Chapter 3: The concert

‘This is our life’: saying goodbye to Gord

As the lights faded to black and the band left the stage, we knew the end had finally come.

The faces around me in Market Square, old and young, were filled with a mix of exhilaration and sadness, not wanting to say goodbye.

“Thank you for listening, have a nice life.”

They weren’t the last words Gord Downie said to the third of the country that tuned in that night, but those simple words made me realize the significance of the moment I was witnessing.

A moment of Canadian history.

Market square maple leaf
An audience member waves a #Courage4Gord maple leaf over the heads of the crowd in Market Square.

On Saturday night, August 20, the Tragically Hip played an emotional three-hour concert in their hometown of Kingston, as their final goodbye.

Market Square in downtown Kingston, where the concert was live streamed, was flooded with people, the likes of which this city has never seen before. Hours before the concert even began fans from across Canada gathered in the heart of the city to laugh, sing and share their stories about the Hip.

For some, the band got them through tough times — through school, through moving and through times of loss.

One special fan that listened to them during his formative high school and university years was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau walked through the hordes of people gathered downtown before the show, rushed to meet and possibly get a selfie with their national leader, and left a note for the band on a comment board set up outside of City Hall:

“The whole country is here in Kingston tonight! To say thanks, to say goodbye, to celebrate Canada's band."

Justin Trudeau, Kingston
A denim-clad Justin Trudeau greets Hip fans along King Street.

In the final moments before the show, those waiting in Market Square cheered on Melissa Bishop as she came fourth in the women’s 800m final at the Olympics.

Thirty-two years ago, when the band first started, I’m sure the idea of the Olympics playing as an opening act and the Prime Minister as a fan was beyond imagination.

As well, I’m sure, was the ear-splitting roar that greeted Kingston’s favourite sons as they took the stage to the sound of over 20 thousand people applauding and screaming.

Audience Market Square
A sea of applauding hands in Market Square.

Dressed in a signature silver metallic suit with the Jaws movie poster t-shirt, Gord Downie began the last, and what turned out to be one of the best, shows of his life.

As expected, Downie was his charismatic self throughout the concert. Whether you were physically inside the K-Rock Centre or only there through live stream, everyone’s eyes were glued on the Hip’s front man as he made the stage his own.

You read about it online in blogs and newspaper articles across the country — Downie’s unique showmanship that makes every show special. But, until you’ve actually seen him perform, you can’t understand the influence he’s had on so many lives.

As I watched from Market Square — not even inside the concert — I felt like Downie was singing directly to me.

And while I thought I was the special one, I have no doubt everyone around me thought the same.

Canada’s Shakespeare — the man in the feather cap — was at the center of it all.

Following Downie’s goofy and yet meaningful moves, it didn’t matter if you didn’t know the lyrics.

The voices of casual fans, total novices or those who’ve been following them since the 80s, made ‘Bobcaygeon’, ‘Poets’, ‘Three Pistols’, ‘Wheat Kings’ — or really any song from the night — ring from the cobblestones to the rooftops.

Fans march with a banner down King Street to the K-Rock Centre.

Every once in a while, we were privy to Downie setting aside his charismatic concert persona and we got an insight into the musician.

He thanked Trudeau for being in attendance and called on him to address the historical mistreatment of Indigenous people. He told stories of how their first concert opened to 13 people. The next show was 28 and their third had only six.

Every time he began to speak, the crowd went silent, taking in Downie’s famous last words.

“Thank you people for keeping me pushing,” he said to millions. While he never mentioned his illness, that thank you let off a flood of tears.

There was no shame in crying though, because the audience wasn’t alone. Leaving it all out on the stage for millions to see, at the end of ‘Grace Too’ Downie began to cry too.

Dropping the microphone and closing his eyes, shoulders shaking, Downie was no longer a performer, musician or a Canadian poet, but just a man facing the overwhelming evidence of his life’s work.

He brought the pain that hides from his fans into the light for all of us to see. When the music ended, the show moved from a homecoming to a final goodbye.

An audience member draped in a specialized Canadian flag.

Nobody wanted the show to end.

When the band hugged and kissed for what seemed to be the last time, they left Downie alone on stage to take in the deafening ovation.

“Now we’re going to go to the back and pretend like we’ve left. You’re going to cheer and we're going to come out and play,” Downie said , and tears turned into laughs.

But three unprecedented encores latter, the cheers continued.

In the final moments of the show, Downie stood in front of the crowd and began to paint. Using one hand as a paintbrush and the other as his pallet, he put the finishing touches on his career.

Spending his life illustrating intrinsic Canadian identity — our pride in the small town life, finding courage in the darkest of times, the ever-changing landscapes mixed in with a love for sports — Downie added the final touches to his masterpiece.

A sign quoting 'Ahead by a Century', the last song of the lengendary night.