The first thing that was noticeable about the playing of Big Highway was the charge it contained. That was clear right from the opposite end of the store to the point where it jumped out at the listener. It was electrifying and invigorating, also a sign that it was going to be a good night. The second point was in how much they sounded like the Tragically Hip. What they were doing wasn’t an imitation — they were clearly their own band but the essence they channeled was, literally, pure Hip. It would almost have been eerie had the proceedings been somber but the band members were having too much fun for that to happen.
The energy in their playing started in their basement. Or to put it another way, with their rhythm section. The tandem of drummer Ric Brown and bassist Dave Johnston laid a foundation that was restrained but very powerful. Neither was the clear lead. Instead they stayed lock/step while sending each other cues and adding bits of tasteful ornamentation when it would serve the music. The resemblance to the Hip, which was almost uncanny at times, began with the voice of James McNaule. Its timbre was remarkably similar to that of the late Gord Downie but that was only part of the reason. The musical phrasing in his singing and his rhythm guitar work evoked images of what Downie might have done all night. It was an approach from a similar perspective, something that’s rare to find when the work of the original was as singular as Downie’s was. The vitality is there as are a lot of the nuances but McNaule is his own man musically.
That McNaule’s influence would spread to the other band members was a given. Lead and second rhythm guitarist Andrew Germain kept his solos short, sweet and to the point. Nothing was superfluous. The same held true for the other members who used subtlety and dynamics to fuel their work. Bassist Dave Johnston set drummer Ric Brown up to play fills that were key to joining passages and injecting drama in to them. An example: At one point (during ‘Meet Virginia’ I believe) Brown finished off a feed from Johnston with a short fill, paused for the band to stop and then drew a soft splash from one of his crash cymbals that was left to fade before he announced the next passage with a single beat. He also used the kick bass to create a pulse behind the music at times when McNaule’s vocal was producing the only other sounds. When the members doubled each other on passages the runs carried across as s surge of pure power. Simple and beautiful devices that are very effective when the execution is good. In this instance, it was stellar.
There was no shortage of highlights from their set list. P.J. Harvey’s breakthrough song, ‘Down By The Water’ got a fabulous interpretation. Their versions of ‘At Transformation, ‘Locked In The Trunk Of A Car’ and ‘Cordelia’ would have had Gord Downie smiling. Train’s ‘Meet Virginia’ was a standout. Everything was given imaginative treatments that paid homage to the original while taking the direction the members of Big Highway gave to it.
It was definitely a good finale for the First Fridays of 2018.
For more photos taken by Brian Hay, CLICK HERE