After Gord Downie and the Sadies formed a makeshift band together, Downie remembers their first gig two years ago with a certain fond nostalgia: they were “beautifully miscast” at the country music festival Boots & Hearts, taking the stage in the mid-afternoon sandwiched between “mother and father of Canadian country” Paul Brandt and Terri Clark.
An uneasy fit on the bill, Downie and the Sadies didn’t make things easier for themselves by playing a set of obscure covers and unknown originals.
The performance seemed ever at risk of tilting toward disaster. And Downie savoured every moment.
“In this country, perhaps with a certain identity trailing you around, it’s hard to be miscast,” the Tragically Hip frontman recalled in a telephone interview this week.
“It’s hard to play a gig where you might get the hook, where you might be booed gloriously off the stage. I don’t mean that to sound immodest. … (When) you’re kids, it’s the thing you’re most afraid of, but it’s the thing you miss, just the sort of lack of approval.
“It was exciting. Exciting as hell. No expectation, all challenge. … We really were asking for it. It was glorious.”
Naturally, the collaboration continued. Founded after years of friendship, Downie and the Sadies revelled in joining up when possible for loose jams while gradually accruing and polishing the 10 songs they’ve now released on Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun.
They’d met, largely, on the road. Downie guesses that the Sadies have opened for the Hip more than any other band — and if not, they’re close — and he formed an easy admiration for their fiery fusion of roots, country, psychedelia and bar rock. He “marvelled at their versatility, their agility, their taste and style.”
After being brought together in an official capacity to perform on the CBC-Radio program Fuse, Downie and the Sadies bonded further over their overlapping cluster of influences: Roky Erickson, Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash and the Stooges.
Downie calls the joint performance a “real donkey kick in the chest.” They gathered in their Ottawa hotel afterward and decided they wanted to do more together.
Those 10 tracks then took, more or less, seven years to come together. The Sadies’ Dallas Good says that most songs were written with Downie sitting with one Sadie, strumming a guitar.
Sounds casual, right? Well, the Sadies didn’t earn their reputation for virtuoso instrumental fireworks with lax practices, Downie notes.
“Rehearsals are a strangely sombre affair,” he said. “I used to get freaked out by them. Because it felt like everyone was just very sad — you know, like, who died? I’d come in sort of cracking wise and I’d leave wondering if I’d said too much.
“It’s a bit of an undertaker’s convention. But with time, I’d really come to know them and I’d really enjoy those rehearsals.”
The result — released this week — resembles the usual work of neither the Hip nor the Sadies. Album opener Crater seethes with fuzzy guitar fury while It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon similarly barrels forth on a frothy wave of distortion. Even more characteristic cuts are cheerfully unkempt, with Downie’s rangy yelp only occasionally elbowing its way to the front of the mix.
Downie has raved that the Sadies can play anything. It’s popular praise for the versatile band, and Good has a retort prepared.
“I like to think that just because you can play anything doesn’t mean you should,” he said with a laugh. “But you can imagine how sick to death I am of country and western music.
“A left turn, sometimes, is good for the soul,” he added, “as opposed to just ridiculous and out of character.”
Downie’s intricate lyrics are typically literate and, at times, impenetrable — so much so that Good admits he forced to Downey dissect his abstractions.
“In some cases he had to literally explain to me what a song meant,” he said. “That’s something that made me 100 per cent confident in working with him.
“I don’t have much confidence in the lyrics I write, but I slave over them,” Good added. “I seriously admire what he’s able to do.”
That admiration goes back a long way.
Good remembers more than a decade ago approaching Downie and volunteering the Sadies’ support for any sort of benefit concert or awareness-spreading event that Downie would plan. That conversation resulted in the band first recording with Downie for the 2006 benefit album for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an (ahem) watershed moment in their shared history.
“The only political point of view that Gord seems to have that I’m at odds with is his love for hockey and Bruce Springsteen,” said Good with a sly laugh.
“Otherwise … I’d vote for him. Even with those few details in place.
“I love him dearly.”
Downie, for his part, demurs when asked about his social conscience.
“I haven’t written too many political lyrics,” he said.
“Conversely, nor have I written any pro-Canada lyrics, any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant. … That stuff doesn’t interest me and I don’t even know if I could write that if I tried, because I don’t really feel it.
“Social causes are quite obvious. Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in.”
Downie is among the musicians who spoke out against a proposal to increase the capacity of two pipelines running from Ontario to Quebec last fall.
He also backed Neil Young’s anti-oilsands campaign. The 50-year-old was in the audience at Young’s recent benefit concert at Massey Hall, which raised money for an Alberta First Nation community embroiled in a legal battle to protect their traditional territory from further industrialization.
To find such deep creative inspiration more than 30 years into one’s music career isn’t something to take lightly, so it’s not surprising that Downie and the Sadies want to continue their collaboration.
This is a band, not a lark — nor a side project, Good insists: “I know what constitutes a side project: a mediocre album.”
“We have every intention of continuing to perform and write together,” Good added.
“I’ve already begun writing for it.”
Downie, too, is committed.
“I’d love it. Yeah. I would love it. It’s been like seven or eight years — it took that long probably for a reason, I guess. I hope it doesn’t take that long again. But if it did, I’d be fine. I just enjoy it.”
“I was crying very hot tears the whole show. It hit me halfway through the first song. Mostly everything he was playing, it wasn’t just the usual stuff — it was my Neil Young jukebox, one after the other,” Downie remembered.
“But then it was the confluence of a lot of things. Like time, (and) how much I loved and admired Neil Young. But then also, how much I admired his courage and how laggard this country has been for that courage, for anyone speaking out at that level and taking those hits and taking those shots. (How) the so-called green and environmental movement is dismissed and categorized and (how) denigrated it’s been. How hard these people have struggled and worked as the laws get denuded and defanged out from under them.
“All of this is combining around that show,” he added. “And again, I was crying so hard that I just kept absolutely still, kept my chin up and let it fall onto my shirt. Because anything else would have been making a spectacle. I tried not to sniff or blubber or even dab these things — it just flowed. I say that because it was so powerful and it’s been so missing. I’ll always be grateful for that night, for Neil Young.
“These kinds of things,” he added, “inspire me.”
So did the Sadies.