In 2016, I wrote this story about The Tragically Hip’s second-to-last-ever concert in Calgary, AB. It was part of their Man Machine Poem tour, which came after Gord Downie, their lead singer, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. The site on which this article was first published has long since vanished, so I thought it would be good to preserve it on Dash for perpetuity.
The Tragically Hip played their first of two Calgary shows on Monday night, and the result was likely one of the most memorable concerts in Saddledome history. The concert itself was a marathon, with the band reaching back into the cupboard for over thirty years worth of music.
The concert was completely devoid of excess – there were no elaborate light shows, no oversized fog machine, and no confetti falling from the rafters. But it became very clear why the band decided to eschew any sort of mechanical theatrics – Downie was a machine unto himself. The spectacle was two hours of physical adlibs in his menagerie of glossy suits (gold, hot pink, then silver). Seemingly unrehearsed he sent out a fishing line and reeled in the crowd, borrowed blue bug-like glasses from a member of the crowd, and gave guitarist Paul Langlois a tender kiss on the cheek to the delight of the fans.
The concert stretched over two hours, with the band emerging for not one, but two encores. Now, the second encore wasn’t for me and ultimately seemed a bit indulgent on behalf of Downie, but who am I to argue with the 19,000 other fans that were happy to stick around and sing along?
Speaking of that two hours: maybe more impressive than his fabulous collection of outfits was his vocal stamina. Considering that Downie’s lyrics call for notes that range from belting to outright yelling, it was a small miracle that he could maintain pitch and consistency for the entirety of the concert.
For the encore, Downie wore a Jaws T-Shirt. You know, the one from the original movie poster with the girl swimming helplessly above the surface with a great white shark lurking below, mouth agape.
While his performances might be spontaneous, Downie is always deliberate, and we are left to speculate whether the choice of shirt has some sort of metaphorical relationship with his declining health.
Let’s speculate. It means something to the effect of no matter how hard we struggle above the surface death is waiting for us like a gigantic fucking shark!!! – or something like that.
The most poignant moment of the evening came after ‘Bobcaygeon,’ a moody and iconic depiction of rural Ontario, when Downie addressed the crowd.
“This is one of those nights. Thank you,” he said, before disappearing into the night.
And I may very well never see Gord Downie again.