When they asked me to review the Tragically Hip, I resisted at first. It was a little late for an old sports writer to become a rock critic. And how could I be objective?
The Hip are my favorite band. Gordon Downie is one of my heroes. I get choked up at some point whenever I see them live.
Eventually, I relented. Bruce Andriatch, the features editor, said it didn’t matter if I knew about chord progressions or bass lines. It would work out fine.
He didn’t tell me what to do if it rained.
Rain was inevitable, of course. At around 6 p.m., a hard wind was whipping through the outer harbor concert site, whispering of bad things to come. I told myself the storm would blow through, as I do before a big golf date.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, the pride of Vermont, knocked ’em dead in a one-hour warm-up. Potter, resplendent in a white bathrobe and high heels, blazed through her standards, “Medicine” and “Paris (Ooh La La).” In a nod to Canadian rock, she did a stirring cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”
In a tribute to a late friend, Potter sang, “I can’t look at the stars.” I looked up anyway.
Dark clouds were moving over the venue and toward the south. Maybe we’d be spared, after all.
At 8:45, the Hip arrived on stage, as their faithful fans exulted. Thirty years and still the same five guys: Johnny Fay on drums; Gord Sinclair on bass; Paul Langlois and Rob Baker on guitars; Downie, the genius front man, singing, ranting and dancing around like a puppet come to life.
Downie was dressed in a seersucker suit, with a black tie and fedora. In exaggerated diva fashion, he wiped his head with a white handkerchief. He wiped his shiny belt buckle. As always, he treated the microphone like an animate friend.
I was about 20 feet from the stage, right in the center. No VIP status or backstage pass for me. I wanted to be with the people. I was surrounded by kids and people in their 50s. Clutching my notebook, I felt like Bill Miller, the 15-year-old kid in the movie “Almost Famous.”
The Hip began with “At Transformation,” from their 13th and latest album, “Now For Plan A.” The second line of the song is “Through the night it’s been raining venom.” I kept seeing omens.
Then it was “Grace Too,” one of the Hip’s signature concert numbers, which pulls inveterate Hip watchers right into Gord’s orbit. I was right there with them, lifting my right arm toward the Buffalo skyline and singing along, “I come from downtown, born ready for you.”
Did I mention my lack of objectivity?
They moved on to “Escape Is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man,” a quirky fan favorite that evolved into a live staple. Then Downie did “Man Machine Poem,” another number off the latest record. Ask Jeff Miers if you want to know what it means.
At one point, Downie used the microphone stand to paddle himself across the stage. He has a thing about water. Two of the Hip’s biggest numbers are “Nautical Disaster” and “New Orleans Is Sinking.” Evidently, he sensed a nautical event was about to unfold.
The rain began at the very instant the Hip launched into their fifth number, “Love Is a First.” It was dark by then. The rainfall came swiftly and suddenly, slanting sideways across the stage, splashing off the black floor and the instruments.
“A warm, pelting rain,” Downie said.
Unfazed, Downie sang at the very front of the stage, letting the rain pour over him like applause. He held out his hat, collecting random raindrops.
The crowd was almost delirious, shouting the refrain to the offending skies, “This is as bad as or worse! As bad as or worse. Love is a curse!”
The weather was a curse. So be it. We’re Buffalo fans. We endure. We get the Hip, and Downie gets us. He talked about our beautiful city. He chided the rain.
“Don’t take any undue pride,” Gordon said, “because we saw you coming.”
They stopped the show for 15 minutes. Langlois came out, drinking from a red plastic cup and smoking a cigarette. Downie sat near the front of the stage, his hat between his legs. He clacked cups with Langlois.
A “Let’s Go, Buffalo” chant went through the crowd. I doubt many of the 12,000 fans left. Downie delivered a couple of his rambling soliloquies.
“In a flooded world,” he said, “it’s the women who are the swimmers.”
Downie said there were electrical problems, but he was confident the show would resume. Then he and Langlois did a two-man rendition of the lovely “Wheat Kings.” The crowd helped him out, blaring out “Wheat kings and pretty things, let’s see what tomorrow brings!”
That’s when I started to cry. For more than 20 years, the Tragically Hip have been an emotional touchstone for me, one of those unforeseen benefits of moving to Buffalo and living next to Canada, along with hockey, wineries and Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Downie and Langlois performed “Scared,” a personal favorite of mine. At 9:45, Downie delivered the bad news. Even worse weather was coming. The show was over. People had to leave.
“Let’s do it nice and orderly; slow, cool fashion,” Downie said. “We’ll all get safe and take a shower, and this will all be some strange dream.”
He thanked the fans twice. Later, as the traffic jam snaked its way out of the parking lot, the Hip agreed to reschedule the concert, likely within the next month. Fans will be reissued tickets from their point of purchase.
Promoters said the Hip were under no contractual obligation. But they feel a commitment to the fans of Buffalo, who have stood by them all these years. There’s a mutual love there, an almost sacramental bond.
In its own way, Friday was a show to remember. It was tough to walk away without hearing “Courage,” “Ahead by a Century” or “Little Bones.”
But I’ll never forget Downie improvising his way through a rain delay. It’s good to know the Hip will be back soon.
I plan to be there. This time, as only a fan.