Breathe easy, Canada. Ol’ Gord has still got it.
The Tragically Hip kicked off its 15-date tour of Canada in Victoria on Friday night, drawing a staggering 8,307 fans — the biggest concert audience in the history of the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre — to show the young bucks of the world how it’s done in 2016.
And to show themselves they could still do it.
The deepest, darkest fear of every Tragically Hip fan was put to rest right out of the gate: Gord Downie is still the enigmatic frontman, his bandmates rock-solid brothers in arms. There was a brief moment of worry when Downie forgot some lyrics and skipped a verse, but he was drinking dynamite and spitting kerosene from the jump.
That was enough to set the tone for the remainder of the two-hour 26-song set.
Downie didn’t address his terminal brain cancer. But during the introduction to Lonely End of the Rink, he had this to say: “Here’s one for my good ol’ dad. He’s gone. Shit happens.” That’s liable to be all he says about it for the entire tour.
When the band tore into Boots or Hearts to begin the show, the audience went ballistic.
Downie, dressed in a bright pink glitter suit and a white hat with large feathers attached, seemed genuinely happy with it all. He beamed proudly for a moment before starting the show, one of the most anticipated in Victoria history.
And though he didn’t say a word to the audience until an hour in, his songs certainly did.
The lead-up to the concert was a circus-like atmosphere across the city, for all the right reasons. One of the best bands in Canadian history, saying goodbye to its fans with a final tour? Tickets were hard to come by; for the press, information about the band was even harder to uncover. Inside the arena on Friday, thousands waited in line at the merchandise booth, for one last souvenir, a token of appreciation.
None of it seemed out of place, or over-the-top. The band deserved every accolade, every tip of the hat.
The city seemed consumed by Hip-mania for the better part of the week leading up to the show — and it only seemed to grow stronger on the night of the show.
Even the competition got into the spirit: Victoria’s Current Swell, during its headlining set across town at the Rock the Shores festival on Friday, played a Hip song in tribute. Classy.
The vibe outside the arena was magically hip, happy and only a bit bittersweet as fans gathered for the band’s last stand in Victoria.
Hanging out in the sunshine, fans spoke easily of decades spent tuned into songs that couldn’t sound more Canadian: Wheat Kings to Bobcaygeon to At the Hundredth Meridian.
Concert-goer Mike MacIntyre said Hip music provided a backdrop for his life and many others.
“It’s the background for my youth and a big part of the fabric of the nation over the last 20-plus years,” he said.
“The things they sing about, their style and also their commitment to Canada. What could be more Canadian? I put them right up there with Gordon Lightfoot, Rush, the Guess Who, Stan Rogers, Neil Young. They’re part of the fabric of this land, don’t you think?”
Colwood resident Tammy MacMullan surprised mega-fan husband Kelly with tickets that “cost a bit” — $750 for the pair.
“He saw them when they were an unknown band in Cape Breton in the 1980s,” she said, and would be “heartbroken” to miss their last local gig.
“He’s been vibrating since he found out,” said Tammy, 46, noting that’s a week of shaking in anticipation. The couple’s fave songs are Nautical King and Fiddler’s Green — referring to the death of Downie’s nephew at age five — and Tammy expected to be in tears before the night was out.
Victoria airport firefighter Anna Trelford was on Cloud 9 at the lottery ticket wicket. Not only had she won the chance to buy great seats, she happened to encounter Downie flying into town on Wednesday.
“He kissed me on the forehead and gave me a hug and let me take a selfie,” she recalled, as husband John beamed beside her. “I just had a feeling that I was going to win.”
Girlfriends Annette Preston and Dena Vinqvist found out at 11:30 Friday morning that they won last-minute tickets. Both view Downie as a down-to-earth poet of Canadian content.
Vinqvist said she was “thrilled and honoured” that Preston chose to share the lottery good luck with her, but Preston had her reasons: “She’s a really good friend — she takes Roxy, who is four, every time I go out of town for work.”
When the house lights came up following the main portion of the Tragically Hip’s set, Downie was left on stage, alone. The audience reaction was what you would expect: overwhelming emotion and love for the man, the artist, the icon. He did a short victory lap, and waved a simple goodbye. He returned for an encore set, and when that fished, he did the same as before.
When the second encore wrapped, he broke from tradition.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Downie said, “thank you very much.” He blew a kiss to the crowd, flashed a peace sign, and walked off the stage.
On the morning of May 24, the world learned that Downie, a beloved artist to whom a nation often turned for comfort, if not an identity, had terminal brain cancer. On the evening of July 22, a crowd of 8,307 fans learned that he still possesses that the old magic, and can still perform like no other.
If something positive can be taken away from the experience, it is reflected in the lyrics of Downie himself, who wrote of living in the moment on the song, Ahead By a Century.
“No dress rehearsal. This is our life.”
1. Boots or Hearts
2. New Orleans Is Sinking
4. Blow at High Dough
6. What Blue
7. Tired As F---
8. In a World Possessed By the Human Mind
9. Something On
13. Family Band
14. Lonely End of the Rink
15. Yer Not the Ocean
16. In View
17. Last of the Unplucked Gems
18. The Luxury
19. Little Bones
20. Long Time Running
21. Twist My Arm
23. Wheat Kings
24. At the Hundredth Meridian
25. Gift Shop
26. Ahead By A Century