Those melodies come back to me
Time beyond our heartbeat ~ Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man, The Tragically Hip
GOUVERNEUR — No one knows why Canada’s most beloved rock band, The Tragically Hip, never gained a foothold in the United States. They tried, but while they grew to almost godlike stature in Canada it was only along the northern border where they ever had any impact in the U.S.
Still, when Gord Downie, lead singer and chief lyricist of the band, died on Oct. 17, 2017, it was not just his many fans across Canada that felt his loss, but also many here in Northern New York where the Hip’s music is a staple on jukeboxes in bars, car stereos and Spotify playlists.
Sean Harley, a native of Cornwall, Ontario, had been playing in a popular bar band, The Trench Town Oddities. While he was proud of his work with the band, he said, he knew their run was coming to an end and he was looking for something new.
Not wanting to have to start a new band and build a following, he said, his options were limited to joining an established band or forming a tribute band.
His tribute choices couldn’t be more distinct — Kingston, Ontario’s The Tragically Hip or the Los Angeles based Tool, an alt metal band once described as the thinking person’s metal band.
“Because we had played the north country so much, my drummer Randy said, ‘we should just do the Hip,’” Mr. Harley said. “And, so that’s how it came about. I tricked some people into being in the band and basically made it happen.”
While Mr. Harley now lives in Potsdam, his bandmates are all based in Ontario and are mostly musicians he either played with or was aware of.
The Trench Town Oddities also include Randy LaLonde on drums, Jesse Andrews on lead guitar, Ron Piquette on rhythm guitar and Matte Leger on bass.
While many might think the most difficult job lies with Mr. Harley trying to emulate the well known onstage antics of Mr. Downie, the most demanding job, Mr. Harley said, might be that of Mr. Andrews on lead guitar trying to match the playing of the Hip’s Rob Baker.
“It’s a really tough job to be the lead guitar player in this project because all you do is solo from the time you walk on stage to the time you walk off stage,” Mr. Harley said. “It’s awesome, but it’s an undertaking to make sure you have everything down.”
The fledgling band had just booked its first gig at Fat Jake’s in Malone when they heard about Mr. Downie’s illness.
Mr. Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, in December of 2016. His condition was revealed to his fans in May of 2017, just as Mr. Harley’s project was getting underway.
The Tragically Hip announced a cross-country tour of Canada that sold out every show just minutes after tickets went on sale.
Fully Completely Hip, as Mr. Harley’s tribute band is known, grew in popularity while the Tragically Hip played their farewell performances.
Just months after launching at Fat Jake’s, Fully Completely sold out the large room at Higher Ground in Burlington, Vt., a room that has a capacity of about 700 people, Mr. Harley said.
Fully Completely Hip played the Gouverneur and St. Lawrence County Fair on a Saturday night before a crowd of about 400 people. While many folks watched from the grandstand, a large crowd stood below the stage, dancing, singing and responding to the tribute band’s performance, much like you see audiences in live videos of the Tragically Hip.
“I can’t begin to tell you how rabid the fans are in the north country, I mean it’s crazy,” Mr. Harley said.
The Gouverneur show, he said, was one of the smallest crowds of the year, and some of the best responses have been in places you might not suspect.
“Brasher Falls was off the charts,” Mr. Harley said of another show this summer.
His bandmates were skeptical when Mr. Harley told them they would be playing about 95 percent of their shows on this side of the border.
“Once they finally got over here and saw how it worked — they understood,” he said.
There was some concern that people would think the tribute band was just trying to cash in after the death of Mr. Downie.
But, Mr. Harley speculates that the Tragically Hip’s farewell tour stoked the desire for fans to continue to revel in the music even if it wasn’t from the real band.
Mr. Harley wants people who attend shows to know that they are serious about what they are doing.
“I was very adamant about a few things when I started this project,” he said. “We were going to sound like them and we were going to act like them and we were going to try and look like them as much as possible. It was really important that we took it super seriously.”
At the Gouverneur show, Mr. Harley adapted many of the idiosyncrasies of Mr. Downie that made him so recognizable. He interacted with his microphone stand, tossed a handkerchief about and for the last half of the show donned silver pants, a large hat with a feather and a Jaws T-shirt — similar to what Mr. Downie wore on his farewell tour.
Mr. Harley said it’s what people expect.
“If you are paying to see a Queen tribute band and the guy doesn’t sing like Freddie Mercury and doesn’t at least look a little like Freddie Mercury, you’re going to be miffed,” he said.
Mr. Harley said he has been approached by people at his shows who get very emotional and thank him for the performance.
“It’s more a way of paying respect in a way that is not offensive and not looking like we are trying to make a buck off it,” he said. “Because that is not what we are trying to do.”
The band focuses on the earlier work of the Tragically Hip.
Most of the music comes from the albums, Up to Here, 1989; Road Apples, 1991; Fully Completely, 1992; Day For Night, 1994; and Trouble at the Henhouse, 1996.
“I grew up listening to Road Apples and Fully Completely, Mr. Harley said. “Fully Completely, I would listen to from start to finish and play it endlessly.”
The most recent song in the band’s repertoire is Fireworks from the Tragically Hip’s 1998 album, Phantom Power.
The band maintains a Facebook Page under the name Fully Completely Hip, where the band posts pictures and show listings. They have dates coming up in Malone, Wilmington, Baldwinsville, Saranac Lake and Burlington, Vt.