TORONTO – Friday marks the start of what’s expected to be a bittersweet chapter in the history of one of Canada’s most iconic bands.
Two months after the Tragically Hip revealed lead singer Gord Downie is facing terminal brain cancer, the band is preparing to embark on a 15-date tour that will culminate with a concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ont., which will be broadcast live by the CBC.
Many prominent Canadian performers say they’re still trying to digest the news about the singer they idolized and were inspired by.
“If you’re a musician and you’re born in Canada it’s in your DNA to like the Tragically Hip,” says Dallas Green, the mastermind behind City and Colour.
Green is one of many Canadian artists who got to know Downie personally but ultimately consider themselves fans of the songwriter above all else.
“He’s the gold standard,” Green says. “The way he writes and cares about music. The way he cares about the song.”
Downie and his band of cronies – guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay – have spent more than 30 years capturing slivers of Canadiana and turning them into songs.
Hits like “New Orleans Is Sinking,” “Ahead By a Century” and “Bobcaygeon” have served as unofficial anthems for the country, while lesser-known tunes still ring familiar when they echo through cottage country or blare from car stereos in the summertime.
“In a weird way, it was the soundtrack to camping trips I used to go on as a kid,” says 30-year-old Vancouver rapper SonReal, who says the 1991 album “Road Apples” was a family favourite.
“My parents and my older sister would play a lot of Tragically Hip – I loved it. They were the biggest band of the world in my eyes.”
Leah Fay, co-lead singer of July Talk, considers her first Hip concert experience transformational in her growth as a musician.
“I remember seeing (Downie) for the first time and just sobbing my eyes out,” Fay says, recalling a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto.
“He has a way with performance and connecting to an audience that’s like no other.”
Fay says she admires “the rare connection” Downie has with his fans, how “he’s really there and really present. And he cares that you’re with him.”
“There’s times where he stared into my eyes – I believed they were my eyes, but probably 15 people around me thought it was their eyes,” she says.
“You just know what’s really happening for him in that moment.”
Downie’s live performances are often nearly as theatrical as they are about the music. He’s been known to jump around the stage and riff poetically during extended musical interludes.
Theatre actor Ramin Karimloo distinctly remembers studying Downie’s stage presence when he saw the Hip at his first concert and it marked a pivotal moment in his artistic career, which eventually led to Broadway and the London stage with roles in “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
Karimloo caught Downie at the Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction travelling music festival in the mid-1990s when he was a teenager. He remembers losing track of his friend in the crowd as he pushed closer to the stage to get a clearer view of the singer.
“He’s kind of ferocious … (and) as fun as he is to watch, he’s got something to say and something to sing about,” Karimloo says.
“I found that so inspiring.”
Rapper K-os says his career has also been inspired by the Hip’s music, which gave him a window into Canadian culture while growing up in Whitby, Ont.
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“As a Trinidadian, West Indian kid, I was always obsessed with (the questions), ‘What is Canada?’ ‘What is this white culture?”‘ he says.
“I needed to understand it because that’s where I was from.”
K-os says Downie’s lyrics inspired him to write his own songs as a young man and ultimately the band was a “huge part” of why he pursued music. Later, he would pay tribute to the Hip with a wink in the lyrics of his Juno-award winning song “Crabbuckit.”
Halifax pop-folk singer Ria Mae says the Hip also stands out for unapologetically representing their Canadian roots.
Downie’s unyielding determination to be himself, “someone who had his own unique style,” also resonated with her growing up.
As big and influential as the group is, the band members remained humble, says Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla.
The two bands plowed through Europe playing bars and clubs in the 1990s and the Hip later invited Blues Traveler to play Another Roadside Attraction in 1995. Upon arriving in Canada, Kinchla says it became abundantly clear how popular the humble Hip members were in their home country.
“We got to do another tour of Canada and realized the Tragically Hip are huge.”