On most weekends, Jeremy Hoyle can be found at the front of a crowded bar, leading his band, The Strictly Hip, through songs from The Tragically Hip’s extensive catalog. To call them devoted fans of Gord Downie, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois and Johnny Fay would be putting it mildly.
Since 1995, Strictly Hip have played on both sides of Lake Erie, including a fundraiser event in honour of Gord Downie’s birthday last February in Toronto and a special concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on the eve of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
They were in Las Vegas last Tuesday, playing on the Brooklyn Bridge Stage at the New York New York Hotel & Casino before the Buffalo Sabres played their first game against the Las Vegas Knights.
When the news broke Wednesday morning about Downie’s passing, they were heading for home.
It’s been a whirlwind for Hoyle and his bandmates, Frank Nicastro, Alan Sliwinski, Johnny Panic and Bruce Wojick. Sunday night, Hoyle performed as part of Joel Clements’ Secret Path event in Richmond Hill, an evening originally established to honour the memory of Chanie Wenjack and further the conversation about reconciliation.
Hoyle was kind enough to answer a few questions about his enduring relationship with the Hip.
He was introduced to the band when a former bandmate played “Blow At High Dough,” off the Up To Here album.
“Instantly… and I mean INSTANTLY… my brain shot off fireworks,” Hoyle said.
His favourite Hip song might be an unexpected selection: “The poetic and cinematic storytelling of ‘38 Years Old’ is incredible,” Hoyle said. “I couldn’t get enough of it. I knew they were special. ‘They still stare at their shoes when they pass our place’… That line blew my mind.”
On a more personal level, Hoyle, who met Downie once, saw the Hip frontman as a symbol of acceptance.
“As a young person, Gord was a reassurance that being into literature, poetry and art was cool. Through the years I learned that the music was a vehicle to bring people together,” he said. “Further, Gord showed us that being thoughtful and caring about other people is pretty damn rock-n-roll.
“I’ve never seen an entertainer so free on stage.”
The Hip’s influence will continue “for generations”
A glance at Strictly Hip’s website shows a fairly full calendar for the next few weeks, with shows lined up through early December. The calendar includes a show the night before Thanksgiving, when they’ll return to the Tralf on Main Street in Buffalo. They sold the place out for seven consecutive weeks at the start of 2017, dedicating each night to a different individual album from the Hip’s discography. There’s also an event commemorating the Edmund Fitzgerald and two shows in Ontario, one on Lundy’s Lane and another in St. Catharine’s during which Strictly Hip will play Road Apples in order.
Surely there will be requests for tribute shows, either in Ontario, where Hoyle grew up, or in Buffalo, where the band has been based for a number of years.
“If something respectful and appropriate were to present itself we would consider it,” he said. “I performed at a Secret Path event in Toronto tonight. It was an entirely worthwhile and beautiful evening. I was honoured to contribute.”
Buffalo’s one of the few US towns where the Hip had a strong, devoted and passionate following. They played no fewer than 20 shows across Western New York over the course of their 30-year career, the last show coming at the end of the first leg of concerts for the anniversary of the Fully Completely album in 2015. That night in April, the First Niagara Center, as it was called at the time, was packed to the rafters with longtime fans, singing “At The Hundredth Meridian” at the top of their lungs, reveling in their favourite band.
“Beautiful music and beautiful art knows no national boundaries,” Hoyle said.
As for how Hoyle will remember Downie?
“Gord has left us an incredible legacy of music and art that will be celebrated for generations.”