In the summer of 1993 I went to a sleepaway camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania. I was a 15-year-old from Charleston, South Carolina, and a few of my cabin mates were from Canada. We did all of your typical summer camp things, and playing music loud was obviously one of them. Over the several weeks we spent together I fell in love with a band my Canadian bunkmates introduced me to – The Tragically Hip, a massively popular rock band north of the border that I’d never heard of. To this day, they’re still one of my favorites, and recently released a ”new” album, “Saskadelphia.”
The Tragically Hip’s story is unconscionably off the radar of so many music fans across the globe. They’re hugely successful in Canada, but never really managed to break into the mainstream in the United States. They’ve sold more than 10 million records and sold out arenas all over Canada, but ask 100 people on the street and my guess is you’ll find exactly zero people who know who they are. Sadly, after 14 albums, their frontman, Gord Downie, passed of brain cancer in 2017. They toured up until the point that Downie passed away, the final shows captured in the documentary “Long Time Running.”
I was lucky enough to see The Hip once, in 1995 at the Music Farm in Charleston, and I cherish that memory. Over the years, while my musical tastes shifted, the one band that was a constant was the Tragically Hip. The subject matter of their songs resonated with me, despite the fact that so much of the Canadian mythos in their lyrics is foreign to a kid from the South. Maybe in the abstract, growing up in the South was more similar than I realized to some of the rural Canadian topics.
When I woke up last week to the news of a new Tragically Hip release, I was a bit surprised to say the least, as Downie was really the driving force of the band.
Saskadelphia was a term the band coined while touring in the 90s, a nod to the constant changing landscape of being on the road. It was the working title of their third release, but their record label apparently thought the term sounded ”too Canadian,” and the 1991 album was renamed ”Road Apples.” The band originally intended for ”Road Apples” to be a double album, but the concept didn’t come to fruition. The release rose to #1 on Canadian album charts and was certified Diamond.
2021’s ”Saskadelphia” is six leftover tracks that were gleaned from the recording sessions, unearthed 30 years later – a sort of time capsule that benefits the Tragically Hip fans way after the fact.
The first song, ”Ouch,” is propelled by the dual guitar attack of Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, and Downie’s signature growling tenor. The song is really strong, and it’s hard to determine how it didn’t make “Road Apples.” The track is, by definition, a throw-away from the original sessions, which is shocking because it’s great.
”Not Necessary,” seems to be a predecessor to ”An Inch An Hour” off of ”Day For Night,” the Hip’s 1994 six-time platinum album. The cadence of the guitar parts and vocals are eerily similar (which isn’t a bad thing), but prescient lyrics are a Hip trademark, and these evoke letting go of things that burden our soul.
The third track actually takes the listener out of a studio environment and into a live show from December, 2000 at the Molson Center in Montreal, aptly titled…”Montreal.” The song is about a 1989 mass shooting in Montreal – Downie leads into it by mentioning it is ”about the identification process.” The song cuts to the heart of what makes the Hip so great – they take an absolutely horrific event and make something beautiful, and it’s another song on the release that really should have made the cut on ”Road Apples.”
The back of the album is represented by the classic 90s Hip sound – frenetically-paced rock songs: ”Crack My Spine Like a Whip” is a straight-ahead rocker, while ”Just As Well” nods to the bluesy influences of early Hip tracks. The EP closes with ”Reform Baptist Blues,” showing off the band’s punk rock leanings.
”Saskadelphia” is a good representation of The Tragically Hip’s early influences, and its six tracks – salvaged from the cutting room floor – are better than most band’s best work.
That’s what made the Hip so special – they just had pure talent across the board, from the musicians to Downie’s stagecraft and style, to the stories they told. It’s a shame so much of the United States, to this day, has no clue who they even are, let alone how great of a band they were.