Chanie Wenjack is alive and well and living in Gord Downie.
At Roy Thomson Hall on Friday evening, an affair marked the release of Secret Path, Downie's dreamy, pale-blue and poetic passion project and indie-rock concept album inspired by the story of Wenjack, an Ojibwa boy who died of exposure while fleeing a Northern Ontario residential school in the fall of 1966.
The extended Wenjack family was in attendance for the touching performance of the album by Downie and his band. The 10-song Secret Path was released earlier this week, accompanied by Jeff Lemire's graphic novel, images of which were shown on a large screen over the stage as the music was presented.
One wouldn't imagine making an album about a victim of such a sad, ugly national story – the forced cultural assimilation of Canada's indigenous peoples through a residential school system – would have been an easy proposition. But for the three musicians who put the record together, it could not have gone more swimmingly.
Some three years ago, inspired by a 1967 story written by Ian Adams for Macleans, the Tragically Hip front man Downie wrote 10 poems about the 12-year-old runaway. Around that time, Downie had been hanging out at the Bathouse, a recording studio owned and operated by the Hip in Bath, Ont., where Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew was recording his second solo album (Darlings) with help from producer-musician Dave Hamelin and audio engineer Nyles Spencer.
Downie dug the vibes and the energy of the sessions. Friendships and camaraderie developed, with Drew eventually suggesting that they should all make an album together. Downie agreed.
Ideas on the material first began taking shape at Downie's home at the time in Toronto's Riverdale enclave. Some of Downie's lyrics already had musical ideas preattached; other songs would be co-written later with Drew.
After an introductory collaboration, Drew and Hamelin presented Downie with their notion about the album's sound. "I said to him," Drew told The Globe and Mail earlier this week, "we want to get you in a room with a piano and make something big and beautiful."
At his own house, Drew played Downie one of his musical ideas on piano. "He immediately grabbed his computer," Drew recalls, "and asked me if I could do that again." Drew complied; Downie recorded it. When Drew had to leave, Downie told him, "I'll have something for you by the time you get home."
He did: The song would become Secret Path, the album's minimalist yet majestic centrepiece.
Later, back at the Bathhouse, the recording of the 10 songs went freely and quickly – a song a day, often with Downie needing just one take on vocals. At one point, Hamelin asked the singer how he was writing and singing so easily. "Well," Downie responded, "I'm a 12-year-old boy."
At Roy Thomson Hall, we saw hauntingly cartooned images of Chanie Wenjack onscreen, with occasional flashes of the boy from Downie himself on stage. On the sparse Seven Matches – a reference to a small jar of wooden combustibles Chanie carried in hopes of surviving the harsh conditions – he simulated the boy's fateful walk along the railway. He sang high and frail, in the person of the lost, susceptible child. "I kept them dry," Downie sang of the matches. "As long as there were five, I'd be fine."
According to Drew and Hamelin, the story behind the songs was purposely kept from them by Downie. "He was very slow to let us in," says Drew. "Gradually he let us know about Chanie."
It wasn't until the mixing of the album that Downie filled them in on the album's lyrical concept. "I think he didn't want the record to come off as forced or earnest," says Hamelin.
Adds Drew: "He didn't want to influence the process. To be honest, I feel like he carried the weight of what he was singing about."
With Downie bearing the load, the others were free to pursue their ideas unencumbered. "We had a blast," says Drew. "No one was getting in the way of anything, and Gord was championing everything, whether it was doing crazy breathing or setting up mics outside to record geese."
And Downie's disposition? "He had a smile on his face the whole time."
For the Toronto concert (and a preceding one earlier in the week at Ottawa's National Arts Centre) the album was performed by Downie and a band that includes Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn, Broken Social Scene bassist Charles Spearin and the Skydiggers guitarist Josh Finlayson, with Drew on piano and Hamelin on drums.
Downie, 52, sang and did little else, leaving the talking to his older brother Mike Downie, the evening's emcee. Gord Downie, of course, suffers from terminal brain cancer.
While rehearsing for the two concerts, Downie's group has gelled into something special according to Drew, who hints that more is to come from them. "I'll just leave the door open," he says. "This is music that needs to be played, and wants to be played. I hope there's more to come."