Friday, September 14, 2007

The Tragically Hip

I saw the Tragically Hip playing in Halifax last night at the Metro Centre. It was packed, not surprisingly. And since my blog is read by a lot of music fans who live outside of Canada, I need to do a bit of promotion here. If you’re Canadian, you can pretty much stop reading now, because you’ll already know a lot about this band. But if you want to learn more, carry on.

First, you need to know that “The Hip” are Canada’s greatest rock band. The drummer, Johnny Fay, was once interviewed by Billboard, and when the subject of being in Canada’s best band came up, he said it was, “kind of like being the world’s tallest midget.” In 1989, the band apparently did a show where they opened for Nirvana, and less than a hundred people showed up.

The group has ten studio albums to their credit at the moment (disregarding their first self-titled album, which was only an EP). If I had to pick my favorites, I would recommend their first five albums, starting with “Up To Here,” and with “Fully Completely” probably being my top choice. Unfortunately, I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to any of the albums that came after “Trouble At The Henhouse.” I need to go out and buy the others though, because I know a few of the songs on them, and I know that I'm missing out on other gems.

I’ve seen the Hip perform dozens of times. The first times were in Banff in 1990. I had a few weeks off from my summer job planting trees, so I decided to hitchhike to Banff to wash dishes in a restaurant (The Magie & Stump) to pass the time for a week. During that week, I went with a couple friends to the Silver City nightclub every single evening. There was a band playing, and I thought that they were pretty good. Nobody else seemed to agree, because except for Friday and Saturday night, there were only about ten people in the bar each night. Anyway, after seeing them the first night, I was hooked. I kept coming back, and I watched them from about ten feet away, five or six nights that week. It wasn’t until about four or five years later, when they were starting to get famous and I saw them play at Mount Allison University, that I recognized them and realized that it was the same band. Since then, I’ve seen them in quite a few full concerts, and I also saw them in a small venue in Edmonton when they did their album release for “In Between Evolution,” with just a couple hundred people invited. I have photos from that night online here:

An interesting thing about the Hip is that if I had to pick my favorite five songs, I couldn’t. Not a chance. I might be able to get away with my favorite thirty, but even that would be hard to narrow down. Their music and sound are solid, and even though I’m not usually one to pay a lot of attention to lyrics, Gord Downie is brilliant. The funny thing is that I don’t even know if he writes all the lyrics. I’ve always assumed so, because he is their lead singer, but that’s not necessarily true. His improvisational abilities in live shows though, are legendary.

“New Orleans Is Sinking” was one of their earliest songs, written a decade and a half ago, and it’s one of their best-known songs. However, after Katrina, many radio stations stopped playing it in deference to the residents of New Orleans. The Hip are actually playing a show in New Orleans on October 20th of this year.

Anyway, so if you like rock music, and haven’t listened to this band before, take a Canadian’s advice and check them out. If this is the first you’ve heard about them, you’re missing out on one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Talking To A Crow

An hour ago, I thought I was losing my mind. I’m sure that hundreds of other people have already come to that conclusion, but today I was even questioning it myself.

You see, I was sitting out on the back lawn, doing some research. Well, to be more exact, I was laying in the sun, but also trying to finish some reading. Anyway, as I was reading, I thought I heard the neighbour saying hello. But it sounded like her voice was in that funny sort of tone and cadence you hear when an adult is talking to a pet or a small child. Then I heard a crow cawing back. There are a lot of crows living around my house, so I didn’t really think much of it – my neighbour must be sitting on her back porch, talking to a crow.

Anyway, after I heard this conversation back and forth five or six times between the neighbour and the crow, I started to think, “This is a little odd.” So I sat up and turned around to get a better point of view. I was quite surprised to see a crow sitting in the tree about thirty feet away, staring at me. No neighbour. I was even more surprised when it opened its mouth and said “hello” to me. And this wasn’t any random squack that could possibly be interpreted as a similar sound. No, this was a perfectly clearly enunciated greeting. And then the same crow screeched at me with a loud caw a few seconds afterwards, when I didn’t answer back. It then waited for a moment then said hello to me again, so I spoke back to it (feeling kind of foolish). After that, it was quiet and just stared at me for a while.

Now I was pretty wide awake, so this wasn’t a daydream. And although this is Frosh Week at the university, which means that the alcohol is flowing pretty freely, I myself haven’t had a drop since April (although that’s going to change tonight because I’m DJ’ing at a house party down in Halifax). So in other words, I wasn’t under the influence, and this crow really did seem to be talking to me.

Crows are extremely intelligent birds. I’ve observed them (and lots of other wildlife) for years as a tree planter. I’ve seen crows go from cache to cache on a block, dragging tree planters’ backpacks from out under the corner of tarps, unzipping them to get inside, and dragging out their plastic lunch bags. The Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds says that some crows in Japan, when trying to crack walnuts, will allegedly wait by intersections until traffic lights turn red, then fly down and place walnuts on the road in front of waiting cars’ tires, then get out of the way, then fly back down to recover the meat of the walnut after the lights change and the cars have driven over the walnuts. Crows have frequently been observed mastering the art of making and using simple tools, such as bending materials into hooks to retrieve food that they cannot reach themselves.

Researchers have said that American crows have a rudimentary language of about twenty or so “words” that are used to communicate with each other, and that the crows understand the concept of numbers and basic counting. Apparently, it is fairly easy to teach them to mimic simple human speech, and they also sometimes learn to mimic the noise of other animals. If parrots can be taught to talk, it’s not surprising that crows can too. The only thing that puzzles me right now is trying to figure out whether this particular crow learned this trick from watching humans, or if someone in the area has actually tried to teach it to talk.

Alright, to finish this post off, here's a pretty funny pun:

Q: Why was the detective so interested in a small group of crows?
A: He thought it was an attempted murder.

My apologies to the non-ornithologists - that one will go over the heads of SO many people reading this.