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Cool as Puck
By Erik Hage

The Tragically Hip
Northern Lights, Oct. 21

For a band like the Tragically Hip, who have enjoyed massive success in their native Canada for a couple of decades, slipping across the border can be a bit like dissolving through the looking glass. In their own country, the Hip routinely fill hockey arenas and flood outdoor festivals; on our soil, they become a band of smaller proportions, hitting strings of beer-stained clubs.

But at a club venue this far north in the United States, they’re bound to have a healthy crop of Canadians streaming across the border in pursuit, looking for an opportunity to see their arena-sized heroes up-close and personal. And by the time the Hip had hit the stage at Northern Lights, the place was packed to the gills with Canadian and Capital Region fans alike. (Photographer Joe Putrock noted, and I agreed, that this was the biggest audience we had seen at Northern Lights.)

As the group approached the stage, it was hard not to sense the groundswell of nationalism in the crowd. And not the uncomfortable kind—more a sense of communal devotion mixed with an inescapable branding of Canadian identity. Hard to put your finger on, but undeniably felt—from the $100 hockey jerseys at the merch table to the numerous videotapers to a whole lot of people knowing all the words to a canon of tunes that stretches back 17 years. With their massive yet highly insular success, the Hip (like Blue Rodeo, their comparably successful countrymen) wear their “Canadian-ness” despite themselves, and they have, over the years, become a sort of provincial archetype.

All of which is not to undermine the fact that the Hip are a great band based on any cultural standard. Their newest single, “Vaccination Scar”—a brazen alt-rock blast of ruddy poetry and molten guitar slide—is as strong as any tune they’ve recorded. (Host station EQX has been giving it frequent spins.) And the Northern Lights show found them still firmly atop their game, drilling the audience with song after song of charged, enigmatic rock fare. (Reaching for musical comparisons, you really have to paint with broad strokes and similarly expansive groups—R.E.M. for example.)

Gord Downie is one of the more cryptic frontmen in alt-rock history, and by song two, “Fully, Completely,” he had already revved up into the state of awkward abandonment for which he’s known and loved—skinny body listing at odd angles, inward smile on his lips and spastically hugging the mic against the side of his head like a man on a journey toward his inner child. And much like the weird yet magnetic concert presence of Morrissey or Michael Stipe in a younger day (not that Gord is young), you believe every gesture; here’s a man, you think, whose ego seems to have become dismantled and has collapsed right into the song. (To put it more bluntly, he’s not afraid of some righteously odd private moments up there.)

Downie doesn’t do a lot of chumming with the audience: He might mutter some inscrutable incantations over the opening strains of song, to sort of torque himself (and the audience) up into the tune; nevertheless, he’s a fairly benign presence, bald, average-looking and kind of frog-mouthed. On the street, you’d peg him for a cool accountant at best.

Downie and group hit their stride remarkably quickly, and by midset they had scaled their first peak on a towering version of “Nautical Disaster.” The best Hip songs are delivered with the grandly precocious energy of mini-epics, a tall intention—and one that can make a band look downright silly if all the inspiration isn’t there. But “Disaster” was hammered home convincingly by the beautiful machinery of the Hip: a thunderously tight rhythm section, a tangle of barbed guitars, and Downie’s apocalyptic warble. (The culmination of the song found Downie with one arm kind of hung up in the air, the rest of him kind of hanging off of it limply, in a gesture that was at once both lofty cliché and lonely marionette.)

The two encores were a mix of the contemporary and the old. The last strains of the night came with the guitar-snarly classic “Blow at High Dough,” but the most significant performance arrived via the first encore song and current single “Vaccination Scar,” a searing charge that seemed to announce the Tragically Hip as an alt-rock band for the ages—beyond borders.

Charmed

Sondre Lerche, the Golden Republic
Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Oct. 23

At all of 21 years old, Sondre Lerche has already planted the seeds for what could be a very lengthy and rewarding career. It’s rare to find a young performer with such innate talent—he has both an ear for fine melodic craftsmanship, and the ability to throw the crowd over his shoulder and carry them for a 90-minute set. Nursing the same cold that will undoubtedly make its way around the entire Northeast by autumn’s end, the young Norwegian was charming as all get-out for the duration of his performance. Perhaps this was uncharacteristic—the little blue pills and Throat Coat tea that he was gulping down throughout the evening may have affected his demeanor—but that’s doubtful. More likely, what we have here is a born showman, and he gave the near-capacity crowd at the Iron Horse a wonderful performance, ailments be damned.

Lerche’s latest LP, Two Way Monologue, expands and expounds on the promise of his debut (2002’s Faces Down). Having stripped away some of the fluff, his Bacharach-via-Beck thing shows through more colorfully. Plus, his songs are simply drop-dead gorgeous, which means they’re often at their best boiled down to electric guitar and vocal, and that’s how they were presented on Saturday night. From the opening couplet of “Track You Down” and “Days That Are Over,” bossa-nova-lover Lerche was in full command of his audience, frequently telling jokes between songs (made funnier by his sporadic bouts with the English language) and evoking shrieks from the two-thirds female (and largely underage) audience with every flip of his shaggy coif.

The youthful, angular features and cream-smooth voice (a young Wayne Newton?) are certainly attractive qualities, but it’s Lerche’s sweet, sincere balladry that’s the real draw. The best examples came on the Faces Down tunes “You Know So Well” and “Modern Nature.” The latter, originally recorded as a romantic duet, became a volley between Lerche and the entire audience. A self-proclaimed narcissist (“I’m a pop singer-songwriter, what else would I be?” he quipped), Lerche gave as good as he got, including an a cappella rendering of “Moonlight Becomes You” that practically melted the room.

Kansas City band the Golden Republic, who also turned in a spiffy opening set, joined Lerche to beef up the last stretch. They’re an energetic bunch, and their People EP is a keeper, but it took a few minutes for the band’s inherent bombast to settle in with Lerche’s careful dynamic nuance. Once things meshed, the bigger, badder sound was quite welcome, a nice contrast to the coffeehouse-like intimacy of the set’s first two-thirds. “Sleep on Needles” and “Two Way Monologue” were particularly well-suited to this arrangement—the choppy ska guitar and farfisa organ of the latter would have otherwise been missed—and Kenn Jankowski’s falsetto backing vocals were both vital and hilarious.

—John Brodeur

Live Overheard

Woman: “Are you ADD?”

Man: “I thought I was a
year ago.”

Woman: “I do.”

Man: “What?”

Woman: “Have ADD.”

—a young college couple at the Tragically Hip concert.


Party Like It’s 1499

Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music
The Egg, Oct. 21

The story goes something like this: Sometime in 1999, Playboy magazine asked Richard Thompson for his best songs of the millennium, for one of those tedious end-of-the-century “best-of” lists that were so ubiquitous at the time. Thompson, figuring that a list of songs from the past 1,000 years was the last thing Playboy really wanted, submitted exactly what was asked for: a scholarly list of tunes starting out in 1068. Of course Playboy didn’t print it, but Thompson was intrigued enough by it, and just crazy enough, to turn the bizarre little list into a show.

This was not a Richard Thompson show by a long stretch, and those expecting the typical and nonstop fireworks, passion, virtuosity, and wit were bound to be disappointed. In many ways, this show may have been more enjoyable to those who hadn’t seen Thompson before, and wouldn’t have the raised expectations of those who had. It was more somber and more academic, with the silliness creeping in and gaining a foothold and finally, at the end, taking over completely. The earliest works, English rounds and court songs, bawdy 15th-century Italian ditties, sea chanteys, and the works, were minimal and sparse, and Thompson did little to jazz them up. He just played the songs, with goofy but telling introductions.

And that was enough. He’s a great singer, and he treated each song with reverence. Fans of Thompson, and folkies in general, were shown from whence it all came, from the straight-up and stripped-down treatments of the old and super-old songs.

Things got more lively about halfway through the 19th century, with vaudville novelties and Gilbert & Sullivan, and the show hit full stride in the 20th century. The song selections were sublime: a 1941 Noel Coward patriotic song called “London Pride,” Nat King Cole’s blistering “Orange Colored Sky,” the Inkspots’ “Java Jive,” Hank Ballard’s honky-tonkin’ “A-11.”

And into the ’60s with the Kinks’ ethereal “See My Friends” followed by the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.” And it all wound up with a tour de force rendition of Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did it Again.” The absolute lunacy of seeing Thompson deadpan “I’m not that innocent” was topped only by the sing-along chorus where the crowd (average age 50) got to sing the line.

And I think it was the deadpanning that was the genius of the show. Thompson treated Bowling for Soup’s “1985” with exactly the same reverence he gave “Sumer is Icumen In,” which was not only hysterical but telling as well.

Thompson was accompanied by vocalist Judith Owen, who sang like an angel but tended to have a slightly overbearing stage presence (think Tori Amos), and percussionist Debra Dobkin, who not only inventively kicked songs into gear, but lit up the stage every time she chimed in with background vocals.

—Paul Rapp

Party Like It’s 1979

The Briefs
Saratoga Winners, Oct. 23

“I’m poor and I’m weird baby, you’ve got no time for me,” chanted the Briefs during their set Saturday night at Saratoga Winners, as the skinny-tied punk band’s signature tune “Poor and Weird” recalled the twisted self-deprecation of the Buzzcocks amid a barrage of shouted-out choruses. The Seattle band, with peroxide hair and white new-wave sunglasses, blasted through two-minute-or-less tunes from each of their three immensely catchy albums, playing with an infectious energy that came from having every member of the four-piece chiming in on spirited choruses. During “(Looking Through) Gary Glitter’s Eyes,” guitarist Steve E. Nix sang with a crazed, wide-eyed look as the rest of the band intoned “Do you want to touch me?,” a cheeky reference to the disgraced glam rocker’s big hit.

If the Briefs’ latest album, Sex Objects, had come out on Interscope Records, you might have heard of them by now. Instead, the major label signed the band following the release of their killer Dirtnap Records debut Hit After Hit, then dropped them after not knowing just what to make of witty punkers. (The Briefs are now signed to BYO, a label run by members of ’80s L.A. punk band Youth Brigade.) It’s too bad that more rock fans don’t know about the Briefs, who have crossover appeal extending beyond the circle of diehard punk fans who literally danced rings around the Winners’ floor in a punk-rock conga line during the Briefs set. To those fans, the Briefs have the same sort of appeal as absurdist British punkers the Toy Dolls and first-wave British pop punks the Boys (whom the Briefs covered).

The Briefs revisit the best elements of late-’70s punk and new wave much like their former Dirtnap labelmates the Exploding Hearts, a fellow Pacific Northwest band whose career was prematurely halted last year after a tragic van accident. While the Hearts played their dynamic power pop with a touch of sincerity, the Briefs bust on nearly everything. Targets include themselves, the nation (“We Americans” and “Destroy the USA”), even Bob Seger’s old time rock & roll. At Winners, where the Briefs played third on a bill of six punk bands, the night’s timeliest political statement came courtesy of their “Orange Alert,” a sardonic take on color-coded terrorist alerts. “We live in fear,” chimed the chorus. “The end is near/And we’re easy to control.”

—Kirsten Ferguson


 

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