How The Tragically Hip’s last night in Toronto captivated our minds and hearts
By Leora Katz
I didn’t want to go.
I hadn’t been to a Tragically Hip show in 15 years, so when the tour was announced, I didn’t feel compelled to go — even knowing it was my last chance. Between the music, the nostalgia, and Gord Downie’s illness, I assumed the concerts would be overwhelmingly emotional and I couldn’t help but think: Why would I make myself sad?
Tickets went on sale and Facebook exploded with some who were lucky, and many more who weren’t. “Glad I didn’t try that,” I thought.
And then it was Wednesday, August 10, the night of the first Toronto show. I was at a Blue Jays game, but Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook made it clear something special was happening at that other big venue up the street. I felt a weird and unexpected little spark…
I might need to go to this.
When I got to work on Thursday, I didn’t need to think before choosing my music for the day. For the first time in a decade, I put on The Tragically Hip.
It’s amazing how you don’t forget songs. How lyrics roll off your tongue even though it was 16 years ago when you lay on your bed, turned your Christmas lights on, slid the CD booklet out the plastic case, and read the lyrics as Downie belted them from your boombox speakers. It’s amazing how music that matters latches on to your soul like a childhood friend, a slight and comforting whisper, “Don’t worry, I’m with you for life.”
With goosebumps on my arms and glossy eyes, I turned to those I knew were at the show to find out how it was. The response was unanimous. Words like “powerful” and “fantastic,” “emotional” and “incredible” flooded in, pushing me to consider the path of the impossible ticket. Then a friend bluntly and perfectly stated:
You already know you need to be there.
A relentless search later, I got myself some tickets and became more excited for a show than I had been in a very, very long time.
The Tragically Hip were a fundamental band for me in those formative teenage music years that come to shape your identity — and I know I’m not alone on that. As I ripped Backstreet Boys posters off my bedroom walls and replaced them with Dave Matthews jamming on a guitar, Bob Marley smoking a joint, and Pearl Jam rocking out, The Hip were right there.
I’m sure I was introduced to The Tragically Hip by someone older and cooler than me at summer camp, prompting me to buy the CDs and listen religiously. I remember burning the CDs and putting the files into my Winamp, with songs like “Gift Shop,” “Nautical Disaster,” and “Fiddler’s Green” landing on my very own mix CDs.
The soundtracks of many road trips, the background to many memories, the words I’d write as my high school yearbook quote. The band filling the CanCon requirements on Q107 as the classic rock station blared from my old, silver Mazda, nestled between Pink Floyd, AC/DC and The Who. It didn’t quite fit in, but it was there. Importantly, it was there.
For me, The Tragically Hip is one of those bands that hurls me right back to a different time and place — one that’s me to the core, though somewhat forgotten. As my tastes changed and I moved towards indie rock and jam bands, I listened to The Hip less and less… till never at all.
But that didn’t matter on Sunday night.
The energy was uncomfortable in the ACC. As Canadian music lovers took to their seats to watch our band rock the venue one last time, there was an uneasy tension I’ve never felt at a concert before.
Were we celebrating or devastated? Was this one last party, or a wrenching goodbye? Could we look at Gord and smile at his antics, or was the whole thing too heartbreaking? As the familiar songs played from the stage, it became clear this show was a little of everything, for everyone.
And that’s unusual at a concert. I’m far more used to setlists that take the crowd on a unified journey, not ones that strap each person to a private and emotional rollercoaster. We were all in it together — but not.
This meant your neighbour was playing a mean air guitar while the woman in front of you wiped tears from her cheeks. The man behind you belted out the words to his favourite song while you were lost in thoughts of love and death, sickness and hope, life and memories and everything important.
And yet, a few incredibly powerful moments stand out, where we landed on the same page with all the force of our synchronized emotion.
We sang “Ahead By A Century” at the top of our lungs, turning the ACC into the most sincere choir Canada has ever seen.
“No dress rehearsal, this is our life.”
Together, our hearts rode the soaring moments of “Bobcaygeon.”
“That night in Torontooooo.”
This night in Toronto. The last night in Toronto. Geez.
And “Grace, Too.”
When Gord Downie bowed between encores, his eyes twinkling on the screen, his fingers pointing to individuals in the crowd — we cheered our very loudest, as if the bellows of our insides were doing whatever they could to say,
“We love you. You mean something to us. We are devastated by the hand you’ve been dealt. Thank you, thank you.”
It was not an easy show to be at. It was impossible not to think about death, about dying, about sickness, about the fragility of life. About the ones you love, that it could happen to anyone, that you don’t even want to think about what you’re thinking about but you can’t help it anyway. About how he must feel, how brave he is, what on earth could be going through his mind in this moment. About love and people, nostalgia and age, who you were and who you are.
Oh, the power of music.
The lights came on and that was it. Walking out of the venue, my eyes met many others that looked a lot like mine. Slightly red and puffy, set above tear-stained cheeks, filled with heartbreak. We mustered the tiniest smiles as we passed each other by, but they didn’t linger long. What could we say? How could we be?
And we left a Tragically Hip show — for the very last time — a small piece of each of us broken.
Sending so much love, light and strength to Gord Downie and all those close to him ❤