Beloved Canadian legends. One final tour. An impossible ticket.
For my money, the Tragically Hip are most iconic band in Canadian history. But I might be biased; timing-wise, I'm about the perfect age to be a Hip fan. I'm also quite willing to discount Rush's potential claim to the title due to not caring in the slightest about Rush. They join SCTV and Trailer Park Boys and hockey and beer on the big list of Canadian exports that I just can't get behind.
Nevertheless. The Hip came on the scene as I was getting into high school. By the time I got to university, they'd cemented their spot as the top band in Canada. They seemed to skip over Saskatchewan on every tour (at least when I was old/interested enough to want to see them), so when they finally played Saskatoon on November 18, 1996, it was probably my most anticipated concert ever at that point. That said, it was SLCR #5 so it didn't have a ton of competition.
I saw them twice more after that. Once was at Another Roadside Attraction (SLCR #18, July 21, 1997), an outdoor festival that also featured Sheryl Crow, Wilco, Los Lobos, Ashley MacIsaac, Ron Sexsmith, and others. The only other time was February 27, 1999 (SLCR #35), when I really only went because my mom won free tickets at work.
It may make you very sad to consider that 1999 was 17 years ago. That's a long time to go without seeing a band that I have always really liked. Part of the reason was that having seen them, I chose to direct limited time and funds to other shows. Part of it was that the Hip shows I went to were packed full of the kind of drunken oafs I can't stand being around. And part of it was simply that it's so easy to say "there's always next time." Funny thing about that.
As anyone who cares enough to read this knows by now, a few months back, the Hip went public with the news that lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This was pretty much a national day of mourning here, and I'm not even kidding. But the announcement was accompanied by other news; namely, the band was going to head out on tour, feeling that "this feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us."
The dates were announced, and the band was skipping over Saskatchewan. I joked that this should allay any fears about the quality of Downie's performances - the band was already touring like it was 20 years ago. I briefly resigned myself to missing out, but of course, my mind did as it will do; namely, it got a dumb idea and then started to figure out how to make it feasible. The Calgary show would work without taking any time off - I'd just have to move an EDO. Simple. Mika couldn't go; she couldn't get the needed day off work. That would be sad for her and a long drive by myself.
This was all hypothetical, of course, as I'd still need a ticket. Luckily, I was only up against an entire country of Hip fans and an army of scalpers looking to corner the market. No big deal.
On the morning of the on-sale, I heard about the instant sellouts of the Ontario shows with some alarm. Finally, at 10:00 local time, I was up - and nothing. Refresh. Nothing. Try again. Nothing.
Please re-read those last six words for about twenty minutes, okay? It's important to my artistic vision.
I can't really build any suspense here. I'm writing a concert review; obviously, I got in. I hit my give-up point a few times, but convinced myself to log back in and check just one more time. It finally paid off, with a seat on the 20th row of the floor. Not that the chairs were ever used once the music started.
So that's it, I was going. I was really curious what the show would be like. Could they still deliver? Would it be sad? And what would they play? The Hip has 14 studio albums if you count their first EP - could any setlist satisfy everyone? Reports from the first few shows were promising, both in terms of their performance and the song selections.
It was finally time to hit the road. (Which means that it only took me 13 paragraphs or so to get to the parts you didn't already know.) I left quite early on the Saturday morning, having gotten up at 5:20 a.m. as I do on workdays. I had high hopes of getting the drive out of the way quickly. This lasted until around Swift Current (about two hours from Regina), where I saw a billboard for the T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend. I'd always wanted to check that out, and realized that I wasn't likely to ever have a better chance. The detour took me about 2.5 hours out of the way, but I saw some rad dinosaur bones so I figure it was worth it.
Leaving the centre, the sky was pretty ominous. However, the windy road back to the main highway seemed designed to circumnavigate the storm. I was in the clear!
(I'm an idiot.)
I stopped for lunch at Medicine Hat's finest Subway before nearing Calgary around 5:00 p.m. It was at this point that all hell broke loose. Between Strathmore and Chestermere, the car started handling really poorly. I am nervous about the car at the best of times, and the service light had come on earlier in the trip. I assumed it was just the reminder that we were due for an oil change upon my return, but the handling was really concerning. Then I realized it wasn't the car - it was suddenly just that windy out. I discovered this when I encountered a dust storm so bad that you couldn't see through it. I got past it, albeit slowly and cautiously. On the other side, I could see that the sky was a really strange colour. I later heard reports of funnel clouds in the area around the time that I was near. So that was a thing. And not even the worst of it - when I did get into Calgary, the skies opened up and unleashed a wicked hailstorm. I tried to find shelter but was unsuccessful. I then decided to just try to get to my grandma's place, but the hail got worse so I abandoned that idea too. I pulled into a hotel parking lot and was somewhat shielded under a tree. This was loud and horrible and sucked and I hated it.
But I need to be thankful. It could have been much worse. After the hail ended, I got back on my way and passed all kinds of accidents and emergency vehicles. When I finally made it to my grandma's place and stowed the car in the underground parking, my initial assessment didn't reveal any damage. I don't know how that could be possible - and I did find a windshield chip later on, so there was at least that - but we'll get a car wash and see what we see. I'm still here and the car's insured. Though I'm insured too so maybe we should run a cost-benefit analysis before declaring that everything worked out for the best.
I spent that night visiting with my grandma. I did get an invite from Colin to go out with him and some folks, but after that drive, our evening of frozen pizza and Lawrence Welk and NCIS reruns was just fine.
The next day (which was still not the day with the concert but I am trying to give you the full experience here), I walked to the Chinook Centre and saw some adorable bunnies on the way. Then I caught the C-Train to Colin's neighbourhood and we explored the Harry Potter launch day celebrations. As Mika pointed out, me at a Harry Potter event would be like her going to a wrestling convention, but whatever, this was neat to see. Nobody was expecting this turnout and some places ran out of their Potter-themed specials two hours into the day. When we got there, the candy store had probably 100 people lined up out the door. After dinner, two hours after everything was supposed to be done, there was still a line just to get into the store.
The next day, I spent the afternoon walking around the neighbourhood, by which I mostly mean I spent it catching Pokémon. In music news, I popped by a record store where I found a used Refreshments vinyl for $12. Hopefully I like it as much now as I did in 1996. The deal was made even sweeter with the inclusion of a free Jason Collett CD that I'm about 80% sure I was allowed to take and didn't just shoplift. They'd have said something, right?
Finally, it was time for the show. Multiple emails said it was doors at 6:30, show at 8:30 sharp. There were no physical tickets; you swiped the credit card you paid with at the door. I got there reasonably early, around 7:00, as I'd been expecting chaos trying to get in, but I needn't have worried. There was no line, the swipe method worked fine, and I was inside in short order. I went in through the Chrysler Club entrance, and it took much longer to actually find my seat than it did to get inside. To go down, you must first go up. Very well.
For all the struggles people had getting tickets, I lucked out - 20th row on the floor, dead centre. It was such a good seat, in fact, that someone else claimed it too. We each went for the little slips they gave us when we did the swipe thing, and sure enough - Row 20, Seat 23. A matching set. Luckily, there was someone missing on the other side of the dude to my left, so he shuffled down a bit and all was well. This remained a mystery until I got home and examined my slip more closely. The slips have a perforation, and the printer deal doesn't print real well on the perforation, so if you look really closely at my 23, you'll see the telltale traces of ink that indicate it was actually a 28. Hahahaha whoops - I'm an idiot, but in fairness, that other dude didn't notice it either. It WOULD explain why the other guy had room to move down.
If this all sounds relatively civil, well, it was. We all got along nicely. Fears of drunken yahoos - which escalated when I heard about the pre-party at Cowboy's - were unfounded. Not that nobody was partaking (so so so much pot), but at least where I was, people weren't rowdy at all. The mood wasn't somber - far from it - but you didn't get the people who were only there just to drink. I mean, I did hear one guy loudly belt out Boots or Hearts as I was leaving, but if that's as bad as it gets, it's been a good night.
There was no opening act. I figured this was for the best, since Hip crowds can sometimes be... single-minded in their interests, let's say. The first time I saw the Hip, the Rheostatics were the openers and the crowd was having NONE OF IT. But in front of this audience... I don't know, maybe? I don't think people would have been outright mean to an opener here, but I also don't think they wanted anything to take time away from the Hip.
As time passed, we got brief updates; a voiceover booming "THE SHOW WILL BEGIN IN 30 MINUTES" and an accompanying graphic on the big screen. Again at the 15-minute mark. Finally, it was "THIS IS ROB FROM THE HIP. THE SHOW WILL BEGIN IN 5 MINUTES, AND IF YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR SEAT, I WILL BE VERY DISAPPOINTED IN YOU." Hilarious. Also, they were not messing around. At 8:30 on the nose, the lights dimmed, the band took the stage, everyone stood up (and stayed on their feet the entire time), and the show began.
The energy from the crowd was off the charts. Much like the Spirit of the West farewell show I saw earlier this year, everyone in attendance knew the story and they were ready to turn this into a great concert by sheer force of will if need be. However, the Hip - Gord in particular - didn't need any help. He's always been an entertainer and a showman and that's what he was there to do. You'd never know that he'd had health issues - his voice was in fine form, as were his trademark... let's go with unique dance moves. If anything, he seemed happier than the other times I'd seen them. More in the moment, with lots of big smiles, playful waves at the audience, and the ongoing struggle to pick his towel up off the floor with his feet. The costume changes helped the mood too. It's probably hard to be sad when you have your choice of three shiny lamé suits to wear; gold, silver, and pink. With matching top hats. And a Jaws t-shirt underneath for good measure.
I broadcast the first four songs from the show on Periscope, more just as an experiment to see what would happen. I had over 300 live viewers at the peak, and it seemed like the sound came through okay - I haven't watched it back. The idea was to set it up, stick my phone in my shirt pocket, and just kinda hope it worked out. But then it's like... you want this to be good, right? So I'd hold the phone for a while, and then back to the shirt pocket, and then hold it some more, and then that aforementioned conversation with that dude about our "matching" tickets... ultimately, I shut it down pretty quickly. Too bad - it could have been a nice souvenir for me, and the folks who tuned in seemed really appreciative. But one only has so much battery and data, and I was finding it distracting. Still, a limited success. Will try again in the future with other shows.
As to what those songs were, the Hip were gracious enough to put the full setlist online so I don't have to fight to remember specifics:
Three Pistols Twist My Arm Fiddler's Green Little Bones In a World Possessed by the Human Mind What Blue Ocean Next Machine (five-minute break for the whole band) In View The Kids Don't Get It World Container Yer Not the Ocean So Hard Done By Grace, Too Yawning or Snarling Daredevil (Gord takes a brief break while the band plays on) Something On Escape is at Hand for the Travellin' Man Poets Bobcaygeon (encore break) Giftshop Flamenco Ahead by a Century (second encore break) Boots or Hearts Blow at High Dough
First, you'll notice it was kind of like they were their own opening act, with eight songs (around 35 minutes) and then a quick break leading into a longer set. But what I didn't notice in the moment is that all the songs are grouped together by album. Check it: four songs from Road Apples, four from Man Machine Poem, four from World Container, four from Day for Night, four from Phantom Power, three from Trouble at the Henhouse, and two from Up to Here. I did notice that a lot of album-mates were played close together, but only after I got home did I realize just how segmented it was.
This also means that there was nothing from We are the Same, Now for Plan A, In Between Evolution, In Violet Light, Music@Work, and - gasp - Fully Completely, once my favourite Hip album (I still love it, but I go back and forth with Henhouse and Day for Night now too).
The second Calgary show, this past Wednesday, followed a similar format. It featured blocks of songs from Up to Here, Man Machine Poem, Day for Night, In Violet Light, Trouble at the Henhouse, Phantom Power, and Fully Completely. I want to say that about half the songs repeated but I am not about to count it all up right now to be sure. I can't say for sure which night I'd rather have seen. There were some obvious omissions in my show, but what can be done about that? They could play a six-hour show and there'd still be people who didn't get to hear their favourites. On the drive home from Calgary, I tried to come up with my ideal setlist for a second show with no repeats. This was a hard game to master but an easy game to play - it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Hip have a ton of great songs.
And in Calgary, they played them all so well. The songs weren't really messed with in any way; there were no fancy new arrangements and Gord didn't really play with the lyrics as I'd seen him do before. The songs were all largely as we know them. The band was - well, as good as you'd expect musicians with 30 years of experience to be, which is to say, fantastic.
I have now ended two straight paragraphs with the most obvious "insights." Maybe I should also mention that people cheered everything but they were much louder for the big hits.
Though I have to make special mention of Grace, Too. I've been asked if the show was sad, and it really wasn't. People - both fans and the band, really - were there to celebrate, not to mourn. But there's that part near the end of Grace, Too where Gord is just yelling, right? So they're playing this song, and the crowd has been singing along, and they get to that part, and he's just wailing, and you can clearly see his face on the big screens and he looks sad. The more he wails, the louder the crowd gets, and this carries on as far as you'd think it could go, and then just keeps on still. It was just so intense and cathartic - probably more for the crowd than for Gord - that when it finally ended, I was just in awe of what had happened. In 252 reviews - and with openers, festivals, and whatnot, surely well over 500 individual performances - I'm confident that this was the best single song I've ever seen done live.
"It's one of those nights," said Gord, and it was. Maybe he says that every night. Maybe every night is one of those nights now. I said that show wasn't sad but it was bittersweet, especially at each break when the band would leave Gord alone on stage to soak in the adulation for a few moments before he joined them, and when they all hugged at the very end. He never talked about why we were all there, but it couldn't be avoided.
Near as I can tell, the band has never said this is their last tour. I hope it's not. Ideally, Gord will Magic Johnson this thing, and 30 years from now, we'll all be asking him "I thought you said you were sick?" But I also know those are long odds. If this is the last time I see them, they went out on a high. Of the four Hip concerts I've seen, this was easily the best of the bunch. But though I know how lucky I am to have gotten into this one, I left wanting more, and I don't think I can make another stupid plan pan out.
The CBC is broadcasting the final concert of the tour on Saturday, August 20 - live and commercial-free on TV, radio, and online. The casino here has announced that they'll be showing it on the big screen in their concert lounge - it's free to get in, but they're taking donations to the Canadian Cancer Society. I don't know if events like that will be happening everywhere, but I think that would be a fun way to watch the show; not quite the concert atmosphere, but maybe the next best thing. Whether this really is a farewell tour or just a much-deserved victory lap, it's an opportunity to join the rest of Canada in a celebration of the band that defined Canadian music. (Eat it, Rush.)
UPCOMING CONCERTS • Regina Folk Festival w/The Head and The Heart, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Sam Roberts Band, The Mavericks, Bettye LaVette, The Cat Empire, The Strumbellas, Frazey Ford, more (August 5-7) • "Weird Al" Yankovic (August 14) • Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters (September 6) • Dolly Parton (September 13) • Prozzäk (September 22) • Hayden (September 29) • Fred Eaglesmith (October 1) • Basia Bulat (October 5) • I Mother Earth (October 8)
This has been some of the most interesting radio I've heard in a long time, being run from 88.5 WXPN out of Philadelphia/88.1 WXPH of Harrisburg (there's also Baltimore and Lehigh Valley relays for the station). Also online at www.xpn.