As strange and counter-intuitive as it sounds, The Tragically Hip isn’t just about music. The Kingston, Ont. band provides a feeling, a visceral, very real sensation when you actually “get” it. It’s a camaraderie, a sameness, an inclusion. You are part of a bigger entity, one that is not discernible. It makes you wrap your arms around your buddies, or causes you to wave a Canadian flag with more zeal than you ever have before.
Yes, Canadians have a dedicated spot in their hearts for Gord Downie and the rest of the boys, as we should. Very few bands in music history, most notably Canadian music history, have had the impact the Hip has had on multiple generations since it formed in 1984. What other musical act so explicitly calls out Canadian locales and experiences, shouts out to our country not with disdain, ignorance or mockery, but with heartfelt love?
This feeling was in abundance in Kingston on Saturday, when thousands of people descended on the city to witness what has been called the Hip’s final show (the band has neither confirmed nor denied this). From this reporter’s City Cab driver George, who’s lived in Kingston for 33 years and knows two Hip band members personally, to a man from Austin, Texas who left a Vegas vacation early to come see the band’s final stop on its Man Machine Poem tour, it’s a palpable thing.
The K-Rock Centre, which is small and intimate for a band that can sell out a stadium about five times its size, was the perfect choice. While restrictive for the thousands who failed to get tickets for this show, it fit the moment to see the band back where it all began, and to have them perform so close to their adoring fans. And boy, do these fans adore.
Big favourites like Wheat Kings, Courage and Bobcaygeon had the crowd singing along, pumping their fists in the air in unison. At times, the audience literally oversang Downie, who, true to his kooky stage persona, ate it up as he gyrated and stutter-stepped across the stage. The intimacy of the arena made you feel like Downie was looking directly at you, even if he wasn’t.
Ever dichotomous, one minute he was frenzied, like during his performance of New Orleans Is Sinking, and the next he was more composed and pensive, as he was for Scared. And this is a man who wears a frikkin’ tube-sock scarf along with a disco-ball suit and a feathered hat.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau wades through crowd before historic Tragically Hip concert in Kingston
The elephant in the arena was Downie’s terminal brain-cancer diagnosis, which, in concert attendee Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s own words, made the show “bittersweet.” But here’s the thing: in the face of death, Downie is so alive on stage. He did not look like a sick man as he put on his silly schtick for Fireworks, when he attempted to balance himself on the mic stand for no apparent reason. Nor did he look ill when he and the band came back for a third encore — the first time the Hip has ever done that. We’re not talking about a one-song encore here either folks, we’re talking three three-song encores. That’s a lot even for a “healthy” person.
Not one to talk about himself, Downie’s illness remained a silent shadow during the show, always there, always present, but somehow not a factor. He spoke only briefly, but when he did he consistently said “Thank you” to the audience, his bandmates and the crew. He gratuitously thanked Trudeau, saying the young PM is “going to figure out” Canada’s problems and solve them. He also mentioned First Nations people and their struggles on more than one occasion.
And that’s what made this Man Machine Poem tour such a monumental thing, and such a necessity to see for Canadians; people outside our borders might think we’re crazy (except for the American fans who “get” the Hip), but at no other time, ever, has a band tapped into the Great White North’s very essence in the way that Downie and the band’s music does. To see the crowd at K-Rock absolutely explode when the Hip played Blow at High Dough or My Music at Work was like witnessing magic. The close-out with Ahead By a Century, the last song they played, sealed the deal. These guys have it, and no one else does.
Which brings us back to the sadness. It’s tough to tell how Downie truly feels behind his showmanship, though tiredness began to set in most definitely at the end of the show (again, three encores). When he exited the stage for the intermissions or at the very end of the concert, once he was in the shadows and mostly out of view, he walked gingerly and one of his bandmates almost always had a hand on his back.
Some of his comments during the show — “Thank you,” “Keep pushing,” “Thanks for listening, period,” and “Have a nice life” — seem to indicate he’s made peace with his disease, and in a way, he wants all of us to do the same thing, too. Grace, Too, right?
The man is a legend, and he will never be forgotten. That is a surety. Our job, at least as much as one can call it work, is to keep on listening to The Tragically Hip. Downie will always live there, for eternity, in the songs he helped create.
(The full set list from the Kingston show is listed below.)
WATCH: Chris Jancelewicz talks to Kingston Mayor Bryan Patterson and Bill Welychka, former MuchMusic VJ and current Kingston TV host, about how the city is reacting as the band prepares to play the final show on the tour.
It was extraordinary enough that Canada’s Prime Minister attended the show, and it was remarkable that he sat in the seats with regular citizens, but what really took it to the next level was Trudeau fully rocking out to the music. Were he not the leader of our country, he would have been just another dude feeling the music.
A huge Canadian flag
Huge meaning huge. It was approximately the size of half a basketball court, and it wound its way around K-Rock, passed on the hands and above the heads of the Hip faithful, for the entire show.
Hugs and tears
The Hip’s music really hits the heart, and it couldn’t have been more apparent after the show ended. Several people remained in their seats, crying or staring blankly ahead. Others were consoled with hugs from friends. An emotional outpouring to say the least.
Gord Downie’s performance
From his multiple suit changes to his dancing to his interactions with the audience, Downie gave the crowd what it wanted: an all-out display of the Hip’s music, decorated with his own showmanship. During Grace, Too, towards the end of the concert, Downie visibly shed tears. To contemplate what it’s like to say goodbye to everything — his fans, putting on shows, touring — helps make the tears fully understandable. Just as we’ll miss Downie, he will miss us.
50 Mission Cap
At the Hundredth Meridian
In a World Possessed By the Human Mind
Tired as Fuck
My Music at Work
Twist My Arm
Last of the Unplucked Gems
New Orleans Is Sinking
Boots or Hearts
Blow at High Dough
Locked in the Trunk of a Car
Ahead By a Century