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Dying singer leads band to triple encore

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Lead singer Gord Downie is seen on a screen performing as a man watches during a viewing party for The Tragically Hip's concert on Saturday, which closed their Man Machine Poem tour.
People who could not get a ticket gather in Springer Market square to listen to the Tragically Hip in downtown Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on Saturday.

KINGSTON, Ontario (AP):

The rock concert did not begin with a rock song. Instead, it started with flag-waving fans breaking into a national anthem, O Canada.

The impromptu tribute by an emotional sold-out crowd that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began what was expected to be the final performance last Saturday by Tragically Hip, a group known as Canada's Band, and lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie, dubbed Canada's unofficial poet laureate.

Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and fans across Canada and abroad gathered at viewing parties to tune in and bid him farewell.

The bluesy rock band, better known as The Hip and Downie, is known for penning paeans to Canadian life - about hockey and desolate small towns, about literature and the French explorer who named Canada. Being so defiantly Canadian might be one reason why The Hip sent nine of its 13 albums to number one in Canada, but none above the top 100 in the US

After spending three decades together, The Hip returned on Saturday night to where they began as a college rock band, the Lake Ontario city of Kingston. Those who couldn't get into the Rogers K-Rock Centre massed nearby to watch on a giant screen.

While the band was careful not to declare that its now concluded 15-show Man Machine Poem tour would be its last, the concert had an aura that was both celebratory and sombre. Despite being diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive cancerous brain tumour, an energetic Downie was in fine form as he and his bandmates played an epic 30-song set, punctuated by three encores.

Trudeau, on learning of Downie's diagnosis in May, tweeted that the singer "has been writing Canada's soundtrack for more than 30 years." On Saturday, the prime minister's official photographer tweeted a photo of Trudeau, 44 years old, and Downie, 52, embracing before the show.

Downie acknowledged Trudeau from the stage. The singer called on the prime minister to take action on behalf of Canada's indigenous people and then said he expected Trudeau would have plenty of time to do it. "He's going to be looking good for about at least 12 more years. I don't know if they let you go beyond that. But he'll do it," Downie told concert goers between songs.

Trudeau could be seen in the audience nodding and mouthing "thank you."


MOST Beloved


While The Hip became one of Canada's most beloved rock bands, lasting success in the US was elusive, outside of border cities like Buffalo, New York, where viewing parties of the concert's Canadian broadcast were also held.

Downie, who started the show wearing a metallic silver suit and hat with a 'Jaws' T-shirt underneath, hugged and kissed his bandmates - guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay. They opened with four songs from their 1992 breakthrough album Fully Completely - 50 Mission Cap, Courage, Wheat Kings and At the Hundredth Meridian.

The Hip then segued into songs from their last album, Man Machine Poem, before running through tracks from Music @ Work, The band's biggest hit, Ahead By A Century, closed the show. Downie gestured as if he was sketching a portrait of the teary audience as the band played the song's final notes.

They then embraced, stood arm-in-arm as the crowd roared, and walked off stage.