Island mirrors Tragically Hip’s tour final show as iconic event

Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip frontman, gives a tearful adieu to the crowd.

KINGSTON—Sometimes the luck of the draw goes your way and, as the late Chris Tilson was wont to say, “the bonus lights keep flashing.” So it was when the text from Expositor Editor Alicia McCutcheon came across the phone “I have two tickets to see the live streaming of The Hip concert at Bell Park, do you and Linda want to go?”

Summer weekends are busy times for an Expositor scribe and Ms. McCutcheon was helping out a very busy staff writer Robin Burridge (think Providence Bay Fair, Whitefish River First Nation Powwow along with a dozen other smaller events) whose weekend it was to cover the Island and couldn’t fit the trip to Sudbury in.

Not that there weren’t plenty of opportunities to watch the CBC stream of the final performance of the sold out 15-show Man Machine Poem tour, from the big screen downstairs if I just wanted to cuddle up warm with my wife (the aforementioned Linda) to a trip down to the Anchor Inn if I wanted to hang out with some fellow fans and have a few brews. The Anchor even had a Hip-themed menu crafted especially for the occasion (featuring ‘50 Mission Cap’ New York Strip, ‘Bobcaygeon’ Grilled Whitefish and ‘Nautical Disaster’ Rotini Alfredo). But in the end, the opportunity to gather in the concert venue atmosphere of the Grace Hartman Amphitheatre in Bell Park (oddly my first safari to the Bell Amphitheatre’s modern replacement) won out.

Arriving before the 6:30 pm opening of the gates, we still found a good sized lineup, where CBC Radio North personalities were joined by storied Sudbury music scene promoters Paul Loewenberg and Scott Merrifield in checking ID (it was a licenced event limited to those 19 and over, did I mention those bonus lights?) and scanning tickets. The onerous gig of checking bags for contraband fell to other volunteers. The mood in the line was definitely upbeat, with many old friends greeting one another, despite the threatening clouds overhead, most of the fans were carrying some form of raingear obviously prepared to weather the worst.

Rain it did, hard for a couple of minutes, causing quite a rush to the shelter of the stage’s overhang or the two large tents at the back of the venue and a mushroom field of umbrellas to bloom across the seats. By the time the concert actually began, the rain had settled to an intermittent drizzle and most fans had drifted back to the seats. Having brought a rain poncho and an umbrella for the occasion (we reporters, and our wives, are resourceful), it was quickly discovered that the lineup to the beer counter had thinned out considerably—there is always a silver lining.

One in three Canadians tuned in to watch the farewell concert, made particularly poignant by the reason for the end of three decades that The Tragically Hip have painted their musical portraits of the Canadian psyche—lead singer Gordon Downie has been diagnosed with an aggressive terminal brain tumour.

The Tragically Hip have formed the background score to the formative years of more than one generation of Canadians, including most of the staff at The Expositor.

For Expositor Editor Alicia McCutcheon, the music of the Tragically Hip “formed the soundtrack to my adolescence.” She vividly recalled her discovery of the album ‘Day For Night’ (that would be the one from which three songs in the grand finale were drawn) in Grade 7 that began to lay down the musical tracks of some of her most formative years, “well them, Bob Marley, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones.”

“I have this memory of our Grade 8 trip, (one of the other students on the trip) bought the album with ‘Ahead by a Century’ on it, and then he went ahead and bought every other album The Tragically Hip had put out,” she laughed. “He literally had a fist full of albums.” Hard to suggest that her fellow student’s school trip budget was blown, given the stature to which Canadian icons Gordon Downie and The Tragically Hip have risen.

Staff Writer Robin Burridge recalled her university years: “My best friend in university went to Queen’s in Kingston (the Hip’s hometown) where The Hip guitarist Rob Baker was living,” she said. “It was an interesting but modest house. Whenever we were walking back from Kingston’s downtown at night we would walk by his house singing Hip songs in the hope that he would come out.” Alas the stratagem failed and the dream unrequited.

Among the reports of interesting places to catch the final Hip performance (as yet unsubstantiated) was of one enterprising soul who apparently set up a screen at the Benjamins to live stream to the boating community and a fully documented sojourn aboard the Grand Heron off the shores of Kagawong.

As is our wont as reporters these days, The Expositor published photos and comments from the concert venue in Sudbury through Instagram, receiving likes and shares for the effort. Once such post garnered a negative reaction, however. Anyone who watched the performance could guess when that occurred. Singer Downie had apparently met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before the concert, and the singer used the opportunity of the incredible national focus on his final moments in the spotlight to give a shout out and endorsement of Prime Minister Trudeau and exhorted him to redress the wrongs committed against indigenous peoples.

“We’re in good hands, folks, real, good hands,” Mr. Downie told the live audience, as cameras cut to Prime Minister Trudeau the audience. “He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been, we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.’’ The prime minister could be seen to mouth ‘thank you’ in response.

Zac Nichol’s response to The Expositor’s report of the unusual occurrence “I thought tonight was supposed to be about the TH, not JT?” while Mitchell Stringer’s retort “Was no endorsement what so ever (sic). Was all about Gord and he called Trudeau out. That being said again, it’s about Gord being a great person,”—interesting interpretations, but hard to support from the transcript.

The chitter on Twitter and Facebook definitely split on partisan lines, but criticisms of photo ops and counter spins aside, there was almost universal gratitude for shining a light on the issue from First Nations leaders. It was clearly also a challenge, however, as the singer continued. “He’s going to be looking good for about at least 12 more years, I don’t know if they let you go beyond that. But he’ll do it.”

The Tragically Hip gave an outstanding three-hour performance (although the early sound quality left something to be desired, most Hip fans likely heard the words of Gordon Downie’s poetic lyrics clearly in their mind’s ears anyway, many singing along to their favourite song). The Olympic village featured Ron McLean giving tribute with a backdrop of athletes swaying to the music and a host of the best known musicians of the past few decades provided their own tributes before the show.

The Tragically Hip came back onstage for an unprecedented three encores, and, despite the renewed rain, there was literally no early exodus from the Grace Hartman Amphitheatre as the final songs were taking place. The musicians hugged each other and kissed Mr. Downie unabashedly before the nation. Many could be seen with tears streaming down their faces as the final goodbyes took place.

The Tragically Hip were Gordon Downie, guitarist Paul Langlois, guitarist Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay and their music touched a nation, reflecting its soul with small town visions.

“Thanks for listening in the back,” Mr. Downie said as he left the stage for the final time. “Thanks for listening, period. Have a nice life.”