Tragically Hip

In Violet Light


The Tragically Hip probably never sought the title of World’s Greatest Bar Band, but that’s how folks sometimes refer to them. Outside of Canada, that is. In their native country, the Ontario stalwarts are known simply as the World’s Greatest Band. Over the course of 18 years and eight albums, they’ve earned both titles the hard way: one bar at a time. And both are some sort of honor. World’s Greatest Bar Band is no worse a title than any other lame catchphrase a deadline-pressed writer is liable to cook up–“rock ‘n’ roll’s poet laureate,” say, or “the hardest-working band in punk.” You may be the featherweight champ, but hey, you’re still the champ, and that must mean something.

It means quite a bit when you think about it. A bar is an intimate place, sometimes more intimate than your living room, and with that intimacy comes the potential for surprise. No one stands in line to buy tickets to see a bar band. When we get to the bar, we might not even know if there’s a band that night. But later the beehive vibration of bar chatter is flattened by some plainly dressed group of third-shift rockers we’ve never heard of, who disarm us with a drumbeat beyond intellectualization and the sound of a shitty amp through a shittier PA, who play better that night than they ever have before or may ever again. At work the next day you have a flash and call up your friend: “Who was that band last night anyway?”

Each of the Tragically Hip’s albums consciously strives to capture this facet of the bar-band experience–the visceral rush that comes from discovering a band discovering itself. On their latest album, In Violet Light, the Hip continue to close in on their paradoxical goal: using their chops, songwriting ability, and money to record songs that maintain the spark of a rehearsal or a first take. Like early Replacements albums, the Hip’s recordings conspire to convince you that each song bursts into being the moment you press play or drop the stylus. “Save the Planet,” a typically rollicking tune off the band’s outstanding 1998 album Phantom Power, begins with the clatter of each instrument staggering in fashionably late. Of course they knew the tape was rolling, but their simulated spontaneity insists they’ve never played it the same way twice, or stopped to wonder if they could or even why they would want to. This is a tricky endeavor, but when it connects it’s an aesthetic experience the way getting shot in a bulletproof vest can be an aesthetic experience.

As the first musical genre to come of age in the recording studio, rock has always felt the need to self-consciously cultivate authenticity. At the height of the 60s, the rock album’s essential audiencelessness was the key to its intimate relationship with the listener: the band was essentially performing in suspension until touching down between your headphone speakers. When this intimacy was washed away in a deluge of hermetic soft rock like Bread and James Taylor, the live album was used to inject immediacy back into the music. Unfortunately, more often than not it merely reminded us, like a phone call from a kidnapper, that the band wasn’t dead–or, in the worst case, offered needed proof that the band was alive to begin with. But for smaller bands still slogging it out in the bars, it was easier to evade this epistemological crisis.

In the last century, music clubs replaced vaudeville as the source of no-refunds, hat-in-the-ring entertainment. As the music changed, so did the live music experience. Rather than taking a trolley downtown to catch Tri-State Robinson & His Big Ol’ Big Band, folks would cross the street to the local watering hole, pay a buck, and check out some no-name band, drinks half-price. Thus the bar band was born. The band was pretty happy and so was everybody else. For a while at least.

But after bar bands had contentedly rocked the house for several decades, progressive folks began adding negative connotations to the phrase “bar band” in order to defend their embattled punk outposts from mainstream encroachment. You started overhearing things like “Royal Trux sounds like a fucking bar band now that they got signed”–in other words, they sounded crowd pleasing and artless, as if making music for the less discerning masses. The signifiers attached to this pronouncement are as recognizable as they are arbitrary–thick chords and boogie riffs, four-on-the-floor drumbeats, singers with a studied rasp. And the images this music summons up are as tawdry as they are unavoidable–consensual sex on a pool table to a boozy Bob Seger sound track.

The irony that’s often glossed over, however, is that punk achieved its initial guerrilla contact by co-opting the bar-band paradigm–and the bar-band bar. Suddenly any fledgling band (say, Television) could play a “gig” for a few of their friends and a couple of passed-out drunks at some dive down the street (say, CBGB). A few gigs create a scene, a few more create a movement. Ideas rely on the places from which they spring, especially when they’re as arty and dissociated as punk could be. Without a stage, there’s no drama; the bar-band bar gave punk its physical roots, as it had for so many kinds of music before. The primacy of space is reflected even in the mutation of the musical term barre chord into its now universal spelling: bar chord.

The Tragically Hip are just as linked to their own geography, to the bars they cut their teeth in. As much as we like to think of Canada as Wisconsin Heights–a quaint, woodsy suburb of our American metropolis–it’s not nearly as cozy as a Labatt’s ad would have you believe. Being a Canadian bar band means you could have a Blues Brothers-type run-in with good ol’ boys nearly every night out in the sticks–and when you fill almost four million square miles with fewer than 27,000,000 people, most of your country is the sticks. As I discovered in the early 90s, touring Canada’s chilly second cities in a van means competing with keno machines for patrons’ attention and avoiding a slush-laden hobnail boot up your ass after the show. Getting paid at the end of the night is the least of your concerns. American bands can make a respectable name for themselves with weeklong tours of their region’s cities and college towns. In the U.S., being in a rock band is a type of tourism. Up north the dues are steeper.

Which is one reason the Tragically Hip are an anomaly. The Hip got big in Canada without going to the U.S. first. Throughout the 90s, they brought their abstruse lyrics and pensive vocals out to the territories. There they managed to win over unsuspecting audiences of emaciated cowboys, benign motards (that’s really what they call bikers up there), and college students dressed like Morrissey. Granted, this was during indie rock’s salad days, but even so, this is one adroit bar band.

Not only did they bring indie rock to the taproom, they brought the arena with them as well. How did they fit it all into their crappy little van? By way of what I call the pocket anthem, a galvanizing tune that lies somewhere between a private mantra and a reveille for their lonely crowds, a battle hymn for the domestic expatriate. The Hip found a common thread of alienation running through the lives of their otherwise dissimilar fans, and they reconciled these folks’ seemingly conflicting desires for whiskey and poetics. They weren’t the first: R.E.M. and U2 had all but perfected the form a decade or so ago. But neither band had the slightest idea where to go from there, while the Hip continue to expand their club, in which alienation is transformed into membership.

“My Music at Work,” from 1999’s Music @ Work, is a fine example of the pocket anthem. The scene could be the kitchen in the back of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. We eavesdrop on a dishwasher’s thoughts arranged for Bachman Turner Overdrive, massive bar(re) chords threatening to crush either her thoughts or just the misery those thoughts cause. Gordon Downie’s peculiar voice keens like an electrical transformer: “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 / My music at work / My music at work.” Then our antiheroine muses sarcastically on the title of someone’s future dissertation about her life: “I call it ‘Olga Waits: / The Cloud That Entertains / The Dim Possibility of Showing Some Restraint.'” The words part, and the Son Volt-styled chords that were a menacing cloud earlier now rain down in sheets. R.E.M. could have written a song like this during the Green era, if only they’d kept their politics personal and found some room in the practice space for poetics alongside the polemics of the Marshall stack.

At the Hip’s House of Blues show this past summer, these pocket anthems became real ones, expanding like sponge animals in water. The imagined communities Downie conjures on the albums were made flesh. There’s a gesture of enthusiasm I’m accustomed to seeing at shows: the sublime lunge. Sublime lungers nod along to the music before, oomph, ducking and squinting to a particularly tasty run of chords or some other anticipated moment in the song. No matter how much they enjoy the performance, however, the sublime lungers are always on the outside, reacting to the music. By contrast, the audience at HoB was on the inside–they weren’t just dancing to these songs, they were fucking them.

At the same time, the Hip were also conducting a quieter conversation with the faux honky-tonk environs of this imagineer’s wet dream known as HoB. It was the sort of dialogue missing from the blunt spectacle of U2’s Popmart tour, with its jumbo-sized irony and budget to match. Here both bar and bar-band were replaced with perfect simulacra. But neither was fake, thanks to the Hip’s connection with its very real audience. Unlike most postmodern spectacles, the show bridged the gulf between theory and practice, art and entertainment. Afterward the swell of emotion people are trying to communicate when they describe something as “bigger than life” is what I felt in realizing once again that there is no such thing.

Because sometimes the most satisfying shows are the ones where the band sounds precisely the same as on record. That’s often true of Tragically Hip shows. The band is known for faithfully re-creating its recordings–recordings that set out to re-create live performances. That’s why the Hip’s live album, Live Between Us, is redundant–they never lost the intimacy such a document is meant to recapture. And so it was a curiously apt pairing of band and venue: the Tragically Hip, the World’s Greatest Bar Band That’s Not Really a Bar Band performing at the House of Blues, the World’s Greatest Bar That’s Not Really a Bar.