Re­mem­ber­ing Gord Downie with the ‘Al­most Hip’

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - JOEL RUBINOFF

Gord Downie, were he still alive, would love this guy.

Craig Dougan, that is — sim­ple, unas­sum­ing with no delu­sions of rock star grandeur.

When he’s not play­ing Trag­i­cally Hip songs as front­man for Kitch­ener trib­ute band The Al­most Hip, he’s tin­ker­ing away on his own singer-song­writer ma­te­rial or de­liv­er­ing paint to stores around South­ern On­tario.

De­liv­er­ing paint? You can’t get much more down to earth than that.

“I re­mem­ber see­ing the Trag­i­cally Hip for the first time at Ballingers night­club in Cam­bridge,” re­calls the low-key per­former, await­ing an or­der of chicken wings at Ethel’s Lounge.

“It would have been 1989. The place was jammed, hot and sweaty. Gord re­ally put on an in­cred­i­ble show. It blew my mind.”

Ah, Downie, the pa­tron saint of Cana­dian rock, “Canada’s Shake­speare,” a man so de­i­fied in death that the mere ut­ter­ance of his name causes Hip fans to clutch their pal­pi­tat­ing hearts and gaze wist­fully at the sky.

This is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

At the Burn­ing Man art fes­ti­val in the Ne­vada desert, fans swore his vis­age — com­plete with iconic feath­ered hat — emerged from the fire as a sig­nal from above.

A year af­ter his death, the life of a man as em­bed­ded in our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness as Moun­ties, maple syrup and bad Cana­dian sit­coms con­tin­ues to res­onate.

• At a concert in Barcelona, Spain, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament — a mu­si­cal peer — wore a “Gord F—ing Downie” T-shirt.

• At the win­ter games in Pyeongchang, Olympic fig­ure skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir tore up the ice to The Hip’s “Long Time Run­ning.”

• At the dawn of the le­gal­ized cannabis era, five strains of weed have been named af­ter clas­sic Hip tunes, in­clud­ing “Grace,” “50MC,” “Morn­ing Moon” and “El­do­rado.”

It’s also worth not­ing that, af­ter three decades of am­bi­tious blues rock spiked with Cana­dian ge­og­ra­phy, no other rock band has cred­i­bly emerged to fill the gap as “Canada’s band.”

Sure, you can make a case for The Arkells (provoca­tive, po­lit­i­cal), Ar­cade Fire (an­ar­chic, idio­syn­cratic), Sam Roberts (pas­sion­ate, prin­ci­pled) and Blue Rodeo (in­tegrity, longevity).

But as fans will at­test, there was only one Trag­i­cally Hip.

And when the Kingston quin­tet packed it in af­ter a ma­jes­tic tele­vised concert in Au­gust 2016, their mu­si­cal legacy came to a com­plete stop. Which, of course, was the cue for an avalanche of trib­ute acts to re­vive their spirit, if not in a creative sense, in a slav­ishly im­i­ta­tive one.

“No one has ever come up to me and said ‘Hey man, you should do it full time!” con­fides Dougan, a 52-year-old Kitch­ener res­i­dent who stud­ied real es­tate ap­praisal in Corn­wall be­fore his ven­ture into the world of paint de­liv­ery.

“I never looked at mu­sic as a ca­reer. It’s some­thing I do for fun, to blow off steam.”

As mourn­ing for Downie con­tin­ues a year af­ter his death, Dougan — his own idol wor­ship firmly in check — seems un­fazed at the prospect of car­ry­ing the torch for a man some con­sider a saint.

“I think his work will be re­mem­bered for­ever in time,” he notes when I push him to de­fine Downie’s legacy.

“I’m not sure I’d say he was/is a Vir­tual God. That would be a bit of an over­state­ment, in my opin­ion.”

Dougan ac­tu­ally met Downie, once af­ter a show in Lon­don, Eng­land, where he was in­vited back­stage to rub shoul­ders with the spas­mat­i­cally en­er­gized front­man, and once at a CBC tap­ing of “The Hour” on which the band ap­peared.

“How you doin’, man?” “How you doin?”

There was no pre­tense. No jock­ey­ing for at­ten­tion.

“It was very brief,” notes Dougan. “I’m a fan, not a stalker.”

Now that Downie is gone, with a hole in the coun­try’s mu­si­cal psy­che, this squat, work­ing class guy with­out an ounce of pre­ten­sion is ready to drop the gloves and let it rock.

Sorry, “con­tinue” to rock, since he’s been chan­nelling Downie’s creative muse since 1990.

“In high school, I loved AC/DC and Rush, Aero­smith and the Stones,” con­fides the For­est Heights Col­le­giate grad, who con­sid­ers his am­bi­tiously eclec­tic men­tor a Cana­dian poet.

“But I was never a Zep­pelin guy or a Bea­tles guy. I was re­ally a Cana­di­ana guy.”

Set­tling on The Trag­i­cally Hip af­ter a friend re­cruited him for a then un­spec­i­fied cover band was a stroke of luck, he ad­mits, since it could just as eas­ily have been April Wine, Trooper or Kim Mitchell.

“I guess we picked the right group,” he laughs, care­ful not to dis­par­age those other Cana­dian icons. “Be­cause they’re still rel­e­vant 28 years later.”

Still, he ad­mits, de­mand had dipped since the Hip’s com­mer­cial hey­day in the ’90s.

But Downie’s death — “af­ter a col­lec­tive gasp across the en­tire coun­try” — brought it roar­ing back with a vengeance.

“It’s back to what it was when we first started,” notes Dougan, who es­ti­mates his band now per­forms 72 gigs a year, up from a pre-death to­tal of 50. “It’s full cir­cle.”

The up­side: for the first time in years, Al­most Hip can pick its gigs and per­form en­tire Hip al­bums like “Up To Here” with­out feel­ing com­pelled to stick to hits.

The down­side: the Hip clone wars have reached epic pro­por­tions, with make-believe Down­ies belt­ing out “Small Town Bring­down” in ev­ery city in Canada.

“On Canada Day, you had Strictly Hip at Kitch­ener City Hall while we were across the street at the Rhap­sody Bar­rel Bar,” laughs Dougan, who dis­counts the le­git­i­macy of any trib­ute act formed af­ter Downie’s di­ag­no­sis.

“It was like a down­town Hipoff !”

It doesn’t bother him.

As the singer for what is touted as the “long­est run­ning Trag­i­cally Hip Trib­ute Band on the Planet,” he notes that as long as de­mand is at a peak, there’s enough work for ev­ery­one.

“He’s like the Cana­dian Elvis,” he says of Downie’s post-death pop­u­lar­ity. “And we’re no dif­fer­ent than an Elvis trib­ute act.

“I don’t dress up like him. I’m try­ing to re­spect the mu­sic and do my own take on it. But I can mimic him pretty closely. Peo­ple have said ‘I close my eyes and it sounds like Gord’s in the room!’”

His re­sponse to those who ac­cuse him of cash­ing in, sul­ly­ing the spirit, cheap­en­ing the mem­ory?

“There’s no more Trag­i­cally Hip,” he says mat­ter-of-factly. “It’s over. What’s the next best thing? The Al­most Hip!”

Some­where in the Ne­vada desert, in a mon­ster flame at Burn­ing Man, Downie is giv­ing a tip of his feath­ered hat.

COUR­TESY AL­MOST HIP

The Trag­i­cally Hip cover band Al­most Hip per­form.

COUR­TESY AL­MOST HIP

The Trag­i­cally Hip cover band Al­most Hip per­form.

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