Remembering Gord Downie with the ‘Almost Hip’
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.
The Tragically Hip cover band Almost Hip perform.
The Tragically Hip cover band Almost Hip perform.