The sky might’ve been dull, but there was nothing hypothetical about the beauty beheld by thousands of Tragically Hip fans Friday night in Buffalo.
For what might be the first time ever, seven Hip songs were performed with an orchestral accompaniment, as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra joined Strictly Hip, one of, if not the, best Tragically Hip tribute bands, as a special outdoor concert to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Jeremy Hoyle, lead singer of Strictly Hip, is not Gord Downie. He’s a big and tall man compared with Downie’s slight build, but when Hoyle sings, it’s a voice touched with the same grace and delicacy, warbling with passion and intensity when the song demands it. He pays homage to a band he clearly loves, joined by Frank Nicastro on lead guitar, Alan Sliwinski on bass, Johnny Panic on drums and Bruce Wojick on electric and slide guitar. Together, they’ve been touring and playing the Hip for 22 years, including a show for Downie’s birthday earlier this year at Adelaide Hall in Toronto.
They shared a stage with a seemingly endless stream of members of the Buffalo Philharmonic, led by conductor Stefan Sanders. Caroline Desrochers, head of foreign policy and diplomacy service at the Consulate General of Canada, welcomed the crowd of some 8,000 fans to the “historic concert,” speaking highly of the relationship between the US and Canada before Sanders conducted the orchestra through both the Canadian and US national anthems.
— Caroline Desrochers (@desrocherscd) July 1, 2017
And what better way to begin the show than with “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan),” followed by “Yer Not the Ocean.”
For the first few songs – Strictly Hip and the BPO played the first half of the concert together—the orchestra seemed a light counterpart to the band, adding some strings here, a horn blast there. There was a little more depth to the songs the crowd knew so well, flourishes during the chorus and brightness to the bridge. It wasn’t overpowering but it was a nice touch.
— Melissa Holmes (@2MelissaHolmes) July 1, 2017
Nicastro struck his best Rob Baker stance on the solo during “Courage,” swaying back and forth without moving from his appointed position to the left of Hoyle.
The opening chords to “Bobcaygeon” got the crowd going in full. If any Hip song deserved to have orchestration written into the original music, this was it. The strings brought the stars out from behind the clouds, swelling during “that night in Toronto” as the crowd—many of whom might very well have made the short trek to Toronto during the band’s final tour last summer—sang along to every word.
— Barb (@barbhah) July 1, 2017
Next up was “Gift Shop,” with a xylophone plinking along, adding an almost mystical feel to the song and adding a sense of wonder befitting its lyrics. Despite the orchestra greatly outnumbering the band, there was great harmony in the balance of volume and performance. The song was bigger, grander, slightly larger than life, evoking canyons and vast open spaces.
The world needs more cello and upright bass incorporated into rock music. Electric bass is wonderful, it’s distinctive, but there’s a heart and soul and depth to these more traditional, classical instruments.
— Kela Walton (@KelaHarp) July 1, 2017
Following “Gift Shop” was “Ahead By A Century,” songs so often played together or close to each other in setlists that it’s easy to pair them together automatically. The violins were heavenly and the song became ethereal, a lullaby for the many little kids in the crowd who couldn’t have any way of understanding the very special performance they were observing.
The unmistakable intro to “Grace Too” was almost drowned out by the crowd’s cheers. The delicacy of Hoyle’s voice turned into a snarl, screaming “Him? Here? Now?” at the end of the verses, slightly reminiscent of the howls from Downie during last summer’s Kingston finale. Chills.
The finale for Strictly Hip’s performance with the BPO, “Nautical Disaster,” was epic. Close your eyes and think of the song, a devastating tale. Now add thrashing percussion, a wall of strings, a cacophony of brass instruments. I didn’t think it was possible to make that song any bigger, more dramatic or more urgent. Just add an orchestra.
Strictly Hip came back after a short intermission to perform a handful of songs, wrapping their second set with “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” the crowd a little thinner but the voices still raised, shrieking “let me out!” with all they had.
Bradley Thachuk deserves a special thanks and a standing ovation for transcribing The Hip’s music for an orchestra. That this hasn’t been done before is remarkable. The songs are so rich, so emotional, so wide-ranging in and of themselves, but adding all those other instruments brought nuance, depth and gravitas, an extra enrichment this crowd well appreciated.
Buffalo didn’t get a spot on last summer’s Man Machine Poem Tour. There’s undoubtedly a special relationship between the citizens of this city and Kingston’s favourite sons. If we couldn’t host them one last time, this night, this performance, this collaboration might be a beautiful consolation gift.
Strictly Hip with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra:
Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)
Yer Not The Ocean
Ahead By A Century
Hundredth Meridian – “I remember, I remember BUFFALO!”
New Orleans Is Sinking
Locked in the Trunk of a Car
Escape Is At Hand for the Traveling Band
Blow at High Dough