Unpredictability is always a good thing, at least in the world of rock music. As a longtime fan of The Tragically Hip, I've usually got a pretty good idea of what's coming, although that band has certainly evolved quite a bit since I first started listening to them way back in 1989. And I've seen their frontman, Gord Downie, when he's played in the Boston area on two previous solo jaunts; with three solo albums under his belt, Downie has explored more experimental, poetic stuff that didn't fit into the Hip's blues-rock framework. But a few months back, I heard the first song from his new collaboration with the Sadies and was blown away. The song, "Crater," was a blast of punked up energy that was a departure for both Downie and the Sadies, who are well-known for their own alt-country efforts and backing up the likes of Neko Case, Andre Williams and Jon Langford. Downie and the Sadies have been working together for the past seven years or so on this new album, ever since they teamed up on a CBC show to play the Stooges' "Search and Destroy." A small tour was announced and fortunately Boston was on the list for May 3, so I snagged myself a ticket immediately.
Opener Doug Paisley played an impressive solo set of folky, alt-country tunes that was anchored by his fine guitar work. But his laid-back yet affecting set was quite the contrast to the explosive ass-kicking Downie and the Sadies dropped on the Sinclair. The club was about three-quarters full, with other excellent shows lined up throughout Boston that Saturday night, and most if not all of them were Hip fans looking to see Downie in a tiny club. The combo ripped through the first three songs from their excellent new album, And the Conquering Sun, and set the tone for the rest of the night, careening from loud and fast to midtempo and probing back to loud and fast again. Downie's dense and multilayered wordplay was often lost in the volume (especially from where I was standing right in front of the stage right amps), but there was no denying the visceral oomph of the band. There were no Hip or Sadies songs to be found, but the group sprinkled in some interesting covers: The Who's "So Sad About Us," Neil Young's "Grey Riders," Guided by Voices' "I am a Scientist" and the night's closer, an absolutely skull-rattling take on the Stooges' "I Got a Right."
It was fun to see Downie doing his crazy onstage spastic dance moves and gestures while surrounded by the towering Good brothers, Dallas and Travis, thrashing away on guitar (lead and rhythm, respectively). Meanwhile, the Sadies' rhythm section of Sean Dean on bass and Mike Belitsky on drums held it all together. It was a cacophonous and glorious 70 minutes of rock awesomeness, and I feel lucky to have witnessed it.