HAMILTON, Ont. - It was all there, in the way they took the stage at FirstOntario Centre on Tuesday night, huddled together in the center of the sprawling space, as if confined to the environs of a tiny practice room or an intimate club.
The members of the Tragically Hip were finding strength in the brotherhood that has fueled their music from the very beginning, when they’d routinely play to tiny crowds in and around their hometown of Kingston, Ont.
Now, more than ever, they’d need that strength. For as viscerally powerful and romantically poetic as Tuesday’s Hip show was, this was not just another gig.
Since the band announced recently that singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and that its string of Canadian dates in support of the new “Man Machine Poem” album would likely be a farewell run, the Hip’s legion of fans knew that these shows would be special.
Just how special one couldn’t have predicted, however, for Downie’s heroic performance in the face of such a monumental struggle imbued Tuesday’s show with a poignancy that mere words strain to capture.
This was a celebration of friendship, a heartfelt thank you to the group’s community of deeply loyal fans, and a demonstration of volitional grace under immense pressure that transcended the parameters of a mere rock concert.
It was also a reminder of what a unique band the Tragically Hip has always been. The blend of sturdy, four-on-the-floor guitar-driven rock and poetic yearning that is the group’s stock in trade was in evidence from the moment the band kicked into opener “At the Hundredth Meridian.”
Guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay locked down the groove from the get-go, leaving Downie to strut his beautifully idiosyncratic stuff.
You would never have known the man has been ailing, based on his performance, which blended aspects of theatricality with yearning-infused singing in a manner that the Hip cognoscente have long found impossible to resist. Fists were raised, cups of rapidly warming beer were hoisted in a spirit of camaraderie, and for five minutes, we all ignored reality and relished the excitement that comes with realizing that the band is on fire and you’re in for a thrilling ride.
But then came “Courage,” the first of the evening’s many songs that would be lent added poignancy by the reality of Downie’s situation, and the tears flowed throughout the packed arena. Here was the dialectic that would define the evening writ large: We found ourselves feeling triumphant and exalted by Downie’s commanding performance at one moment, and heartbroken by the realization of his suffering at the next.
And yet, of the 50-plus Tragically Hip shows I’ve seen since the early ’90s, this was certainly one of the strongest and most exultant, a fact that even a quick glance at the setlist would make clear to fans not lucky enough to have been there.
“Eldorado,” “Fifty Mission Cap,” a mini-set of tunes from the new album that included stellar renditions of “What Blue” and “In A World Possessed by the Human Mind,” “So Hard Done By,” “Grace, Too,” Poets,” “Fireworks,” “Gift Shop” – every one of them is a stone-cold classic, and all were played with a conviction that at times seemed to be fueled by desperation.
So by any measure, this would have been a great Hip show. But when Downie kicked into one of the band’s most haunting pieces, the low-key and intimate “Scared,” the night became something else entirely. When he reached the song’s emotional coda, and sang the line “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” the crowd erupted with a roar equal parts joy and anguish. Calling the moment a bittersweet one fails to do it justice.
Nothing like this has ever happened on such a grand scale in the world of rock music, to my knowledge. David Bowie left us an incredibly eloquent goodbye note in the form of “Blackstar,” released two days prior to his succumbing to a cancer none of us knew he’d been battling.
But Downie has done what Bowie chose not to - he’s essentially gone out to greet the fans who made the Tragically Hip perhaps the biggest Canadian rock band in history in order to say goodbye face to face. That he and the band managed to do this while maintaining an air of defiant celebration is simply astounding.
After the final encore, Downie stood on stage alone and addressed the crowd. “It was a lot of fun. That is the main idea. None of it will last much longer than the particular phone you’re shooting it on. And that’s OK. I’m not anti-phone or anything.”
And then he paused dramatically.
“But, uh, it will be the little feelings here and there that pop up. OK?” And then he strode off the stage. This was pure poetry. Downie’s right. It will be the little feelings that pop up here and there. But right now, they don’t feel so little.
Tuesday evening at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ont.