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The Tragically Hip

At Massey Hall

in Toronto on Monday

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At the big house on Shuter Street, in front of his fever-pitched followers, Gord Downie laid his rock 'n' roll burden down. Over the years, the Tragically Hip front man had fallen into a role on stage, where he'd work himself up into some sort of weird fury, move about in a peculiarly spasmodic manner, and deliver a forced, spontaneous rant. New Orleans was sinking, he didn't want to swim, but it was the deep end every night for this guy, the puzzling maple-blooded everyman.

"We're going to ask a question of you," is what he told his audience, right off the bat. In fact, there were a couple of questions asked in The Depression Suite , the three-song acoustic medley that opened the band's six-show stay. "What if this song does nothing?," was self-posed, you'd have to think. But then, "Don't you wanna see how it ends?", a question for the iconic band's long-loving fans and maybe the critics too. There's a suspicion that the Hip's best work is well behind them, that We Are the Same , the Kingston-bred quintet's 11th studio album from this year, is not one of its finest. The record was produced by Bob Rock, the heavy-handed crafter who also oversaw 2006's World Container . Rock, who is not the darling of music writers, lavished and polished the Hip's muscled two-guitar attack with silky touches. Fans wait for pensive ballads and gigantic, grimacing, riff-based blues rock from the Hip. They like the front man to be lathered and wound-up.

At Massey, though, Downie was a new man. His dark outfit was buttoned-up, but otherwise he was loose, dabbing himself with a white handkerchief and walking about. If you turned off the sound during Don't You Want to Know How It Ends? , Downie would have appeared as if delivering a dramatic monologue, with devil-may-care aplomb. When not singing, he danced with a casual, charismatic grace. Later, on the power blues of Blow at High Dough , he did some kind of Elvis thing. Downie was easily captivating and not playing up to expectations, is what I mean to say.

During the war-inspired Courage , he waved his hankie - he had a box of them; no sooner would he give one to a fan when a roadie would toss him another - but it was no white flag of surrender. The rugged Poets was heavier than it used to be, though it carried its weight very well.

Downie, who is a published poet, might agree that a nation needs to be judged by the fatness of its writers.

The fist-pumping classics (the brooding Fully Completely and such) were done, but there was no sense that the show was about the past. After an intermission, a second set began with a new sit-down segment, where an unplugged Greasy Jungle was recast as a spry, amber-lit sing-along.

The band's recent albums have received friendly reviews, but posterity will know better, and see their weaknesses.

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Still, you should never wish to see a greatest-hits concert from the Tragically Hip. (Downie would chew off his leg to escape that trap.) These long-haulers defiantly work in the now, and we need to keep with them and see how it turns out in the end.

The Tragically Hip continue at Toronto's Massey Hall Thursday, Friday, Saturday and May 19, with national dates to follow.

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