By Greg Price
I saw a phenomena on Saturday that I do not think I will see again for a very long time in Canadian history.
For one glorious night, much like the 2010 gold-medal hockey game for the Vancouver Olympics, for the most part, we put aside our differences and enjoyed a Canadian musical icon that brought millions together in the final performance of the Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, their final tour period.
A 2015 census shows nearly 35,750,000 people residing in Canada and approximately one-third of that tuned in on television, radio or online streaming at some point during the nearly three-hour broadcast of the last Tragically Hip concert on Saturday night, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. That, of course, does not include people born in Canada who now reside in the United States who very much made their television or live-streaming viewing on Saturday night dedicated to The Tragically Hip.
I will freely admit, I’m not the biggest Tragically Hip fan, really knowing only their most radio-friendly tunes over the years like ‘Ahead by a Century,’ ‘New Orleans is Sinking’ and ‘My Music at Work,’ since the band’s inception in 1984.
The Canadian band I listened to most over the years was Our Lady Peace with Rush and Tragically Hip next in line.
But don’t think for one second I was unaware of the exact impact Saturday’s event had on me and a nation from what I saw in the house party I attended and news feeds from sea to sea and also Rio, where Canadians were competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
It was a three-hour moment that was as palatable — yet bittersweet at the same time — as one could be, as Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer back in May.
Much like that gold-medal game in 2010, there were grown men hugging each other, waving the Canadian flag, fighting back tears as they got caught trying to hang onto a moment for as long as they could, witnessing what is arguably at least from a lyricist standpoint, one of the greatest artists of all time in North America.
A man in Gord Downie who is such a rock star yet isn’t.
He showed the flash of, say, a Prince or David Bowie, with his metallic suits and fedora hats, yet had an awkward goofiness with how he navigated the stage in his performance.
That in no way, shape, or form is meant as an insult, as his command of the stage was never questioned. It simply gave off a vibe that in no way seemed staged or manufactured, but as real as the man’s lyrics. Long pauses in his steps, soaking in the instrumentals, knowing the finality of the concert and his mortality coming up, waving to fans in the packed stadium, shedding tears in his more sombre songs, pulling his pants up from time to time and a few dance moves and self-depreciating comments that created an ease that Downie is an everyman’s musician.
The Tragically Hip is as Canadian as back bacon, socialized health care, maple syrup and politely apologizing even when someone else has bumped into you.
There have been Canadian musicians that have gained a lot more prominence financially in their worldwide exposure like the Justin Biebers and Nickelbacks of the world, but perhaps that is what makes The Tragically Hip even more a part of Canadiana that we can call our own.
A hidden treasure in its poetic purity that really could have at least one song everyone can enjoy regardless of your musical tastes, around a bonfire or blaring on the radio on a road trip across the vast prairies or coast line. I listened to the stories of fellow people who attended a house party where the concert was projected like a big screen. I heard how the band influenced their lives in both small and large ways, in-between singing along with some of their favourites with such fervor. I saw the same in my social media feed on Facebook of several friends, both in Canada and abroad.
Social media trolling was kept to a minimum (or as much as it could). I read Conservatives shouting down other Conservatives who were whining Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was using the Tragically Hip concert as a photo-op. One Conservative political poster even put ‘Just shut up and enjoy the moment, we are all celebrating being Canadian tonight.’
For one brief moment for the most part, no matter your political bend, we were all brothers and sisters for a three-hour musical moment before we got back to our bickering, sometimes about the most petty and inconsequential of things.
For aspiring musicians out there, look no further than Saturday’s concert on how to conduct yourself. The thankfulness Downie had for his road crew and fellow bandmates with numerous hugs and kisses, acknowledgment of fans ‘for keeping me pushing’, and a sincere playfulness and energy in which Downie had every excuse not to have.
While some diva musicians cancel shows for ‘personal reasons,’ or ‘feeling under the weather,’ here was Downie battling brain cancer and doing not only one encore, but three, and three-song encores to boot. Gord Downie was not feeling sorry for himself dying, but embracing living and living in the moment in the unique way only The Tragically Hip can. Embracing that moment that I’m sure he had in his formative years in his youth, that no matter how bad your day was going, you could hit the pause button for those few sweet minutes when you heard a song on the radio that spoke to you.
There are moments in history where everyone can remember where they were when it happened. I am proud to say I was able to take part in some small way in this one on Saturday night, and will remember it with warmth. It was simply tuning into CBC for television viewing on a Saturday night, and yet, it has been a long time since I felt that tuned into my fellow Canadians.