Even though The Tragically Hip is no longer touring or writing new material as a band, 2021 has been a busy year for Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Gord Sinclair, and Paul Langlois. In February, Strippers Union (fronted by Rob Baker and Craig Northey) released their third album, The Undertaking. The Hip teamed up with Thornbury Craft Cider & Beer to release ‘Road Apples Cider’ in April. In May, they released Saskadelphia, a collection of six songs recorded for 1991’s Road Apples, and earlier in June, they received the Humanitarian Award at the 2021 Junos, which saw the band perform with Feist during the ceremony. And just last week, they announced ‘Lake Fever Lager,’ a collaboration between The Hip and Big Rock Brewery.
That’s an impressive amount of work for a band that essentially broke up in 2017 following the death of lead singer Gord Downie, who had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in 2015.
While the beer and cider (which are a nice addition to the series of wines they released starting in 2014) and the solo projects are certainly exciting, it was the new material and the fresh performance that really seemed to reignite Canada’s love for the iconic band. For Hip guitarist Paul Langlois, it was particularly thrilling to have new music to promote with the release of the Saskadelphia EP.
“Usually with every record, there are a couple of months from when we finish recording until it comes out,” said Langlois. “It can be kind of daunting, wondering what people are going to think. This wasn’t quite like that. We really liked these songs, but they didn’t make the original album, and we’d forgotten about some of them. It’s been kind of exciting, and kind of strange. The reaction has been great.”
Five of the six songs on Saskadelphia were recorded for what became Road Apples, but didn’t make the final cut. The sixth song, ‘Montreal,’ was taken from a live recording.
“[Drummer] Johnny Fay always paid attention to the engineers,” said Langlois. “He watched how they catalogued the sessions and saw how the engineers labelled the tapes. So he was leading the charge on this.”
Saskadelphia’s opening track, ‘Ouch,’ could have likely substituted for ‘Twist My Arm’ or maybe ‘Cordelia’ on Road Apples, but it’s easy to see how there wasn’t room for another riff-driven rocker. Downie’s vocal workout is similar to that of ‘Fight,’ but at two or three times the pace. ‘Not Necessary’ features jangly guitars and, in retrospect, sounds like it could have been a better fit for either 1989’s Up To Here or 1992’s Fully Completely. ‘Montreal,’ ‘a song about the identification process’ according to Downie’s introduction, was written from the perspective of the parents of the victims of the École Polytechnique Massacre. Fay wasn’t able to track down a studio recording, so The Hip used this performance from a live performance in Montreal on December 7, 2000, the day after the anniversary of the massacre, and the only time the song was performed live outside of a few performances in 1991.
‘Crack My Spine Like A Whip’ is another song that was performed live often in the Road Apples era, and was often circulated amongst fans in later years. It has such a classic Hip sound that it could be a Frankenstein of several other classic Road Apples songs. ‘Just As Well’ is a short, to the point rock n’ roll song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rolling Stones set, and the album closer, ‘Reformed Baptist Blues,’ sees all five band members firing on all cylinders and Downie howling like he has, indeed, found old time religion.
“We had Don in mind when we mixed Saskadelphia,” said Langlois, referring to the late Don Smith who produced Up To Here, Road Apples, and mixed 1998’s Phantom Power. “Mark Vreeken, our long-time engineer, did his best to mix these tracks to sound just like Road Apples. We’ve really enjoyed the whole process. I have to give big credit to Robbie (Baker) for taking on the art direction. He loves doing that. We really liked the packaging and the whole thing.”
Just over two weeks after the release of Saskadelphia, The Tragically Hip received The Humanitarian Award at the Junos for their many philanthropic ventures over the years, including several fundraising concerts in Kingston for Almost Home, Camp Trillium, and many others. The band played live from the floor of Massey Hall in Toronto, with singer-songwriter Leslie Feist taking on lead vocal duties for performance of ‘It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken,’ the lead single from 2002’s In Violet Light.
“We love Leslie and we loved playing with her,” said Langlois. “She was very confident, which made us less nervous. We were going to play ‘Long Time Running,’ partially because it was the 50th anniversary of the Junos, but the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t feel like the right fit. The five of us had a Zoom call, and my intention was to try and change our song choice, but Johnny Fay brought up the exact same song idea before I did. It was a happy coincidence, and definitely let me know that it was the right song. Leslie was amazing.”
Just as the initial hype from Saskadelphia and the Junos has been waning, the Hip announced on Monday, Jun. 21, 2021 that they’ve partnered Alberta-based Big Rock Brewery to create ‘Lake Fever Lager,’ described as a “thirst-quenching lagered ale that is long on taste but still refreshing and crushable.”
“We took the beer very seriously,” said Langlois. “We went back and forth with Big Rock for probably six months. We were trying to describe what we wanted and we weren’t getting there, it was really trying everyone’s patience. Rob [Baker] is really more of a wine and cider guy, so he looks after those, but Gord Sinclair, Johnny [Fay] and I are big beer drinkers, and the three of us finally agreed on one. It’s had really good reactions from our beer drinking friends. So far, everyone’s really liking it.”
With a few major projects out of the way, Langlois said the members of the band will be mostly relaxing this summer while working slowly on a few new projects.
“I’ve got a bunch of songs for a new record that I’m just chipping away at,” he said. “Gord Sinclair and Strippers Union both released albums last year and didn’t really get to tour with them, so maybe they’ll do some gigs for those records. The beer is out, the Junos are done, so those are crossed off the list. We’re often listening to old live shows so we can give a new one to Sirius XM every couple of months. We’re in touch a lot. I think we’re just going to cruise for a while and see what comes up. We’re pretty relaxed about the time.”
Saskadelphia is available now in stores and on all streaming services. ‘Lake Fever Lager’ is available for pre-order through Big Rock Brewery.