My Complicated Relationship with The Tragically Hip

It was the farewell concert from a Canadian national treasure, but somehow it just wasn’t that compelling

Though not an official holiday, yesterday was a national day of celebration and mourning for us Canadians. The Tragically Hip played its farewell show in its hometown of Kingston, Ontario, which was broadcast live on national TV. The CBC even cut away from its Olympic coverage to show us this concert in its entirety. This was surely a Canadian Heritage Minute in the making—even our Prime Minister was in attendance.

Me, I wasn’t in Kingston last night, although it’s only about a three-hour drive. Hell, I wasn’t even compelled to go see ’em when they played three nights in Toronto just over a week ago. (The shows were all sold out, of course, with the price of scalped Hip tickets actually setting off a provincial inquiry.) As much as they’re considered a national treasure, and as surely as I grew up listening to them on Canadian rock radio, I have never once paid to see The Tragically Hip play or purchased a single piece of Hip-related memorabilia… although I did catch a free show they played a couple years back.

Who the heck is The Tragically Hip?

Unless you’re from Canada, have a lot of Canadian friends, or live in a U.S. border town where you can hear Canadian radio stations, you’re probably asking this question right now. As big as they are in Canada, The Hip has never had much success in the States — or in any other country, for that matter. Up here, their 1992 breakthrough album Fully Completely has sold over a million copies, with four Top 40 radio singles, yet it did almost nothing stateside, despite an initial push from MCA Records. The band has never had an album hit higher than 129 on the U.S. charts, while every single album except their ’89 debut has been a top-three seller in Canada.

The Tragically Hip at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, Jan 23, 2015 | Photo by Aven Horvath,

There have been a few attempts to break The Hip stateside since then, including a 1995 appearance on Saturday Night Live and being booked on the East Stage at Woodstock ‘99 — where there was a shit-ton of Canadian flags in the crowd for their performance. But while they sell out stadiums in Canada, their U.S. shows were played in clubs to a crowd largely consisting of Canadian expats and actual Canadians who came across the border to catch ’em in a more intimate setting. If any Hip albums have cracked the U.S. charts at all, they were probably purchased by people with Canadian passports.

This band is our band, it isn’t your band…

Perhaps the most logical explanation for this dichotomy of The Hip being the biggest Canadian band that nobody cares about outside of Canada is the fact that so many of their song lyrics have been about Canada, whether namedropping Canadian towns and cities or mentioning important moments in Canadian history. Much like country songs about drinking beer on tailgates off some old dirt road in Georgia likely don’t sell like hotcakes in the U.K., it’s completely understandable that “Bobcaygeon,” The Hip’s second-highest-charting single, named after a small town in Ontario’s cottage country, didn’t get any airplay in any other country.

Conversely, by singing so much about Canada, The Hip have woven themselves so deeply into our national fabric that telling someone you don’t like The Hip is the Canadian equivalent of saying The Beatles were only just OK. While even us Canadians like to hate on Bieber, Drake and Nickelback (although you can’t diss Drake if you live in Toronto), if you cross The Hip, those are fighting words, my friend. And yet, while I can recall at least the chorus of nearly every Tragically Hip single released between 1989 and 2000, I can honestly say that I’ve never been that big of a fan. The Hip is only just OK in my books.

Musically, they were certainly on par with any outfit to come out of the post-grunge, alt-rock 90s, and their songs had a lot more staying power than lesser Canadian acts like Econoline Crush, The Headstones and Rymes with Orange. But I was always sort of put off by those lyrics, which were too literary, too verbose for my developing young mind to fully understand. And even today, while I think it’s cool that they wrote a song about the disappearance of Bill Barilko, for instance… they still don’t do that much for me.

That night in Toronto…

Like I said, I have only been to one Tragically Hip concert, and it wasn’t even a headlining set — they were opening for the Leafs and Habs, the first NHL hockey game of the season, up on the big screen at Yonge-Dundas Square. Calgary and Vancouver were facing off in the nightcap, and I’m pretty sure I was the only guy there wearing a Calgary Flames jersey…but hey, the start of an NHL season is certainly cause for celebration in this country, and I wasn’t going to pass on seeing The Hip for free in my backyard.

As it turns out, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was wearing the exact same cowboy hat as me that night. He took the stage in full western wear — an odd choice for downtown Toronto — and put on a typically manic set, shaking and sweating like a man possessed. I remember he stopped singing for a good five minutes to tell someone in the audience to “get on her shoulders” and, after their set was interrupted by a presentation from Rogers Sportsnet, he made some disparaging remarks about our beloved sport’s new national broadcaster. (The whole purpose of this shindig was to promote Rogers’ buying the rights to Hockey Night in Canada from the CBC ahead of the 2014 season.) The next day at work, I mentioned to some colleagues that Downie must’ve been drunk, but they told me that was just Gord being Gord.

Unfortunately, when Gord was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in May, it prompted the band to put together one last national tour, which sold out in a matter of minutes. (Blame the scalpers!) And that led us to what was likely their last-ever concert last night…

Even Justin Trudeau was wearing a Tragically Hip t-shirt

Image: MetroNews

So last night I watched The Tragically Hip’s farewell performance on the CBC. I didn’t put aside all plans in order to see it — I just didn’t have anything else to do, and frankly, I felt somewhat patriotically compelled to tune in. As it stands, I missed the first half-hour of their set since I went out for dinner, and they probably played a couple tunes I would’ve recognized. I tuned in just in time to see them playing a few songs off their latest album, which I only know because I’ve read reviews of earlier shows that mentioned some of these song titles. For the first little bit, I kinda had the TV on in the background while I did laundry or checked my phone; it just wasn’t that compelling.

And even the songs I did know didn’t sound so great. Downie mumbled and stumbled his way through “Little Bones” while the aforementioned “Bobcaygeon,” the band’s ultimate raised-lighters live moment, was somewhat ruined by Downie’s over-singing. (And yes, there were a couple shout-outs to Trudeau, including a bizarre rant where Gord said he should be our prime minister for the next 12 years.) They just didn’t really strike a chord with me until they played their ’95 hit “Grace, Too” at the end of the second encore, where Downie really got down to business. Coming out for an unprecedented third encore of some earlier hits, I finally felt the band was on fire. And then, a few minutes later, they were no more.

It was a somewhat surreal moment after the closing credits when the CBC cut away to Ron MacLean and a bunch of Canadian Olympic athletes who had watched the concert from the rooftop of the Canadian embassy in Rio. Not only did our national broadcaster take time away from the Olympics to see The Hip, but so did some of our Olympians. And yet, while I’ve been humming “Grace, Too” and “Bobcaygeon” for most of the day today, I still have no desire to go out and buy, or even download, any of The Hip’s music. I feel like I’ve paid my respects, and I’m ready to move on — while sadly acknowledging that there probably won’t be another Made in Canada rock band like these guys for a very, very long time.

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