The Sadies team up with the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie

Norman Wong

The Sadies are a Canadian band with a ferocious appetite for musical eclecticism that embraces rumbling instrumentals, spaghetti-Western twang and swamp-rock, surf and punk, reels and breakdowns, garage and rockabilly, Byrdsian country rock and San Francisco psychedelica. Their appetite for collaboration appears to be just as ferocious: They’ve recorded albums with or served as touring band for Neko Case, Jon Langford, John Doe, and Detroit dirty-soul legend Andre Williams, among others.

Now they’ve been working with Gord Downie, best known as singer, songwriter, and frontman for one of Canada’s most successful rock bands of the past quarter-century, the Tragically Hip. The issue of that collaboration is a new album, “Gord Downie, the Sadies, and the Conquering Sun,” and a supporting tour that comes to Cambridge on Saturday night.


It is perhaps not the most intuitive of pairings, even for a band so given to the pursuit. But it works. The new album melds its parts into a blistering whole, with the Sadies bringing their one-of-a-kind sound to the table and arguably rocking harder than they ever have on record alongside Downie’s cryptic, captivating lyrics and his uninhibited, cerebral vocal caterwaul. The music crackles with excitement and intensity; it sounds barely contained.

The oddity of the thing begins with its name. When asked about that, Downie, speaking from Toronto, at first jokes a bit (“all 600,000 band names in the known universe were already taken”), then, more seriously, notes that the participants were simply trying to avoid the usual.

“In the end it was a last-minute but mighty comma that saved the day,” he observes: “ ‘Gord Downie, comma, the Sadies, comma, and the Conquering Sun.’ I don’t think we were meaning to do this, but in a weird way, it did a deft job of steering whatever attention is on the record towards the project itself rather than any identities that we would have brought to it. We get asked, is it the name of the band or the name of the record, to which I answer, ‘exactly’.”

According to Sadies drummer Mike Belitsky (also, along with his bandmates, a Toronto resident; he happens to be taking in a Red Sox-Blue Jays game when reached by phone), they weren’t sure that they wanted to be “Gord Downie and the Sadies,” and they weren’t sure they just wanted to call the record “The Conquering Sun.” “So we thought, let’s put it all together in a big, confusing band name and record title all at once,” he says, laughing. “I think it really piques the imagination.”

The seeds of the project were sown by a friendship that came out of touring. The Sadies opened for the Tragically Hip on several tours, and “we had many late nights together, just having some laughs, talking music, that sort of thing,” says Downie. Germination was provided by a more formal opportunity for collaboration: In 2007, the Sadies were invited to do a national radio show animated by the idea of bringing together two putatively disparate artists to perform with each other. The Sadies asked Downie to participate, and both parties thought it went really well.

“After that, we thought, let’s take this to the next step, let’s hash out some tunes and see where it goes,” Belitsky says.

And so they did. But they did it at their own pace and as schedules allowed — “we probably spent 12 days over seven or eight years making the record,” Downie says — without feeling any pressure to come up with something. Something might come of it, but if not, Belitsky says in retrospection, “we’d all have a cool demo tape in our private collection. It was always like a secret club or something in that regard.” (Downie even finds the fact of the record’s release weirdly bittersweet: “It was a nice little secret that we were carrying around in our pockets all this time, and now it isn’t.”)

Downie wrote the lyrics; the Sadies provided the music. Downie describes the typical process as “getting together with the guys separately at one point or another and reacting quite viscerally and quickly to what they had on acoustic guitar or piano or a demo tape, and then bringing that to the band and the whole band reacting to that and running it through the electric combo.” He thinks that had a certain explosive aspect to it, “not unlike a dog being let out after a long stay indoors, a bounding, kind of gobbling quality to it.”

The resulting record manifestly exudes that sort of visceral, explosive immediacy. And both Downie and Belitsky are champing at the bit to play the music live. The Sadies man says that he’s nervous and excited about the tour, both because the music is new and because he has no idea how people are going to react.

Downie seems exhilarated by the prospect. He suggests that these days, everyone knows what to expect; it’s just a matter of going out there and meeting expectations. “To really be posed with the challenge of challenging people, and having a bit of risk attached is hard to do, perhaps more so at my age and stage. I really relish that, cherish it, actually. It gives you an idea of where I’m coming from on this. I like the risk.”

Stuart Munro can be reached at
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