The Tragically Hip played seven gratifying, bittersweet mini-sets last night at the ACC

THE TRAGICALLY HIP at the Air Canada Centre, Wednesday, August 10. Rating: NNNN

We never thought this day would come.

As Torontonians, we’ve been trained to believe that there will always be another Tragically Hip show in the city some time soon. The Air Canada Centre has become the band’s unofficial home away from home, and it’s almost incomprehensible to think that this three-date stop could – could – be their last.

As their Man Machine Poem tour worked its way across the country due east to their Kingston hometown, the city anxiously waited for the Hip to arrive, reading reports of incredible, emotional shows and anticipating our turn.

At the first of their three shows, a day newly christened Tragically Hip Day in Toronto by Mayor Tory, they appeared onstage a little after 8:30 pm, singer Gord Downie clad in a shimmering grey suit. He was the man we were there to see, and whose recent diagnosis of terminal brain cancer has rendered Hip fans far and wide helpless.

He and his four bandmates opened with an acoustic-based The Luxury from 1991’s Road Apples, standing within arm’s reach of each other in a way that enthralled us and suspended time: whatever was happening around us in the seats, whomever we’d arrived with, faded into the background. 

Like a pitcher and catcher, we blocked everything out but Downie, maybe even the music being made by his bandmates Bobby Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois and Johnny Fay, in an attempt to make peace with the uncomfortable idea that’s swallowed us whole for months: this might be our last Tragically Hip show.

But eventually the music took over. The Hip played seven mini-sets, each touching on an album from their deep back catalogue. Third song, the sombre Fiddler’s Green, quickly became something of a celebration, and the gathered faithful lit up the arena with phones and lighters.

Their Music @ Work set, a rarity on this tour, was an early-night highlight, despite the fact that Downie forgot most of the words to the first verse of My Music At Work, a sombre reminder of the disease he’s fighting. But the band wasn’t about to let the night continue on a sad note. They smiled at the flub, and Langlois adapted his backup vocals.

Picturesque scenes of classic Canadian landscapes played on a big screen during Lake Fever, a set highlight. The only reference, purposeful or not, to Downie’s disease was when he pointed at his head as he sang “And I’m starting to fail to know what’s best” during follow-up song Putting Down.

But throughout the night, it was hard not to notice Downie’s pulling his mic away as he sang only faintly enough for us to hear. It was almost like he was weaning us off the drug we’ve all become hooked on. End or not, the ACC crowd was intent on celebrating the fuck out of what a ride it’s been.

The Trouble At The Henhouse set was the most emotional, thanks in large part to nostalgia-inducing Ahead By A Century, a song that has a way of bringing you back to a time and place you can almost taste but can’t easily articulate or share. Downie wandered over to Baker’s side of the stage, prancing around and engaging fans in the front row, until Baker laughed and tapped him on the back as a reminder that the singer was supposed to be taking intermittent breaks. More smiles between friends as Downie disappeared and the band took us through a winding jam to end the song.

The crowd stood clapping, screaming, drinking, yelping, crying, back-slapping and hugging, some of us lost in memories. Because by this point, 30-plus years into the Tragically Hip’s career, they’ve helped us make too many to count. 

Wheat Kings featured footage of former Prime Minister Kim Campbell dodging questions from reporters about David Milgaard. Downie’s lyrics are like a special language shared among fans: a national vernacular that could very well be stamped on Canadian passports one day.

During Grace, Too in the encore, Downie stared deep into the camera, saying nothing, as the crowd roared. He hadn’t been especially talkative throughout the night, but he commented then on how he remembered the band first playing to only seven people in Toronto, and then feeling pretty good when they played to 32. 

Nautical Disaster (played for the first time on this tour) wound down the first encore, with the band sharing kisses with Downie before leaving him alone on the stage. There he was, surrounded by 20,000 of his closest friends. His eyes welled up as he gazed out. We were loud. By this point in the night, we were finally ready for the show to become a communal rather than personal experience.

Because now, once again, we had new memories of the Tragically Hip to share. | @joshuakloke

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