Y'know concerts are funny things. Every one of them is a unique collision of disparate circumstance, the recipe of which will never be the same again no matter how hard you try to mix, measure and replicate.
And every one has a story. I've probably seen no band more frequently then the pride of Kingston Ontario, The Tragically Hip. They've provided a lot of great memories for me.
It was in 1994 when The Hip (as they are affectionately known by fans) released their finest album, Day For Night. I'd always been of two minds regarding the potential of a major American breakthrough for the band. On one hand I always thought they were too good just to keep to ourselves but on the other hand I also didn't want to see them misappropriated and ruined somehow.
Regardless, they seemed on the cusp of a major breakthrough in 1995 when, thanks to considerable coercion by host Dan Ackroyd, the guys performed spine-jangling renditions of "Grace, Too" and "Nautical Disaster" on Saturday Night Live:
Everyone I knew at the time watched this event with the same interest as the Quebec Referendum (which through no co-incidence I'm sure was around the same time that year). It looked like the cat was out of the bag. Finally we'd have a musical export to truly be proud of.
Indeed, for one brief shining moment, everything in the universe made sense to me.
But "The Hip" didn't make much sense to Americans. Their performance didn't spark tinder. For the next fifteen years the band continued to be our best kept secret. I'm not sure the guys would agree with me, but I'm kinda glad it worked out the way it did.
On the subsequent "Day For Night" tour we bought our tickets as quickly as limited funds would allow. We ended up with fair to poor seats but really didn't care 'cuz we gonna be in the hizzy with one of our favorite bands.
One thing about "The Hip" is that they've always been very socially conscious. Mere hours before the show we heard on the radio that the band was raffling off front row tickets to anyone who brought along canned goods for the local food bank. Almost as an afterthought we retrieved the only appropriate things we had in the cupboard : a tin of carbon-dateable wax beans that we'd inherited from the commune on Lucknow and a can of creamed corn which may have been left over from a 1950's bomb shelter. So armed we went off to the show.
Just inside the door of the Metro Center we spied the bins for the food donations and they looked pretty sparse. In went our wax beans and creamed corn, we were given numbered tickets in exchange and then we hired a couple of Sherpas to take us to our seats.
Well, not five minutes after we'd found our spots the draw began for the front row seats. When they called my number I felt like I'd won a tax-exempt Super Powerball Lottery Sweepstakes!
And as if that wasn't enough, en route down to claim my winnings, my girlfriend's number was called! We now had four front row tickets to see our beloved Hip and we scrambled to locate two friends of ours that we knew were in attendance!
The subsequent show was one of my favorite concerts of all time. Openers The Odds were wonderfully proficient but delightfully tongue in cheek and I kinda miss their cockeyed brand of music. But our beloved headliners were stellar. Gord Downie was in fine form, at one point "taking to the street to shake his banana" whilst and at the same time indulging his penchant for butt wigglin', speaker climbing, spastic head shaking, steam of consciousness ramblings, song snippet mash-ups and microphone stand molestation. Pure friggin' genius.
I remember starting to feel a bit crusty as early as 1997 because kids younger than me didn't seem to care as much for The Hip, preferring to throw their hats into the Our Lady Peace ring instead. I've always found this rather inexplicable, but I guess this is what makes me such a cantankerous old f#@$. Like Paul Simon astutely observed: "Every generation throws it's heroes up the pop charts."
I actually did buy OLP's first album. I kinda dug the tune "Naveed" a bit but then became totally bored to death with their verse-chorus-verse songwriting and lead singer Raine Maida's off-key caterwauling. Every time I have the misfortune of hearing him warble "Superman's Dead" I just wanna punch him in the face.
But that's what music's is all about, isn't it? We all have our own unique passions. I'm certainly willing to wager that there'll be some people out there who'll read this and say the same thing about Gord Downie.
And those people should seek professional help right away. I'm not even kidding. It isn't too late for you. Honestly.
Anyway all I can do is present the evidence, and let you, the Kind Reader judge for yourself as to who is the superior! Hip rules!
Even if I were to punch Raine Maida in the face, I would swiftly feel compelled to pick him up, dust him off, straighten his lapels and then lay a big wet one on him for bringing "Summersault" to Halifax on August 16'th of 2000. This was a stellar outdoor festival of awesome bands organized and attended by OLP that blew through our burg and left me feeling as if I'd taken one giant leap in the direction of lifetime fulfillment.
The show kicked off with the Canadian answer to musical cockroaches, Finger Eleven. Not a lot of people know this but these guys actually began their careers as a preppy-looking Red Hot Chili Peppers rip-off act called (get ready for this) The Rainbow Butt Monkeys.
Don't believe me? Watch this...
That's right, folks, w-a-a-a-a-a-y back before the radio-friendly-unit-shifter called "Paralyzer" resuscitated their endless careers for the umpteenth time, these sellout chameleons where hopping around like idiots trying to do their best Flea impersonations.
Well, in 1997 they'd abandoned this dated sound and adopted the more marketable and gloomy proto-Grunge look. Here's the same band just a few short years later:
Okay, so how exactly did they make that transition from bouncy college dweebs to looking like the road crew for Slipknot?
It gets worse. When proto-Grunge became passe they obviously went on a little sabbatical and came back in 2007 looking and sounding like Nickleback with the serial numbers filed off:
Look, I know you guys gotta pick up a check every once in awhile, but can you at least be a bit more subtle with the multiple attempts at sell-outery?
Anyway I can't crap on them too much since I did buy (and enjoy) two of their albums (1998's Tip and the "Methinks Thou Dost Protest Too Much" The Greyest of Blue Skies disc from 2000). I did this mainly because pickings were kinda slim in the mid to late Nineties and I had a tendency to glom onto anything that sounded vaguely bitter and angry at the time.
Their performance at "Summersault" that year also couldn't be slighted. They certainly acquitted themselves nicely with an energetic effort and commanding sound. I do give them s#!% but even I have to admit that they seem to work like dogs so I'm willing to give 'em bit of a pass.
Also in attendance was British alt-rock outfit Catherine Wheel. Their jangly lackadaisical sound and posture of quiet introspection was wedged squarely between Finger Eleven's boisterous and electric set and the impending appearance of greater things to come. As such, their performance went over like a lead balloon. Amidst a chorus of boos and a hail of plastic bottles, the band crawled off stage while the lead singer hastily promised (in a posh Brit accent): "Goodbye, Halifax! You will never see us again!"
Kinda sad actually. They don't sound too bad. Wrong place wrong time perhaps lads?
Next up was A Perfect Circle, side project for Tool's Maynard James Keenan. I was completely obsessed with this band at the time and their showing at Summersault left me so impressed I bought one of their t-shirts at the merch tent. So it begins...
Maynard was every inch the rock deity: shirtless, bedecked in a long blond fright wig and a pair of barely-north-of-the-equator gold lame pants. He was like a hunched, shuddering wraith: the love child of Iggy Pop and Lady Gaga. Here he is performing the sacrilicious anthem "Judith" live:
While Maynard's voice was pitch-perfect the band was equally game. The Gollum-esque Billy Howerdel laid down a flawless audio tapestry of distinctive guitar stylings that veered across the spectrum of beauty and horror. Speaking of beauty, Argentinian-born bassist Paz Lenchantin enchanted us with her beguiling appearance and hypnotic bass lines (It was like The Spoons all over again!). The rhythm section was carried to dizzying heights by punishing drummer Tim Alexander and everything was held together nicely by veteran guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen.
My only negative memory of the performance was Maynard's promise that he'd come back to Halifax and bring his original band Tool with him. Dude, I'm still waiting!
Speaking of empty promises, we had the Foo Fighters up next. The crowd had already been getting pretty rambunctious but by the time the Foos hit the stage the assembled were worked up into a real lather. As the first vicious notes of "Monkey Wrench" came flying at us, everything went ballistic.
In quick succession I received a size-nine Doc Marten to the mush from a crowd surfer. Irritated that the mook had distracted us momentarily from the stage, the next time he drifted by a companion and I each grabbed one of his shoulders and power bombed him to the ground in a way that would make "The Undertaker" proud.
For a few seconds all the moron could do was just lie there, look up at us and gurgle. Still stunned, we pulled him up, dusted him off and pushed him back into the crowd saying "Dude, I thought we had you but we musta lost our grip. Sorry 'bout that!"
Meanwhile the Foo Fighters were ripping though a lean and mean set featuring now-classic tracks from their first three albums like "This Is A Call", "Everlong", and "Learn To Fly". By the time Dave Grohl took to the drum kit and Taylor Hawkins came to the forefront to perform a cover of Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar", the crowd down below had merged into an amorphous stew of writhing humanity.
And let me tell ya, kids, I've been in some nutty situations in crowds before but this was by far the scariest. When I'm packed in like a sardine like that I usually try and get my arms up around my chest so that I can make some space and keep my lungs operating but there were a few moments when my arms were slowly being driven into my ribcage. At times I felt as if I was in the coils of the Midgard Serpent.
The Foos had decisively annihilated every one of their stage predecessors with a brash, self-assured set of pure molten rawk. What can I possibly say that this clip won't illustrate ten times better?
As a parting gift, Dave Grohl promised he'd bring the band back to do a headline show real soon.
I'm still waiting, Dave.
Crushed, kicked, bruised, dehydrated and beaten I crawled out of the impromptu rugby match and retreated up the face of Citadel Hill to take in Our Lady Peace at a distance. IMHO I kinda though they sounded like crap so I spent this time in traction, preparing for the next spectacle.
By the time the Smashing Pumpkins took the stage I was literally in a state of bliss. Unable to resist the pull of the band I made the pilgrimage back into the scrum and watched in awe as a great band in the autumn of their career blasted out one the most memorable performances I've ever been privileged to witness.
Like Dinosaur Jr. in my last entry, the Pumpkins did little to hype the crowd. They didn't have to. Their stellar musicianship spoke volumes. There wasn't a note out of place. It was truly one of the most practiced, regimented, and flawless sonic assaults I've ever seen unleashed upon an audience.
Looking like a cross between Herman Munster, Nosferatu and the Gerber Baby, lead singer/veteran contrarian Billy Corgan belted out impassioned vocals and some brutal chordage. Recently recruited ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf De Maur made everyone forget D'arcy Wretzky even existed with her slinky and animated performance. James Iha pelted the audience with wave after wave of juicy riffage. And Jimmy Chamberlain, still one of the best drummers in the history of music, pounded out a relentless attack like a human metronome.
I hadn't purchased their swan song CD Machina: The Machines of God at that point in time but their performance of "The Everlasting Gaze" alone that night made me rush out the next day and buy it. Along with "Zero" this tune is still one of my favorites of theirs. The manic outro here is the stuff of legend and it gives me chills every time I hear it:
The Pumpkins provided a slew of unforgettable moments that night, but it as their bittersweet rendition of "1979" had a sea of lighters held aloft and nary a dry eye in the house. In a few months the band would cease to exist as we knew it.
I'm not kidding when I say this: that day changed me fundamentally. It was literally like a religious experience. It was transcendental. The music, the bands, and the performances all conspired for a moment of complete nirvana.
Which I guess is why I got so pissed off by the crowd surfer. Can you imagine having a moment of epiphany in your preferred house of worship and just at the moment of rapture someone comes along and boots you in the melon? It's a miracle I didn't declare jihad on his scrawny ass.
I suspected it then but I know it now: this was one of the best days of my life. Nothing can ever reproduce that historic day and my unique perspective in witnessing it.
I'm telling you right now: if you have any sort of passion for music don't just be content sitting at home spinning a disc or crunching bits on your iPod. Get out there. Capture your own gallery of unforgettable moments before it's too late!