I’ve just returned from nearly a month in Canada, and was lucky enough to catch iconic (but largely unknown outside of Canada) band The Tragically Hip twice in their farewell tour.
Last night, the band gave their final concert before a smallish venue in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario (my college town, where I first fell in love with their music and their ethos) and live before an estimated audience of 11 million via the CBC.
11 million people!
This is a band most people have never heard of outside of Canada and yet our national broadcaster preempted their Olympics coverage to air the concert live, commercial free (complete with loads of expletives) for a nation that not only gathered around the television sets, but also around free screenings in public places. Oh, and the Prime Minister was at the concert.
What makes this group have such resonance? And why has their popularity never transcended national borders?
There will no doubt be PhD theses written on this topic, but there’s something Gord Downie said in his final concert, that in starting out they “wanted to play for the university and the bikers.” There’s an inclusive spirit to the the music that unwittingly bound the country together like the railroad did a century earlier. The Hip became a shared experience for a generation (their biggest album debuted as I went to college) and then a country.
The Washington Post called Gord Downie Canada’s unofficial poet laureate, and they’re right. His lyrics are more poetry than song, and he references (sometimes) obscure but emotionally powerful Canadian events and geographic touch-points (Bobcaygeon, anyone?).
Earlier this year, Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Instead of going gently into that goodnight, he put on one last tour. This tour was a chance for a grateful national to say goodbye to their poet, and to relish the musical legacy they leave behind.