It’s an interesting question to ponder: What band could bring your country to a standstill?
For Canadians, the answer is simple: It’s the Tragically Hip.
On Saturday, Canada was effectively closed as its citizens huddled around their TVs, celebrating the band and the extraordinary force that is Gord Downie.
Downie is a man and a musician. But in Canada, he is much more. He is nothing short of the unofficial poet laureate.
And he is dying.
Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, stunned the nation in May when he announced that he had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. The band responded with a 15-date tour that wrapped up Saturday night in its home town of Kingston, Ontario. The band never quite caught on in the United States, but in Canada, it was R.E.M., Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones wrapped into one.
This was the most poignant of goodbye tours — Canada’s chance to say farewell.
Saturday’s concert, which lasted nearly three hours, was an emotional tour de force. Downie, 52, wore shimmering suits and feathered hats. He looked at his imaginary watch, as if to acknowledge that there isn’t much time left. He tenderly kissed his bandmates and told the crowd to “have a nice life.”
Fans choked up when he referenced mortality or uncertainty in his songs — “no dress rehearsal, this is our life” or “Wheat kings and pretty things / Let’s just see what the morning brings.”
Downie began sobbing at the end of one song. Then he gathered himself together just as quickly by returning to the stage for a surprise third encore and knocking out more fan-favorite songs.
But while arguably the band's most emotional performance, the concert didn't feel like a wake. Downie belted out hit after hit, he blew kisses into the crowd, he pranced, he preened — he did his thang.
He also acknowledged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has described Downie as someone “writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years.” Trudeau, wearing jeans and a Tragically Hip T-shirt, and was one of about 5,700 watching the performance live from Kingston’s Rogers K-Rock Centre.
This has been a sad year for music fans, with the loss of icons David Bowie and Prince triggering an outpouring of heartache and grief. In this case, there has been, at times at least, a kind of celebratory mood during what many believe to be the band’s final concerts, underscoring the value of living in the here and now.
Despite being in the spotlight for more than three decades, Downie has been a private man, so it surprised some observers that he went public with his illness — a decision counter to the one made by Bowie. But in doing so, Downie has given his nation a chance to pay tribute to him while he is still alive.
The band’s final show was broadcast live by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which came under pressure to air the show from fans upset that concert tickets sold out in minutes. Millions of Canadians, at home and abroad, watched the concert at venues that included parks, theaters and community halls.
Keely Smith, a 37-year-old Canadian who moved to Britain eight years ago, hosted a party in London. Although she initially had trouble finding a venue willing to host about 100 people who wanted to watch a concert starting at 1:30 a.m. local time, she found a restaurant in east London — run by a Canadian.
“Growing up in Canada, it’s a given you’re a Hip fan. It’s like a religion,” she said.
Many cities in Canada screened the concert outside city halls, including Kingston, where up to 30,000 gathered.
“They are a quintessentially Canadian band who mean so much to Canadians, even for those who aren’t huge fans,” Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson said.
The Hip, as the band is often called, is by no means universally loved, and its songs are best known among a certain generation. But Canadians from coast to coast have been paying homage over the past few weeks.
Staff at the cancer center where Downie is receiving treatment sang a cover of the band’s song “Courage.” In British Columbia, a community choir sang a Hip song outside the provincial legislature building. In Ontario, schoolchildren packed into a gymnasium for a stirring rendition of “Ahead by a Century.”
Michael Barclay, an author of a book on Canadian music history, said he was hard-pressed to think of another Canadian musician who would draw this kind of national outpouring. “Would children’s choirs be assembling to sing Nickelback songs? I don’t think so,” he said.
Formed in the early 1980s, the Hip arrived at a time when Canada started to feel a little less colonial and less intimidated by its big neighbor to the south. More musicians, including the Hip, began singing about Canada. To be sure, Downie has referenced a diverse range of subjects over the band’s 14 studio albums, including Shakespeare and World War II battleships. But many of his songs are also peppered with references to hockey players, Canadian towns and late-breaking stories on the CBC — this interactive map pinpoints locales across Canada mentioned in Downie’s lyrics.
Jim Cuddy, frontman of the Canadian band Blue Rodeo, told Maclean’s magazine that “when audiences saw the Hip for the first time, they thought, even subconsciously: ‘Finally, our own band.’ ”
One of the band’s most popular songs, “Wheat Kings,” is about David Milgaard, a man wrongfully imprisoned in the murder of a nursing assistant in Saskatchewan. Another, “Fifty Mission Cap,” is about Bill Barilko, a hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs who mysteriously disappeared.
Other musicians in the 1980s and ’90s embraced Canadiana, but no one did it quite like Downie. A gifted lyricist, his songs were infused with poetic and surrealist references that often transformed local events into stories that embedded themselves into the nation’s consciousness.
“As a lyricist, he has very few peers. To me, he is up there with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and I think as Canadians we don’t think of him in that way because we think of him as our own. But I think it’s very important to place him in that pantheon,” Barclay said.
As a performer, Downie is known for his unusual stage presence. He acts out strange pantomimes. He fights with his microphone (and doesn’t always win). He inserts bizarre stories into the middle of songs. And Canadians have lapped it up over the years.
In these last concerts, he has remained a hypnotic force, although more subdued than normal. He seemed to be relishing the time with his fans, taking long, solo bows at the end of the shows.
For all the Hip’s success — 8 million records sold — the band never really cracked the U.S. market.
Sure, the band played “Saturday Night Live” in 1995 — introduced by fellow Kingstonian Dan Aykroyd — and it has large pockets of U.S. fans.
But the Hip never achieved the same kind of international fame as other Canadian bands such as Nickelback and Rush.
Perhaps that made the Hip even more beloved in its home and native land.
In an editorial, the Toronto Star wrote: “The Hip’s failure to catch on in the U.S. was once a source of bewilderment for Canadian fans, but it has evolved over the years into a source of pride. The band is of us and ours and will be long after their last concert.”
Echoing that sentiment, Peter Mansbridge, a high-profile journalist for the CBC, tweeted that he was “so proud that very few outside our borders quite understands these guys like we do. They’re ours. They’re Canada.”
Armed with Canadian references and magnetic performances — and grace, too — the band is indeed a tremendous source of pride for Canadians. But in addition to that, the Tragically Hip has given Canadians a catalogue of hit songs — cherished by them but available for anyone else to discover.
(This post has been updated)