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Tragically Hip find trouble in Red Deer

“It’s Tuesday night in Red Deer! What trouble . . . can we get ourselves in?” shouted Gord Downie to growing cheers from about 4,500 fervent fans of The Tragically Hip at the Centrium.

It’s been six long years since the Toronto-based group last performed in Red Deer — but this week’s concert reaffirmed that certain things don’t change.

The Hip’s fabulously eccentric frontman still thrashed about on stage as he delivered new songs, such as At Transformation, and old favourites, including New Orleans is Sinking.

He waved a white handkerchief as if flies needed swatting.

Downie also spun like an LP, conducted stream-of-consciousness monologues during guitar solos, and dramatically blotted his forehead with aforesaid hankie.

He smoothed his eyebrows with wetted fingers, and bounced the mike stand off the floor as if it were a punching bag clown.

Being the walking, breathing piece of performance art that he is, Downie, at the brink of age 49, is still an unpredictable force of nature.

His edgy, overwrought renditions of songs including Gus: The Polar Bear from Central Park, Grace, Too, and the new Man Machine Poem, showed he’s undiminished by time and endless touring (this time out the group is promoting The Hip’s 13th album, Now For Plan A).

It’s obvious that Downie still loves making music and sharing it with fans. And the same euphoric spirit possesses the rest of the band, which encompasses guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay (who was so immersed in the beat he couldn’t stop grinning).

The exhilaration is what I most remember about the first The Tragically Hip concert I attended. The then-up-and-coming band from Kingston performed for a mostly blotto-ed student crowd at the Ryerson Picnic on Toronto’s Centre Island, circa 1988.

Mental images linger of the group’s grungy black clothing, its spinning singer and joy of music — so it was a thrill to feel the same elation at the Centrium, The band is now 25 years older, definitely tighter, and just as enthusiastic.

Lots of students still make up The Hip’s male-heavy audience (many born after the band formed in 1983) — as well as former students, now in their middle years, who need a good reason to temporarily cut loose from their work-a-day lives.

On Tuesday night, plenty of fists were pumped in the air, rock fingers raised, and beer-fuelled bravado shown (one out-of-hand fan got chased off the stage and was later escorted out of the Centrium by security).

The Hip played a string of songs from its 1996 Trouble at the Hen House album, including Flamenco, Don’t Wake Daddy, Gift Shop and the massive hit Ahead By A Century.

Although brand-new tunes, including Streets Ahead and We Want to Be It, lack the catchy hooks of The Hip’s older material, the group didn’t skimp on favourites, delivering flat-out renditions of Poets, Courage, My Music At Work, Wheat Kings, At The Hundredth Meridian, Nautical Disaster, and Bobcaygeon. (Downie explained the latter enigmatic song is about a love affair between a boy from the city and a girl from the country, saying “The hour and 15 minute commute causes a dilemma.”)

Even after blowing out his voice about 1 1/2 hours in, the hatted Downie, clad in white shirt and black vest, continued to give it his all, rasping and shouting out his songs for another half an hour.

But then, The Tragically Hip didn’t become one of Canada’s favourite bands by wimping out.

“Thank you music lovers!” said Downie, as he left the stage.

Hey, that goes two ways.

The five-member Hamilton band Arkells got the evening off to an upbeat start with performances of No Champagne Socialist and Whistleblower.



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