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The Tragically Hip

August 29, 2016


Watch the band through a bunch of dancers.
Quickly, follow the unknown, with something more familiar.
Quickly, something familiar!

I saw my first Tragically Hip concert in Central Park, July 1st (Canada Day) with my friends Gomez, and Lisa. We were in the park to see Great Big Sea, a Celtic folk band from Newfoundland we knew and loved.

Seething onto the stage comes this other band, all driving intensity of big rock chords. The lead singer, a bald man in a gray, three-piece suit stalking across the stage, sung lyrics spiraling in between improvised spoken word that blurred the barrier between spontaneous poetry and preaching the gospel of the exceedingly weird.  This professorial rock poet of a frontman had me hooked from the first line I wasn’t sure I understood. The Tragically Hip? Cool name. I bought all the CDs I could lay hands on. I learned lyrics that quietly, insistently got under my skin. Melodies I hummed.

Some words I knew so well I could call on them and call back to them, music at work, music at life. Lyrics as talismans, imagery, advice.

Bring on a brand new renaissance, cause I think I’m ready.
I was shaking all night long, but my hands are steady.

In the intervening years, I had friends who sort of liked some of the songs, other artists vying for most-played-spot on iTunes, other tunes stuck in my head, not that many opportunities to go see them live. May have missed out on one or two album releases, caught up when I remembered. I’m terrible at being a completist.

I saw the news in May. Gordon Downie was diagnosed with brain cancer. Glioblastoma. And they were going to go ahead with their tour, and with his doctor’s blessing. I cried when I heard. I raged. Because seriously, cancer attacking the very center and soul of dreaming up new lyrics and singing??? I thought about concert tickets and plane tickets. (Which sold out pretty much in the half hour I took to fully, completely talk myself out of doing something that insane.)

I watched my second Tragically Hip concert from my couch on August 20th. In good company.

In addition to basically the entirety of Canada, including the Prime Minister, rocking a band t-shirt, my parents sat on the couch and watched with me. They were perplexed by the half-understood lyrics, and a bit by the man himself: “Like a cross between Joe Cocker and David Bowie,” an actual quote from Dad. Not far wrong.

There are few among us who have what it takes to greet a terminal cancer diagnosis with  an arsenal of rock songs and very stylish, shiny suits.



From the first moments of the livestream, it was a hell of a concert film.

Dad was amazed by the filming, the timing, the production value. “CBC is doing this live??? It looks like it should have taken years to make!” The first sight of the band was them backstage, getting ready to go on. Gord took a moment with each of his bandmates, a word in the ear, a hug. A kiss full on the mouth. And they took the stage, and the camera panned out into row upon row of cheering, screaming fans, and they ripped right into “Fifty Mission Cap,” the song I’d been singing around the house all day.

Oh, hell yes.

Three hours.

And a more legible version:


I sang along. I cried. I cheered. I admired the sparkle and strut and sheer rock intensity Gordon Downie brought onto the stage, the band attacking chords as tight as ever.

Some favorites and moments.

The first time I cried: During “At the Hundredth Meridian,” for lyrical reasons.

If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me
If they bury me some place I don’t want to be
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously
Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees
Whispers of disease and the acts of enormity
And lower me slowly and sadly and properly
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy

The second: “Fiddler’s Green,” for lyrics and melody reasons.

Was stunned and delighted to hear them tear into “Little Bones,” one of my very favorites right after, like a big, raucous reassurance that, no matter what, the Hip are still here, Gord’s still here, still rocking. “Nothing’s dead down here, just a little tired.” Caught my breath in a couple of songs I didn’t know as well (you’d have thought that a Hip song called “Poets,” would have been anthemic to me… but I hadn’t gotten that album until a month or so ago.

Mom liked the ballads better than the ferocious-screaming rock. Dad kept an eye on Twitter, enjoying the gestalt of the experience and the culture.

Here’s a glimpse: the only official video comes from the first encore

Held my breath, hearing Gord speak before the encore, jaw dropped as he talked about politics, about First Nations, and a callout to Justin Trudeau to be working with Canada’s indigenous people and moving the country forward.

Spent the entirety of the second encore in a state somewhere between grinning and crying at three songs that can, on their own, even without knowing about Gord’s diagnosis, make me sniffle. (“Nautical Disaster,” catching me off guard with an iPod on shuffle has been known to cause a fast eye-wipe on the subway.)

And “Grace, Too,” man. Watching him sing the song that, more than any other Hip song, has been in my ears and pushing me forward for years.

I come from downtown.
Born ready for you
Armed with skills and their frustrations
And grace, too.

Other versions of the song fade out on a sung/shouted “Here! Now!”
In the Kingston show, they became rage and defiance and grief. Battle cry, that I only half saw through tears.

Had I gone to the show, I would not have seen in this detail, I know.

The last song of the third (!!!) encore was “Ahead by a Century.” It fit.

First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life

Thank you, Gord Downie, for laying out your heart on the stage, in this and every show. Thank you for courage, for being ahead by a century, for being an unplucked gem, for your skills and their frustrations.

And grace, too.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2016 9:48 am

    Thank you for posting this. And Christ(!) that was 16 years ago we saw them. Ahead by a Century indeed.


  1. August 29-30, 2016. Monday-Tuesday. LI. Bethfest. | Jpw2013

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