“It’s a tough world; it’s a tough gig,” The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie said as the rock band’s final show of three at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre wound down with “Little Bones.” But the 52-year-old — who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer — kept the night cheerful, raucous, quirky and intense.
The crowd of 20,000 — a complete sell-out, even behind the stage with standing-room-only sections — soaked up every second of the 26-song set, respectfully not filming the entire thing, as is so commonplace these days. Flashes were quick. People wanted to experience this special and emotional “night in Toronto,” not view it from behind a tiny screen.
The Hip — Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois; bassist Gord Sinclair; and drummer Johnny Fay — have a special relationship with Toronto. Mayor John Tory declared Wednesday “The Tragically Hip Day” to coincide with their first date at the Air Canada Centre on this Man Machine Poem Tour (named after their new album), expected to be their last.
Downie has called the city home almost half his life and Fay lives here too, but the band — which formed in Kingston, Ontario, in 1984 — built its enormous following in Toronto from the ground up: first in clubs like Larry’s Hideaway and the Horseshoe, on to the bigger Diamond and then three nights at the Concert Hall. One month later, they played three sold-out shows at the 7,000-capacity Ontario Place Forum in ’91 and then eventually on to the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens arena in ’95.
They were the first band to ever play the Air Canada Centre when it opened in 1999, and this night marked the 13th time in total, including a 2004 stop that was recorded live for a DVD called That Night in Toronto — a title taken from the 1998 song “Bobcaygeon.” Two huge visuals at both entrances to the venue announced “Those Nights in Toronto” and new T-shirts were emblazoned with “That Night in Toronto.”
A video message booth was also set up outside the ACC in order for fans to send well-wishes to Downie or tell personal stories about their connection to the band.
It is hard to explain to people outside the country the absolute love Canada has for The Hip. Their music is an integral part of Canadian culture. Their fans are also, if we may stereotype, quintessentially Canadian, like they just stepped out of a beer commercial. They party-hearty, hoot, holler, high-five, drape arms around each other, hoist beer cups in the air, and sing along to every wonderfully poetic lyric (“I’ll drop a caribou” from 1991’s “Long Time Running” refers to making a 25-cent phone call because of the design on the back); any Canadian reference from lake community Bobcaygeon to the mystery surrounding Toronto Maple Leafs hockey great Bill Barilko gets double-whoops.
The set list for the last ACC show was a non-sequential retrospective that skipped all five albums from the 2000s but kept songs together from each album selection, five in the main set and two in the encores.
They started with four songs from 1989’s Up to Here to kick off the set — including show opener “Blow at High Dough” and follow-up “New Orleans Is Sinking” — then four apiece from their new album, Man Machine Poem, 2012’s Now for Plan A and 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse, and finally five from 1991’s Road Apples. The first encore consisted of three songs from 1998’s Phantom Power, then a second encore with a pair of songs from 1994’s Day for Night, closing with “Grace, Too.” (See the full set list below.)
There were two brief breaks, both after eight songs, plus another, of course, before the encore, allowing Downie to change into three different colorful metallic leather suits designed by Canadian Izzy Camilleri (David Bowie, Jennifer Lopez) and custom hats by Toronto milliner Karyn Gingras. The singer often wears suits, vests and hats onstage, but these outfits were nothing short of spectacular — fun and bedazzling, especially against his black-clad bandmates.
He was, as we’ve come to expect, a remarkable frontman, his free-spirited, freeform “dance” moves odd but riveting. He did the swim, the spin, the robot, the karate and other in-the-moment, awkwardly pure steps and arm flails, like a child who has not yet learned to be self-conscious. You could not take your eyes off the guy.
And though he’s been singing these songs over and over for years, he made every word matter, as if he was relaying them for the first time. He gestured and made facial expressions, as he communicated each descriptive, often esoteric, line (truth be told, we sang along without fully understanding most of them).
If Downie’s illness had never been disclosed to the public, no one would ever have known by his performance. — except for at the final song, “Grace, Too.” He let loose a torrent of emotion, screaming in anguish at the end, his eyes glistening with tears. It was a poignant reminder of what he is going through and how important this tour must be to him to continue to do what he loves and see how much we Canadians adore him. It was hard to keep it together.
Baker, Langlois, Sinclair and Fay then left the stage, leaving Downie by himself, taking it all in, receiving an overwhelming amount of love. “”Goodnight everybody. We’ll see you down the road somewheres, alright?,” he said, blowing kisses and waving, before finally exiting.
This Man Machine Poem Tour has been called their last, although the band has not made any such explicit declaration. The tour was announced in the very same joint statement in late May that made Downie’s brain cancer (glioblastoma) public. “So after 30-some years together as The Tragically Hip, thousands of shows, and hundreds of tours…We’ve decided to do another one. This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us,” it read in part.
So while added dates or one-off shows might not be ruled out, for many people who have come out to see the Man Machine Poem shows, this will indeed be their last time seeing the band. The Hip’s management also cut a deal with the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, to air and stream the final stop on the tour ad-free, Aug. 20 from Kingston. More than 200 bars and restaurants around the world will also show the concert.
Set List for night three at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre:
“Blow at High Dough”
“New Orleans Is Sinking”
“Boots or Hearts”
“In a World Possessed by the Human Mind”
“We Want to Be It”
“Man Machine Poem”
“Springtime in Vienna”
“Ahead by a Century”
“The Last of the Unplucked Gems”
“Twist My Arm”
“Long Time Running”
“Escape Is At Hand for the Travellin’ Man”