As the last strains of “Ahead by a Century” were just fading into the rafters of Rexall Place in Edmonton, Gord Downie walked to the front, his Tragically Hip band members fading quietly off stage. The spotlights centred on the Canadian icon, alone.
I can’t imagine Wayne Gretzky himself ever received an ovation the likes of which Gord was soaking in. I looked around the arena, and through my own teary vision, couldn’t see another dry eye. Yes, we all knew there was an encore to come, but in our own way we were all saying our thanks to Gord and his band. His was the music most of us in attendance had grown up to. The soundtrack of road trips, of summers, of that girl you just met or the girl who just left you. In that moment in Edmonton, we were all taken back to those indelible memories that have been woven into the fabric of our lives. We were saying thanks, but also saying goodbye. And we were all in awe of a man dealing with a terminal brain cancer diagnosis and his desire to tour one last time.
This was no dress rehearsal, it was his life.
For a variety of poor reasons, I had never seen one of my favourite bands perform until that night in Edmonton. When I was in university in Halifax, their shows had a remarkable consistency of showing up the night before a morning final exam. When I moved to Ottawa for a few spells, they played in Halifax and when I was back in Halifax, I would miss a show in Ottawa by a day or two. So, when this tour was announced, the five hour drive from Saskatoon to Edmonton was a minor price to pay to finally see the Hip play live.
Walking into the arena on a Saturday night, there was an unmistakeable atmosphere, an anticipation, unlike any concert I’ve been to. My wife and I climbed up to our upper level seats and I almost vibrated waiting for the show to start.
At the precise hour of 8:30, the lights went down, everyone already in their seats not wanting to miss one moment of the concert. The band members took up their instruments, then came Gord to an ear splitting cheer. From the first notes, the roar of the crowd got louder. Then in unison, “They shot a movie once, in my hometown…”
How’s this for an opening… Blow at High Dough, Opiated, then Boots or Hearts. At this early part of the tour, the structure of grouping songs from albums in their set lists wasn’t completely known, so we didn’t know were in the middle of a cluster of songs from the 1989 album “Up to Here”. Then the rolling baseline of “New Orleans is Sinking” started, a roar went up, and four songs in, I had goosebumps on top of goosebumps. What a start.
I think we were all curious how Gord would do. Animated on stage, but not the manic performer he once was, whether due to illness or age, it didn’t matter. But his voice – it was pitch perfect, clear and emotive. It was quintessential Gord Downie.
We were all curious what Gord was thinking and feeling too. The human factor of this show gave us all a few moments – some everyone caught, some we might have thought we saw, and a few I’m sure we were reading too much into. During “Courage” about mid concert and near the end of the song, when Gord sang “Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.” – through his expression, in a moment not of showmanship, but where his face opened a window to his heart, I felt he was speaking directly to his plight. A fraction of a moment of true, sad, beauty.
Like everyone else there, I had a set of songs in my head I hoped I would hear. A couple didn’t make the cut (“Long Time Running”, “Nautical Disaster”, “Poets”), but most did. Always a favourite of mine, “Wheat Kings” has taken on new meaning after moving to Saskatoon this year. That opening line “Sundown in the Paris of the prairies..” now makes me think of home. Seeing this song live, and hearing Gord and 19,000 others stretch out the notes signing the chorus gave me chills.
The concert was musically superb. Whether it was hearing a back catalog song that I’ve always liked (“Coffee Girl”), a song rife with Canadianity (“Fifty Mission Cap”), or the series of hit songs (“At the Hundredth Meridian”, “Grace, Too” and so many others), this was without question one of the best rock shows I have ever seen.
Into the encore, a few more of our favourites and another of the moments that I’ll lock away in my mind. “Bobcagyeon” was played last. There’s a moment in the song, just as it heads into the now iconic bridge with the line, “That night in Toronto…” – the music swells, Gord’s voice lifts, and the song reaches a climax. Singing along, knowing we were all seeing the last song of the night, brought tears to my eyes, and had every hair on the back of my neck standing up. I’ve seen a lot of live music in my life, but those twenty seconds in the bridge of that one song that night in Edmonton, will forever be in my heart.
For all the reactions Gord Downie could have had to his diagnosis, he chose to perform. His last words to us: “Thank you. We love you tonight. We loved you 30 years ago, even when there were only 6 of you.” We love you too, for all of the music, for that night, and for your courage and grace, too.