081816 The Tragically Hip, Ottawa, ON

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August 18th, 2016 was the penultimate show of what will likely stand as The Tragically Hip’s ultimate tour.  The show was at the hockey rink in Ottawa, and I walked in with the distinct possibility that this would be my last time seeing Gord Downie.  The last stop on the tour would be Kingston and it was the hottest ticket in the country.  The mass fervour that had built across the country in support of Gord and the boys had inspired scalpers to set their prices in the thousands for the Kingston show, and as big of a fan as I was I was not prepared to shell out that kind of cash to that sort of person to be in the room.

But that’s getting ahead of things.  

Despite living in Ottawa, my friend Rob had rented a room at the Marriott up the street from the venue so we met there early for a few drinks before the show.  We ended up spending most of our time sitting in front of the hotel, the de facto meeting place for all the Hip fans that were staying there.

I’m sure it looked the same as any pre-show party: people were decked out in their concert gear shaking hands with friends and strangers alike, everyone was chatting and clinking beers and all anyone was talking about was the band.  But as jovial as we all were there was a solemn backdrop to every conversation that kept actual joy at bay.  The elephant that had invited us into the room was a very heavy reminder that this was the last time any of us would see Canada’s band in our nation’s capitol.  

The first time I ever laid eyes on Gord Downie was in Ottawa.  That was way back in 1991 when The Tragically Hip played a show at the Congress Centre that still stands as one of the greatest rock and roll experiences of my life.  I went on to see him another seventeen times here in my adopted home city, and here he was playing for what would likely be the last time.*  Adding it all up this night would be my twenty-fifth Tragically Hip concert in as many years, so for me the band had been (on average) a yearly dose of epic Canadiana, like my own rock and roll Canada Day.

And now it was coming to an end.

We all walked to the venue, I stopped and bought about a thousand t-shirts at the giant merch area set up outside the venue and got my ticket punched.

As they had done for the whole tour, The Hip divided the evening into four-song groupings, each mini-set representing a different album.  On this night they opened the concert with Boots Or Hearts, launching a quartet of fan-favourites from their first full-length release Up To Here, finishing up with their signature hit New Orleans Is Sinking.  

The second chunk of music was from their new album, the only musical placement that stayed consistent throughout the tour, then they followed with tracks from In Between Evolution and then my favourite Day For Night before getting around to Fully Completely.

I really like how they changed the stage setup three times over the course of the evening (again, as they had done for the whole tour).  During mini-intermissions the band left the stage while the crew altered the amps and mics to represent first a theatre-type stage, then a very intimate club-setting with the band standing closely together and facing in towards one another, until finally they closed out the show with their well-deserved arena setup, once again basking in the blinding limelight of an entire nation.

And while the pair of encores came close to getting to me (Courage/Wheat Kings/100th Meridian and Bobcaygeon/Poets), I didn’t well up once at this concert, unlike the Toronto show where I caught myself openly weeping at least twice.  And though this show was fantastic top-to-bottom the band somehow (to me?) didn’t hit the apex that they seemed to maintain the whole night when I saw them in Toronto.  Frankly, that show had felt almost Baptismal, like a wake that quickly got very, very rowdy.  This concert was more like a rock and roll wave goodbye, heavy on the rock and roll.

On its own merit the final Ottawa Tragically Hip show was nothing short of amazing.  The band was tight and united, dedicated to elevating their music a high as it would go and showcasing their dear friend to a capitol crowd that cheered with real heart (a rarity in this city).  And despite having to work from behind a horrible, debilitating brain disease Gord was truly astounding.  There was bravery and courage behind every scream.  There was just so much love in the room – love for the band and love from the band – it was palpable and obvious and everyone could feel it.  It was a 20,000-strong symbiotic thankful farewell and my never-ending gratitude will forever go out to The Hip for making it happen.

(After the show we all decompressed back at the Marriott, again out front.  In an impressive feat of coincidence I introduced myself to a couple who had driven down from Labrador City for the show, a drive I was set to make in the coming weeks.  I had serious reservations about the road conditions and lack of gas stations I might encounter but my new friend set my mind at ease.  I really couldn’t believe my luck; I’m not sure I had ever met someone from Labrador City before.)

*Fortunately this was not the case.  Gord Downie performed his poignant and important Secret Path at the National Arts Centre later that year.  Unfortunately I was out of town and couldn’t be there.

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