From left, Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay, Gord Downie, Gord Sinclair and Rob Baker of The Tragically Hip perform on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Toronto. (Photo: Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
The great joke built into The Tragically Hip’s misnomer of a name is that while Kingston’s finest band has always been proudly unhip, it’s less a Canadian-style, self-deprecating dig than an elbow to the ribs of cooler compatriots.
While more fashionable bands have faded into musical footnotes, the Hip has enjoyed a 32-year career and domestic deification. But now the part of their name that has the most resonance as the Hip rocks its way across the nation one final time is “tragically.”
Not that you could tell from the surface euphoria onstage and in the stands as Gord Downie’s incurable brain cancer took a backseat for a couple hours of communal rock catharsis during the band’s 25-song concert at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. It was the first of three sold-out shows as their “Man Machine Poem” tour — named after the latest and, alas, last album released in June — makes its way toward a final stop in their Kingston hometown.
Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip performing at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto as part of the band’s Man Machine Poem tour. (Photo: Marcus Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Still, the tour’s tragic subtext was always present. It was there in cheers that just kept going and going and going as Downie, left alone on the stage, soaked it in with an expression that barely contained his intense emotions. (It was an effort simultaneously being expended by the arena full of fans, many of whom clasped each other in the crowd for support.)
It was there when Downie sang a new tune, “Tired As Fuck,” mischievously grinning each time he cursed, while also singing such painful truths as “I wanna stop so much I almost don’t wanna stop.” He maintained the same tone during “Wheat Kings,” a song about another Canadian icon and karmic injustice, singing “You can’t be fond of living in the past / Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re going to last.”
And again when he sang deep cut “Flamenco” with its advice to “walk like a matador, don’t be chicken shit,” advice which Downie himself clearly took to heart when planning his goodbye.
This wasn’t like Gord attending his own funeral, it was more of a wake: a joyful celebration of everything he has given us.
We have grown accustomed to losing our musical icons to sudden death, like the discovery of Prince in a Paisley Park elevator. But this musically tragic year also allowed David Bowie to go out on his own terms, having just released an album about his failing mortality, complete with a single and music video that is now etched into our collective brains as Bowie’s exit music.
Downie took that one step further by announcing his illness and then staging a literal farewell tour. No wonder this is how he wanted to go out, on his terms and with his fans, everyone gathered in hockey arenas — a.k.a. Canada’s megachurches — as they pay their communal respects to his life’s work.
It was incredibly emotional as everyone’s voices joined together on such hymns as “Grace, Too,” “Little Bones,” “Ahead By A Century,” “At The Hundredth Meridian” and “Fifty-Mission Cap,” the latter of which was bolstered by Leafs fans exploding at the song’s lyrical shout out in the team’s own arena.
But this wasn’t like Gord attending his own funeral, it was more of a wake: a joyful celebration of everything he has given us. Doctors have said they’re surprised at the energy he’s been showing on stage — and so was I, initially, but not after witnessing the love and support the crowd showers on Downie is palpable.
Downie, of course, tries to lighten the mood despite the tragic subtext. He turns brief rest breaks into costume change opportunity to slip into shiny silver, blue and pink suits, complete with feathered fedoras.
Knowing that his mug will be blown up on the jumbotron, his facial expressions and dance moves are amazingly goofy — as if he’s mocking his whole rock star persona during the instrumental bits only to use his inimitably powerful vocals to transform into a full-blown rock star as soon as he starts singing, his face falling into Michael Phelps mode as every lyric sounds like a pronouncement.
This is not a greatest hits tour. Though the set-list changes every night — classics like “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Courage” never emerged at the show I attended — it boasts plenty of songs from the new album and deep cuts from the past.
Gord Downie, centre, and Gord Sinclair of The Tragically Hip perform on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Toronto. (Photo: Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
Again, this is Gord saying goodbye on his terms, and in front of a fanbase that has always allowed him to do so. (The ironic part of hipsters’ cheap shots that Hip fans lack sophistication is that Downie’s lyrics have always been as infused with surrealism as they are with Canadiana.)
Still, Gord did not say much outside of body language, facial expressions and the lyrics of on-the-nose songs like “So Hard Done By.” But toward the end, between the first and second encore, he did say “We remember playing to 108 people,” as he looked around the arena. “We’ve come far. Thank you Toronto.”
This is Gord saying goodbye on his terms, and in front of a fanbase that has always allowed him to do so.
Toronto thanks him back, refusing to stop cheering as he walked across the stage, alone, the band gone to the back for now. Gord made eye contact with every section, his smile wide and his eyes visibly damp as the cheers continued, rising and falling in intensity, but never fading.
The band finally returned for another encore, and though they ended with a raucous “Poets,” it was “Bobcaygeon” that opened the emotional floodgates one finale time as we all joined our voices together to sing:
“When I left your house this morning,
It was a little after nine
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at time.”
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