
It’s a strange feeling when you stumble upon a band that just feels “right”, that resonates with you. A band that has a sound that you feel like you’ve heard all along but is totally new to you. The same thing happened to me when I discovered Arcade Fire a couple of years back. It hadn’t happened again until Marla picked up the uke. DCFC soon became my default band. I would play them in the car all the time, often beginning my day with “Passenger Seat” and then putting the rest of shuffle. At home the question wasn’t whether we’d listen to DCFC, the question was “which album?” Marla would often just run them all from beginning to end in album order all afternoon. She didn’t know which songs belonged on which albums, but she knew the order. She was like a musical Rain Man. If I put them on shuffle, she instantly knew something was wrong.
In April of this year, Marla and our friend (the one who got us hooked) booked flights to Toronto to see DCFC at Massey Hall. You can read about it here. Just two months later, Marla was heading East again, this time with me and our daughter. The cover story was that we were going on a family vacation, but the timing was such that we were really planning to be in Niagara on the Lake for the Canada Day weekend.
Why? There was a music festival planned there. The first one of its kind in the Niagara region. The bands? Death Cab for Cutie and The Tragically Hip! (Also The New Pornographers, another favourite of Marla’s, and a group neither one of us heard of: The Rural Alberta Advantage). We arranged to have Marla’s relatives look after Audrey overnight and we headed to Niagara for the concert of a lifetime. We booked ourselves into a B&B nearby, so we could just enjoy ourselves. We intentionally missed the Rural Alberta Advantage, since they were on first and our B&B had an outdoor swimming pool. We arrived just in time to hear the exuberant opening notes of “Moves” by the New Pornographers. We were on our way! (Extra points if you can spot “Troy” in this video!)
We found a spot on the grass and just soaked in the reality that we were here in Southern Ontario at a music festival! The New Pornographers were charming, fun, and full of energy. Even the sometimes elusive Neko Case was in attendance. “We’re wearing the same shirt!” Marla exclaimed when Neko appeared on the screens. More on that later. When their set ended, we Veroukised our way up to the very front of the stage. Well, almost to the very front. We were like 5 or 6 back, just where we wanted to be for DCFC. We texted our friend Carol back home that we were in position. “Give Ben a smooch from me!” she merrily texted back. We were so close that we WERE almost in smooching territory.
Back to Marla’s shirt: She didn’t know what to wear to an outdoor festival. She didn’t want to look square, so she thought all black would be the way to go, but then she thought it would be too hot and muggy. She went back and forth on it for a while before settling on a puffy white blouse with embroidery on the front. It didn’t exactly scream rock and roll, but it appeared that Neko Case was wearing the exact same thing, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? WRONG. A chap standing next us in the throng was enjoying a few LARGE marijuana cigarette and Marla lived in mortal fear that one of her puffy sleeves would rub up against this gentleman’s spliff, as it were, and set herself on fire. Appropriate, considering how many times fire is used as a recurring motif in DCFC lyrics, but it wouldn’t be the way we’d want to end our evening. As it turned out, the fears were unfounded because this dude soon moved on, but not before asking us what band he just saw. He didn’t believe us that a band could have a name like The New Pornographers. He then asked who was up next. He thought we were totally fucking with him. Death Cab for WHO? He shuffled far enough away to no longer be a threat.
Anyone that’s been up close at a concert will know the feeling. You’re waiting around for what seems like FOREVER for the band to come on, and then all of a sudden there they are in front of you and you can hardly believe. I’m not exaggerating when I say that their hour and a bit set was one of the most beautiful musical experiences I’ve ever had. They opened with “Home is a Fire” off of “Codes and Keys” and then I couldn’t believe it: the opening bass notes to “I will possess your heart”. Carol’s favourite song, and they played the full instrumental opening too. An odd choice for such a short set, but if I’ve learned anything about DCFC over the last year is that they don’t do the expected and they change things up as much for themselves as for their fans. I fumbled with the cell phone and tried to call home so that Carol could have a little listen. Ironically, she didn’t hear the phone because she was blasting DCFC on the stereo! A few songs later they played Marla’s favourite, “Grapevine Fires” and dedicated it to Gord Downie. Ben told a cute story about how he was told he was dressed like Gord Downie the other night at a different Tragically Hip show. Unconnected to this, back home, our friends independently came to the same conclusion that Ben has a very “Gord” look or feel about him. Or is it the other way round? It’s not just looks, its attitude, or something. Maybe these two bands aren’t as different as one might think at first glance. Anyone know more of the story?
At the end of “You are a tourist”, Ben tossed his guitar pick out into the crowd and it landed RIGHT AT MY FEET in the grass. I dove down, but some guy was already down there and had his hand on it. I had my hand on his and we rolled around for a few seconds, me filled with a bloodlust to wrest it from his grasp, but then I came to my senses. He had it fair and square, after all. I guess I thought it would have been an awesome thing to bring back for our friend, Carol. I asked to see it, and he let me, which was nice of him, considering I had him in a half-nelson seconds before. It was just a generic white guitar pick. In my mind, it if had said “DCFC” or “Ben” on it or something I was going to take it and run away, but luckily for everyone I just handed it back to him. I tried, Carol!
Here’s a taste of “We looked like giants”, their second last song of the day. It was a wonderful, improvisational full 10 minutes.. The good soul who was recording this stood right in front of us, and as the song played out, I acted as her de facto bodyguard, making sure no one would jostle her or knock her over. I’m glad to see our final result paid off. A snap-shot of a band totally in the moment, with Ben Gibbard *SPOLIER* even sitting down at a second drum kit towards the end. It still gives me shivers.
I have a feeling this was supposed to be the last song of the day, but the crowd’s response prompted the band to play an encore. Ben looked sheepishly into the wings, shrugged, and said something like “We’re outta time!” and then launched into a peppy, cheeky version of “The Sound of Settling” to cap it all off. Marla and I didn’t stop dancing and jumping the whole time, so we moved out of the sweet spot to make room for the hardcore “Hippers”. We grabbed some food and hung back as the main attraction took the stage. It was great to see “The Hip” again, and in control. Their songs so familiar, and yet I still count myself a casual fan. DCFC: the complete opposite. I’ve become fast friends with them, and yet I feel like they’ve been with me my whole life. All I know is that they will be with me for the rest.