There’s a reason the Tragically Hip was often called “Canada’s house band”. Actually, there are a number of reasons—the group’s relatively low profile beyond its home country’s borders is among them—but the Hip’s music undeniably touched people across a wide spectrum of musical tastes, from the mainstream to the underground. When everyone from Justin Bieber (“Wheat Kings”) and Feist (“Flamenco”) to k-os (“Ahead by a Century”) and Japandroids (“Nautical Disaster”) has covered your songs, you are indelibly etched into the Canadian psyche.
Members of Vancouver’s music scene will pay tribute to the Tragically Hip and frontman Gord Downie (who died on October 17 after a battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma) on New Year’s Eve by performing an evening of the band’s songs. Headlining will be a supergroup composed of singer-guitarist James Farwell (Bison), drummer Josh Wells (Black Mountain), guitarist Adam Ess (Needles//Pins), and bassist Mike Payette (Pride Tiger). The Blackout Lights will also perform a set, as will a one-off outfit called the Hugh MacLennans made up of members of Seven Nines and Tens and the Waning Light.
Two members of the Hugh MacLennans, David Cotton and Sage Davies—both of whom do double duty on vocals and guitar—met up with the Straight at a South Granville café to discuss the New Year’s event, which bears the Hip-derived title Metropolis Noir. Cotton wouldn’t reveal the set list for the show, but he did allow that it will include some surprises.
“Sage and I headlined a Hip tribute about a year ago, and we really noticed that people were just losing their minds for the hits,” Cotton said. “So, to start with, Sage and I chose a set of just basically a small handful of hits. Then we saw what tracks the Black Mountain and Bison guys were doing and we were like, ‘Oh, hell no. Let’s take a bit of a deep dive.’ So we chose a couple of deeper cuts as well.”
Even though the music of his own long-running project, Seven Nines and Tens, could possibly best be described as blackened postmetal with a heavy shoegaze influence, Cotton has made his love of the Hip evident in subtle ways. Two songs on SNAT’s 2016 EP Set the Controls for the Heart of the Slums, for example, have titles inspired by Downie’s lyrics. These are “I Come From Downtown”, derived from “Grace, Too”, and “Metropolis Noir/Rigs”, derived from “Greasy Jungle”.
“Grace, Too” and “Greasy Jungle” are tracks from Day for Night, the Tragically Hip’s fourth full-length. Both Cotton and Davies consider that 1994 LP an artistic turning point for the Kingston rockers, marking the quintet’s progression from a great bar band into something else entirely.
“The Day for Night record, when that came out, that was a huge leap from anything that they’d done previously,” Davies noted. “The arrangements were much spacier, the recording techniques just added so much more dimension to it, the guitar-playing was interesting—and buried. It wasn’t all right in your face, like the ‘New Orleans Is Sinking’ riff hammering out your speaker at you. It was sort of this ghost riff that came in and flowed back out of the mix.”
Cotton also praised the sometimes inscrutable but always engrossing poetry of Downie. “The lyrics are just impossibly clever,” he said. “I know that Gord put a lot of work into his lyrics, and, from stories that I’ve read, that he wasn’t just putting words down on paper to fill a section of a song. Every single line had to mean something. I listen to the discography, and there’s so many impossibly clever nuggets in his words. That really resonates with me, for sure.”
All proceeds of Metropolis Noir New Year’s Eve will be donated to the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, the mission of which is to bridge gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Wearing a purple homburg with feathers tucked into the band is optional but encouraged.
Metropolis Noir New Year’s Eve takes place at the Rickshaw Theatre on December 31. For details, see event listing.