The Tragically Hip is a band so Canadian that CBC gets a shout out, they have two members named Gord and they feature a polar bear in ‘Yer Not The Ocean.’ The Hip, as they are often called, are so iconic in Canada that Gord Downie, lead singer and master lyricist, has been called the greatest Canadian poet. Listening ears and scholars agree: He is our unofficial Poet Laureate.
On May 24, The Hip made a heartbreaking announcement: Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The Hip announced that the band would embark on a cross-country tour. The Hip were careful not to call it their farewell tour, but the thought that it will likely be Gord Downie’s last is hard to silence. To date, no one affiliated with the band has stated that the hometown Kingston, Ontario finale show was their last. Maybe, given the band and Downie’s preference to remain very private, they will never comment.
On Saturday, August 20, we gathered as a nation to watch The Hip, live from Kingston. Our Prime Minister was there, weeping along with many others. The energy, poignancy and importance of that concert left many of us feeling emotionally drained Sunday morning. The show ran almost three hours, uninterrupted and commercial/narrator free on the CBC as The Hip sang a whopping 30 songs. The public broadcaster was flooded with praise for its coverage of the concert, and the ‘big deal’ of interrupting its Summer Olympic coverage was not lost on anyone – in fact, it was a rare moment of Patriotic events colliding.
Downie took his time on stage to be an ally for Indigenous populations in Canada, calling on the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was standing in a box watching the concert, to do better. Downie, a middle-aged white male with an entire nation’s attention, made a huge use of his privilege – and was met with massive applause for it.
The concert was perhaps so unique and enjoyable because it’s not often (or ever) that fans get a farewell tour, so to speak. I can’t imagine being a part of that decision making process, but as a fan I’m glad the tour went on a planned, as a giant middle finger to the tumor in Downie’s brain. If you didn’t know Downie had terminal cancer, you might not have even picked up on it. He sang, danced and wore the best suits I have ever seen, topped off with custom made hats and shoes.
Downie took two small breaks, but anyone who danced and sang for 3 hours might need some breaks too. However, he had a medical team with him, and a prompter helped Downie with the lyrics. His doctor was completely blown away by how well Downie was handling the tour.
There were many emotional moments for fans and the band during the show; the band’s song ‘Fiddler’s Green’ drew tears from many. The hardest part, however, was seeing Downie wipe tears from his eyes during encore #2′s ‘Grace, Too.’ He stood on the stage hugging himself and wiped away tears.
Unlike a typical concert which provides you with only one shot to catch all the details, I recorded this one in its entirety, and when I re-watched it I caught some real moments of love—when bassist Gord Sinclair would every so often look over to Downie to make sure he was okay, and when band members held him as he walked down the stairs. Downie was always embracing or touching someone on the stage. Lead guitarist Rob Baker stayed to Downie’s left, looking up from his Fender every so often so see where his buddy was. The Hip are brothers not only in music.
If you happened to catch the beginning of the CBC stream, you saw what can only be described as an act of pure love and beauty: Downie kissed each member of the band on the lips before hitting the stage. That is exactly what the concert’s undertone was—love, support, a band from Ontario, notebooks filled with lyrics about Canadian stories and events, singing for their supper—just like they’ve always done.