Last night, I was one of the fortunate ~14,000 people to witness what is likely the last performance The Tragically Hip will ever play in Calgary. It was an amazing evening and while I don't even know if I can properly articulate the experience, I'm going to give it a shot.
For anybody living under a rock, or for those readers not from Canada and don't really know who The Hip are, they are one of Canada's most storied and beloved bands. And they were recently given some horrible news.
I don't like to curse in these articles, but there is no other word to describe how I felt when I read that article for the first time.
You see; The Tragically Hip were my first love. They are, without question, the reason I love music as much as I do. It's no secret how much I love Pearl Jam - that has been well documented - but before I even ever really paid attention to Pearl Jam, The Tragically Hip were there. Much like PJ, the reason I got into The Hip was all my cousins' doing. They both loved The Hip and as a result, they exposed me to a world of brilliance. I remember being in my aunt and uncle's van when I saw the cassette tape of Fully Completely:
I remember being awestruck by the design of the cover, but I also remember listening to the tape and enjoying it. It wasn't what hooked me on the band, but it was my first exposure to them.
What really hooked me was in the summer of 1996, when Trouble at the Henhouse was released. I had heard Ahead By A Century, but didn't really clock who it was by. My dear cousin Sean had the album and was playing it at our cabin. All of a sudden, I had a sense of clarity. This song, was by THIS band. This band that I knew all about, because I was Canadian, but didn't know just how prolific they were.
I was hooked. I got Trouble at the Henhouse and then started working my way backward, collecting as many albums as I could. I didn't want to listen to anything but the Tragically Hip.
This band was my first concert. 2 years after Trouble at the Henhouse came out, they released Phantom Power. I was going into Grade 10. I picked up the album as soon as I possible could and, like Henhouse, listened to it repeatedly.
That fall they announced a tour and a friend had 4 tickets to the Edmonton show. He invited me along and (with the permission from my parents, of course) I jumped at the opportunity. My first concert being by my favourite band? It seemed so serendipitous. So away we went.
The first song I ever heard them play live was Something On. I remember it vividly to this day. I was elated. I loved the song, so that was cool. But beyond that, I got to see this band that had been so integral of my past 2 years. It was the beginning of something big.
As the years passed, I went on to see them 10 more times in various locations around Alberta. Each show being as good, or better than the first. Gordie's antics grew more manic, he became more of a lunatic on stage (in the best possible way) and they continued to entertain me every time I saw them. Which is why I made an effort to see them 11 times.
Last night was the 12th and last time I will see The Tragically Hip.
It was - and I have told many people this over the past 12 hours - collectively one of the happiest and saddest moments of my life.
Amidst the chaos of trying to get tickets, I was worried that I would miss my final chance to see a band I had loved, respected and followed for nearly 20 years of my life. As fate would have it, I went to the Ticketmaster website on a whim and managed to get tickets for the nosebleed section. I didn't care, I was going to be in the building. As it turns out, I was able to finagle some better seats from some people I work with at the Saddledome. But let's be honest; I could have been in the highest seat in the furthest section from the band and I wouldn't have cared. I just wanted one last chance to bask in the glory of Gordie et al.
And I did.
From the moment they hit the stage and played an almost acoustic version of New Orleans is Sinking, I knew I was in for something special. I had worked at the Saddledome for Monday's Hip show and it was cool, but I knew that last night was going to be better. I didn't have to split my focus on my job. All I had to do was give the band the undivided attention they have earned over a 32 year career.
The cool thing about this tour is that the band was breaking their concert up into mini set lists. They would play 4 songs from one album, move to another album and play 4 songs from that one. They did this throughout the entire show. Album to album, 4 song sets, leaving nothing behind. They started strong and they just got better and better as the night progressed.
As they made their way through Day for Night, playing both Thugs and Greasy Jungle, I found myself knowing that my first round of tears were imminent. I had an inkling that they would either be playing Scared or Nautical Disaster. Two songs I love so very much, two songs that can easily invoke emotion and two songs that could both mirror what it is Gordie is going through. Sure enough, after they finished with Greasy Jungle, they played Scared. And to be honest, I held it together for most of the song. But at the end of the song, there's a line that says, "It's been a pleasure doing business with you." As he sang this line, the house lights came up on the audience and Gord was singing it directly to the the entire group of people that had come to say goodbye. It broke my heart. And I cried. It wasn't just a single tear. It was the sort of cry that comes along with knowing you're saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time.
That was the beginning of the end. My emotions were right on edge. I was raw. It didn't take much to set me off after that. It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken also got to me easily but honestly, it didn't matter. I was riding an emotional roller coaster and it wasn't stopping anytime soon.
As the band finished their first set, the other members left the stage, leaving Gordie all on his own to soak in the applause, cheers and love of the audience. I honestly don't know who this was for more; Gord or the crowd. He seemed to be basking in it, but in sort of a bitter way. Not to say he was bitter at all. He was a benevolent as could be. But you could tell it was hard for him, given what he is facing. But the crowd just kept throwing their love his way.
They played 2 encores. The first one from Phantom Power, totalling 3 songs; Fireworks, Bobcaygeon and Poets. Once again, the band left the stage, letting Gordie soak it all in once more. Again, the crowd giving him everything they could of themselves.
I've been to many shows where people leave before the encore because they want to beat the traffic. There was not one person who exited early. Everybody stayed to the very end, for Gordie but also for themselves.
As the band came back out and eased into their last 2 songs with a gorgeous rendition of Wheat Kings, which is easily one of my favourite all-time songs (from Fully Completely, which if you remember, was really the first album I'd ever heard of the Hip) I was overcome. I knew I was close to the end. I didn't want it to stop. But like all good things, it has to come to an end at some point. And that was last night.
The last song I will ever hear The Tragically Hip play live was Courage. It was like Gordie's final message to everybody there last night: Have courage to face the unknown. Life is nothing without courage. Regardless of what happens, be strong.
And that was it. The band said their final farewell, Gord Downie waved goodbye to Calgary and walked off the stage. And I sat there, every nerve exposed. Sitting in disbelief that something I had loved for so long was over. I'm getting emotional just thinking about it.
I don't know if I believe in fate. It's hard to know what is out there in the cosmos pulling strings and making things happen, but it sure seems like when it comes to this band, there is something serendipitous in my life.
The first song I ever heard them play live was "Something On" almost as if the band was foreshadowing to me that my life would be affected for years by this performance. It's as though they knew something was going to happen to me, and this was their way of telling me.
The last song I heard them play was "Courage" which is basically them telling me not to worry. Despite their absence, life goes on and I will survive. I know that message wasn't specifically for me, but for an entire group of people. But it doesn't matter. That's what music can do to a person: connect with them where they need it and speak to their soul with a message they need most.
I have seen this band 12 times. I have lived and breathed their music for 20 years - well over half my life. I am beyond saddened by the fact that I will never get another chance to see them live. But I am eternally grateful for the countless times they have made my life better. These 5 musicians have been with me through highs and lows.
Last night was one of the happiest and saddest days of my life. It was a night I will never forget and I wish I could relive it every day of my life.
For those who get to see any shows on the eastern leg of the tour; soak it in. You are going to witness something amazing. You will be privy the ultimate example of courage and I hope it affects you as deeply and greatly as it did me.
Gordie: Thank you for everything. I will miss you more than you can ever know.