(WIVB) – Jeremy Hoyle heard the Tragically Hip’s music for the first time about 30 years ago, when he was starting out as an ambitious young singer-songwriter. It spoke to him instantly and deeply, like fireworks going off in his brain.
Soon, he was doing covers of Hip songs, channeling the great Hip frontman, Gordon Downie. In 1995, the Sherkston, Ontario, native formed his own Tragically Hip tribute band — The Strictly Hip.
In 2002, Hoyle’s brother had a chance to meet Downie during the “In Violet Light” tour. Jeremy asked if he could get Downie to sign something for him. He had been singing Gord’s stuff for years and had never met him. His brother got Downie to sign a piece of paper.
Downie scribbled a message that read, ‘Jeremy, do it right, do it real’ — Gord Downie.
“The only tattoo I have on me is the note that Gord Downie wrote me on my arm,” Hoyle said early this week by phone from his home in Williamsville. “Do it real.’ It reminds me all the time when I’m doing that music.
“I got to do it right.”
Hoyle has been doing it right for more than half his life, performing the Hip’s diverse and powerful catalogue of songs and honoring a rock band that has long been considered “the quintessential Canadian band”.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter century since the Strictly Hip began. Few rock bands survive that long. For a singular tribute band to stay together for 25 years is, well, a tribute to their talent and, perhaps above all, their love and dedication to the Tragically Hip’s music.
“People who love it, they LOVE it,” said Hoyle, who moved to the U.S. in 2002. “If you want to hear it, and hear it done correctly, that’s what we try to do. Accurately and respectfully is what we say to ourselves all the time. I realize the importance of what we’re doing. It’s not just important to me as a musician, it’s important to people.”
It became a lot more important in October of 2017, when Downie died after a very public, two-year battle with brain cancer. Suddenly, Strictly Hip wasn’t a terrific tribute band. It was, to use Hoyle’s words, the “unofficial steward” of the Tragically Hip’s music.
That’s a powerful burden to carry, in a way. How could any band replace The Hip, and how could Hoyle possibly inhabit Downie’s place as the charismatic lead singer? Well, you do it right and you do it real.
Most Hip fans would tell you that Hoyle’s band is faithful to the music and the legacy, and that seeing them perform live — as they did in a stunning performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic a year ago last Monday — is an emotional experience to treasure.
“We take it very seriously,” said Bruce Wojick, a native of Niagara Falls who has played guitar with Strictly Hip since 2006. “We’ve played shows in Canada and depending on the song — say, Long Time Running or Fiddler’s Green — people will be in tears. It’s very important to us, and we get to have fun doing it.”
Brad Riter, the long-time Buffalo radio host, saw Hoyle for the first time at a bar in Buffalo in the late Nineties. One mile from his apartment, a cover band was doing songs from his favorite band! He met Hoyle after the show that night and they’ve been friends ever since.
“There was something obvious about their genuine love for the music,” Riter said. “When you think of cover bands in Buffalo, you think of festivals in the summer and beer tents and bands cranking out old-time rock ’n roll. This is as far from that as possible.
“Over the years, Jer’ put out a couple of EPs of original music. He’s a brilliant songwriter. He doesn’t have to be fake Gord Downie all the time. But he’s so good at it, and cares so much about it, and it has worked so well for him.”
Hoyle, whose original band was simply The Jeremy Hoyle band, said all he ever wanted was to be a working musician. Like many young rock musicians, he struggled financially.
“We all need to write and see if we’re any good at it,” he said. “I realize the song-writing thing and putting out records is a really expensive hobby. I’m definitely in the red on that. I never made a dime. I just got slaughtered. But you’ve got to do it.”
You also have to make a living, and Hoyle found out that doing Tragically Hip songs was good for business in Canada and Buffalo. People loved it. Business got even better when the shocking news hit that Downie was dying of brain cancer in May of 2016.
“It did,” Hoyle said, pausing for words. He struggled at the notion that he would profit from his hero’s death. “It’s an unfortunate fortunate thing, in that it created a renewed interest in the music. I’ve been doing this music since 1995. I have dedicated my life to it, like a professor would dedicate his life to a poet.
“I take an almost academic approach to it. The way it all went down … It’s so cliched to say it’s like a movie, but it was. We all knew the inevitability of it.
“They always did everything right,” Hoyle said. “They never did anything that would embarrass you as a fan. So yeah, there was this massive surge of interest in the music. I don’t think that we would be performing with the symphony orchestras if the Hip was still an active group and Gord was still alive.”
At his core, Hoyle remains a fan of Downie and The Hip. He only met him once. It was the summer of 2009, when The Hip was on the “We Are The Same” tour at Artpark. Hoyle was with some fans, including Tony McKegney, the former Sabre.
They went to a small hotel bar after the show and saw members of The Hip drinking at the bar. Downie wasn’t with them when Hoyle’s group came in.
“Then Gord walks in,” Hoyle recalled. “You know that thing they say, how you can feel it when a certain guy walks in the room? That’s real. It’s palpable, like ‘Wow, this guy has an energy.”
Anyway, he and Downie were introduced. Jeremy told Gord about playing Hip tunes in Buffalo. Downie asked him how he liked the new record. Hoyle said he loved it. He told Downie they must have read the same books growing up in Canada.
“This was one of those weird things, the greatness of great people,” Hoyle said. “When Gord left, he turned around and he said, ‘Jeremy, do it real.’”
It was the same thing Downie had written to him seven years earlier, the words he had tattooed on his arm.
So Hoyle and Strictly Hip kept at it, staying true to the music, polishing the act. One thing Jeremy doesn’t do is try to mimic Downie’s quirky physical act or snazzy dress. It’s about the music, doing it right.
Most of the guys have been with Strictly Hip for two decades or more. Wojick says he’s one of the “new guys” at 14 years. There’s Frank Nicastro, Alan Sliwinski and the new drummer, Steve Padin.
After 25 years, they ought to be good at it. The band sounds remarkably like The Tragically Hip. If you close your eyes and listen to Hoyle singing, oh, “Ahead By A Century” or “New Orleans Is Sinking,” you’d swear it was Gord Downie himself come back to life.
“Now that the Hip is no more, it’s good to still have the legacy carry on,” Riter said, “courtesy of people who have shown to genuinely love the music all along. This isn’t some kind of cash grab — ‘Here’s this hole, let’s fill it’ — this has been going on the whole time.”
The Strictly Hip has certainly been busy — until the pandemic, anyway. On Feb. 6, 2017, they played a fundraiser on what would have been Downie’s 54th birthday. At the behest of the Canadian consulate, they played with the Buffalo Philharmonic at Canalside in June, 2017 on the eve of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
On Oct. 17 of that year, the Strictly Hip performed the last show of a Las Vegas booking that coincided with the Sabres’ first-ever trip to Vegas to play the expansion Knights (they lost in overtime). The Tragically Hip was huge in the hockey world, and had a big following among Buffalo fans.
“I remember the night after our last show there, I got a knock on my hotel room door at 5:30 in the morning,” Wojick said. “It was Alan, our bass player. He said ‘Gord just passed’. I said, ‘You’re got to be kidding me.’ Obviously, we knew he was sick.
“I was like, ‘Gosh, he brought us here.’ Their music and the band, they’re the vessel for what we do.”
The demand for Strictly Hip shows only got bigger after Downie’s death. For the last four years, they’ve been doing regular performances at The Tralf. Last year, they did five straight weeks of sold-out shows, playing a different, complete Hip album each time.
In the spring of 2019, they were preparing for another show with the BPO, their first inside iconic Kleinhans Music Hall. Hoyle was flying high. In February, his daughter, Maisy, was born (he has an older daughter, Erin, who is 18 and an aspiring musician).
But on April 11 of that year, Hoyle suffered a heart attack. His wife, Kristen, rushed him to the hospital, where he underwent open-heart surgery. Before the operation, he kept telling the cardiologist he had “this thing I have to do” on June 8.
“Gosh, I remember going in and seeing him in the ER,” Wojick said. “He was still in the ER when I got there. I said, ‘Hey, bro’, we got a lot of work to do. We’re just getting started here.’”
Hoyle’s health was the main concern, of course. The thought of losing Hoyle, two months after Maisy’s birth and so soon after Gord Downie’s death, was almost too much to contemplate. But Jeremy was determined to do the show at Kleinhan’s.
“My whole thing was learning how to breathe again,” Hoyle said. “I would lie there and just work on breathing. I got together with the guys four weeks prior to the show, and I could barely sing. I just kept breathing, and every week I got a little better and a little better, until I got to where I could breathe good.”
The June 8 show with the BPO, with Brad Thachuk of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra conducting, was a rousing success. Hoyle and the band were fabulous, much to the delight of grateful Hip acolytes.
“Jeremy’s first show back, it was triumphant to say the least,” Wojick said. “It was something that I’ll never forget. We’re just so happy that he’s getting there, getting through and doing well. Big changes for him. No more Marlboros, you know what I mean?”
Hoyle, who weighed over 300 pounds at one point, said he hasn’t had a drink in six years. He’ll be 50 in November. He has a 16-month-old child, a great life, doing the only thing he ever wanted to do in life.
Of course, he hasn’t done it in three months, thanks to the pandemic.
“It’s been strange,” he said. “I haven’t gone this long since I was a teen-ager without performing. When you decide to make an unconventional, non-traditional career choice, you do it because you love it. It’s not for the money, right?
“When that’s gone, you figure out a way to keep doing it to satisfy that little tickle you have, and there’s really no way to do it. Singing on the couch sucks. It’s no fun. I say it all the time. It’s no fun if nobody’s there!”
The people will be there when life returns to normal and concerts are allowable again. Hoyle said he has no idea when that will be possible. Strictly Hip had a full calendar when the coronavirus shut things down in March. It was mainly concerts and community events. After the success of the BPO shows, there are plans to perform with symphony orchestras across Canada.
Like many popular bands, The Hip had a powerful bond with the fans, a connection that’s hard to explain if you’re not one of the converted. Hard-core fans get that same connection with Hoyle’s band. He’s a vehicle for Downie’s legacy, a chance to do it real, and to keep The Hip alive for fans who adored them.
“People who love it miss it as much as people that are performing,” Hoyle said. “If you want to hear it and see it done correctly, you got to come see us right now, because there is no Tragically Hip, you know?
“I hear from people all the time. ‘I can’t wait to hear these songs again, to feel the energy of it, the connection.’ I know I can’t wait to do it again.”