The Tragically Hip's Hometown Spreads The Love for Last Show
“Done and done. Night accomplished/ If I had a wish, I’d wish for more of this.”
That lyric from The Tragically Hip’s “Done and Done” expresses what millions of fans and well-wishers are hoping: that Saturday night's final concert in Kingston, Ontario’s Rogers K-Rock Centre, was not it for the rock band.
Lead singer Gord Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, but the 52-year-old was in top form for the two-hour-and-40 minute, 30-song, three-encore show, an exhausting exercise for any musician at the tail-end of a national tour (behind new album Man Machine Poem), let alone one combating such a ravaging illness.
The concert — broadcast and streamed live ad-free by Canadian pubcaster CBC and largely believed to be their swan song, although the band has not called it such — was viewed by 11.7 million people around the world, not including 435 public events at parks, community centers, theatres and restaurants, according to data methodologists Numeris. That figure also does not factor in private viewings at homes, backyards, lawns and street parties. To put it in perspective, Canada’s population is just over 36 million.
“Canada Will Be Closed This Saturday at 8:30” read one particularly telling meme circulating online that expressed the importance of the event billed as The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the concert, sporting the appropriate attire — a The Tragically Hip t-shirt — and met with Downie before the show (onstage, the singer gave him a couple of shout-outs and political directives about the abysmal conditions of our First Nations — “we’re gonna get it fixed but we’ve got the guy to do it”). A moving photograph of the two tightly embracing was tweeted out.
For many, trying to go along with the celebratory approach to the concert, there was a constant sick feeling inside, a profound sadness for a man most of us don’t know but love as if we do. Indeed, if positive energy and love do have the power to heal, then Gord Downie is getting vibrationally bombarded.
“My husband Carl was saying how much he hopes that Gord can draw strength from the fact that basically the whole nation is coming out for this celebration,” fan Robyn Krentz told Billboard, choking up as she spoke. As new Canadian citizens — by way of America — they were blown away by the outpouring of love for the band and Downie. “Although we’re Canadian now, we’re still sort of observing it all and it’s just incredible to us how much The Hip capture the essence of what we see as Canada," she said.
Not wanting to give in to scalpers — an uproar over tickets for the entire tour immediately appearing on resale sites led to a petition to the CBC to secure the rights to broadcast the “final” show — the couple chose instead to make a donation to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research, and drove from Ottawa to Kingston for the free public broadcast at Springer Market Square, where 22,000 people would gather to watch it on the giant screen. They got there hours early and planted armchairs in the front row.
The Tragically Hip — whose songs are littered with Canadian references and stories — may be Canada’s band, but Kingston is the city that can claim them as their own. The historic “Limestone City” — Canada’s first capital that raised the country’s first Prime Minister, John. A Macdonald, and is the birthplace of another famous musician, Bryan Adams — is where singer Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois; bassist Gord Sinclair; and drummer Johnny Fay formed the band in 1984 while at Queen’s University. They went on to release 14 studio albums, sell millions of copies, receive the Order of Canada, get their mugs on a postage stamp, and, most satisfyingly, see people revere, relish, recite and rock out to their music.
Three of the band members — Baker, Langlois and Sinclair — still call Kingston home, and have collectively or individually raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities (they set up The Tragically Hip Community Fund in 2004) and put their support behind such projects as the proposed east-end bridge, The Third Crossing, or against the ultimate closing of Canada’s oldest school, Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, Baker’s and Sinclair’s alma mater (and Macdonald’s).
“You don’t have to live in Kingston very long to get the connection that The Tragically Hip has,” Mayor Brian Paterson told Billboard, standing in Springer Market Square outside City Hall where the entrance is flanked by two gargantuan “Welcome Home: Live From Kingston: The Tragically Hip” banners. “Most of my connection with The Hip was while I was running for Mayor and then when I became Mayor what I began to see very clearly is how much they do for the community. They are so involved. It’s great that they care about the city, that they’ve never forgotten their Kingston roots.”
A book of best wishes was placed outside the Mayor’s office after the band and management went public in late May with Downie’s diagnosis of gioblastoma. The country was in shock. “There are hundreds of pages of notes and messages from people in Kingston and other visitors to encourage Gord and the band during this time.” The City will get the book to him “after the dust settles” from the show.
The day of the concert in Kingston — population 125,000 — streets were closed downtown, public transit was free, and there was The Tragically Hip signage everywhere. Some were put up by the city, including banners, a signing wall, a giant poster of the band, social media account reminders on the ground, and lampposts with Hip flags. But businesses also put out Hip-related sandwich boards with messages and some offered goods or services with proceeds going to the Gord Downie Fund.
The news of Downie’s cancer, released the same day as the tour announcement, was profoundly agonizing and has devastated a nation. That’s not an exaggeration. The band — yes, a mere rock ‘n’ roll band that started steps away as a cover band at a pub called the Terrapin Tavern (now the Toucan) — is a Canadian treasure and Downie a gentleman and scholar. People love this guy.
Rock-turned-country singer Dallas Smith posted a Facebook status about Downie plunging his toilet in a restroom trailer backstage at a music festival and singer Danny Michel wrote that he waved a shy hello to the man not knowing if he’d remember him from a support slot years ago but Downie “opened his arms & gave me a big bear hug (holding the back of my head in his hand).” This, one should stress again, is one of Canada’s most famous, successful musicians, who has sold millions of albums and consistently headlined arenas and sheds — and does not walk the world with an entourage or attitude.
On Saturday, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder dedicated “Light Years” to Downie from Chicago’s Wrigley Field, telling the crowd “there’s something going on north of the border tonight, involves somebody that in a way we consider a family member.” Calling him “very courageous” for taking his group out for one last tour, he wanted to “send him our energy from our gathering up to their gathering up there.”
At K-Rock Centre, on a street named The Tragically Hip Way, inside a 6,700-capacity arena that the band officially opened eight years ago, there was a thick energy of excitement, anticipation and respect. Merch lineups were long and constant. At the seats, where it was sweltering hot, a big Canadian flag was passed around the bowl and the audience burst into Canada’s nation anthem, “O Canada,” as Prime Minister Trudeau arrived in his private box and the concert was 10 minutes to start time.
The set, as The Hip have done on the other Man Machine Poem shows, was divided into chunks of album selections. They started huddled close together as if playing a small club stage, then after a brief break opened up to a utilize the full space. At points, the audience jumped as if it was an outdoor festival. They played songs from eight albums — Man Machine Poem, 2000’s Music @ Work, 1991’s Road Apples, 1995’s Phantom Power, 1989’s Up To Here, 1994’s Day For Night, 1992’s Fully Completely and 1996’s Trouble At The Henhouse, ending with the song, “Ahead By A Century” containing the line “No dress rehearsal, this is our life.”
"Thank you for listening everybody. Thanks for listening period. Have a nice life," Downie said, after waving and blowing kisses.
And then it was done. A strange feeling filled the air. A definite sadness.
“The love and respect and the feeling of joy in this building was amazing, just amazing. Definitely worth $3,000,” said Alex Wells, 25, from Hamilton, Ontario, who came to the show with his girlfriend Sarah Brooker, 26, after purchasing a pair of tickets on StubHub for $1,700, plus the costs of gas, hotel, food and merch.
“It was amazing; it was a crazy set. The show was just great,” said Dana Seaton, 38, who, with wife Kaila Carroll, 29, had driven up from Rhode Island decked out in matching gold lamé outfits inspired by the metallic leather suits Downie had been sporting on tour by fashion designer Izzy Camilleri. They'd spent “an embarrassing amount of money” on tickets from scalpers. “Let’s hope it’s so long for now and not farewell," he said.
Setlist for Kingston show:
"Courage (for Hugh MacKennan)"
"At the Hundredth Meridian"
"In A World Possessed By The Human Mind"
"Tired As Fuck"
"My Music At Work"
"Twist My Arm"
"The Last of the Unplucked Gems"
"New Orleans is Sinking"
"Boots or Hearts"
"Blow At High Dough"
"Nautical Disaster 199"
"Locked in the Trunk of a Car"
"Ahead by a Century"