Canada’s unofficial poet laureate is giving one last concert before he dies

If you have Canadian friends, don't try to reach them Saturday night. Because there's a very good ch
Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip perform in Ottawa in 2009.
Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip perform in Ottawa in 2009.

If you have Canadian friends, don’t try to reach them Saturday night. Because there’s a very good chance they will be huddled around their TVs, celebrating the extraordinary force that is Gord Downie.

He 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 band Tragically Hip, stunned the nation in May when he announced that he has been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. The band responded with a 15-date tour that will wrap up Saturday night in its home town of Kingston, Ontario. While the band never quite caught on in the States, in Canada, it was R.E.M., Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones wrapped into one. This is the most poignant of goodbye tours – Canada’s chance to say goodbye.

If the band’s recent concerts are anything to go by, on Saturday, Downie, 52, will be wearing a shimmering suit and feathered hat, and he will often look at his imaginary watch, as if to acknowledge that there isn’t much time left. And when he belts out lyrics that reference mortality or uncertainty – “no dress rehearsal, this is our life” or “Wheat kings and pretty things / Let’s just see what the morning brings” – you can bet there will be tears.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who tweeted that Downie has been “writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years,” is expected to be in the audience.

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 over three decades, Downie is a fiercely private man, and so it surprised some that he went public with his illness – a decision completely counter to the one made by Bowie. But in doing so, he has given his nation a chance to pay tribute to the charismatic frontman while he is still alive.

The band’s final show will be 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, are expected to watch the concert at venues that include parks, theaters and community halls.

Keely Smith, a 37-year-old Canadian who moved to Britain eight years ago, is hosting one such party in London. She had trouble finding a venue willing to host a group of about 100 people wanting to watch a concert starting at 1:30 a.m. local time but then 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 are screening the concert outside of city halls, including Kingston, where up to 30,000 are expected to gather.

“They are a quintessentially Canadian band who mean so much to Canadians, even for those who aren’t huge fans,” said Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson.

The Hip, as the band is often called, is by no means universally loved, and its songs are best known among a certain generation.

[Review: Tragically Hip really gets The Egg rocking]

But from coast to coast, Canadians have been paying homage. 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 of 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 culturally when Canada started to feel a little less colonial and less intimidated by its big neighbor to the south. More and 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 and Canadian towns and late-breaking stories on the CBC.

In this nifty interactive map, fans can find locales across Canada mentioned in Downie’s lyrics.

Jim Cuddy, the 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.

And while other musicians in the 1980s and ’90s were also embracing Canadiana, no one was doing 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 being almost otherworldly. On stage he acts out strange pantomimes. He fights with his microphone (and doesn’t always win). He inserts bizarre stories into the middle of songs. Canadians lapped it up.

In these last concerts, he is still a hypnotic force, but he is more subdued than normal. He seems to be relishing the time with his fans, taking long, solo bows at the end of the shows.

And yet, for all the success of the venerable Canadian band – 8 million records sold – the Hip never really cracked the United States.

Sure, the band played “Saturday Night Live” in 1995 – introduced by fellow Kingstonian Dan Aykroyd – and it has large pockets of fans in the United States. But the Hip never achieved the same kind of fame here as numerous other bands, including Nickelback.

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.”

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