Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary – August 1, 2016
Enter a band weighted down by expectations from their fans, from the media, from themselves. Here to perform; an act they’ve done a thousand times before, but now so different where every nuance holds a so many layers.
Enter a man, facing his finality, working through complex emotions beyond our comprehension to understand.
The Tragically Hip and front man Gordon Edgar Downie enter the arena to a sold-out audience standing, cheering, screaming, whistling and making more noise than is usual for a concert crowd. This is a different performance. Not just a welcoming, but an acknowledgement, a tip of the hat in thanks and recognition-a simple: ‘you didn’t have to return under these circumstances, but you did-and we’re grateful.’
Tonight’s show, the six in a series of 15 shows of their presumably final tour starts with a low-throbbing pulse-not a blast, but certainly not a whimper. A short set from Road Apples featuring “Three Pistols,” “Twist My Arm,” “Fiddlers Green,” and “Little Bones” sets a tone of direct low-level intensity. The band, huddled close together downstage center, barely move. Downie dances and shakes in place, careful to avoid bumping the others. It’s reminiscent of the small clubs and bars that every band had endured at some point in their history. It’s a nod to The Hip’s beginnings, where the music took precedence over production and the instruments were sparse.
Downie, dressed like a character from a 70s exploitation film, complete with feathered fedora, danced with the intense passion he’s always had on stage as the central focus of The Hip’s live performances. The band’s proximity during this set could read as an expression of their musical comradery, their familial closeness, and perhaps their circling Downie to provide a safe space.
Downie worked through the songs, gestured to the crowd, posed for the video cameras, but the look on his face appeared to tell another story. He didn’t look happy and appeared to be in pain. The stress of the past few months and expectations were weighing heavily on him and it showed in the close ups on the four high definition screens suspended around the stage. He seemed to be fighting his internal demons and the stress was definitely showing.
Downie performed through all his pains: emotional, physical, and mental. There was a sense of sadness as the band moved into a series of songs from the new album: “In A World Possessed By The Human Mind,” “Machine,” and the emotionally poignant “What Blue” and “Ocean Next.” These last two songs capturing some real emotion with Downie not just singing, but bleeding the words, leaving us with a punch to the gut that many of the other songs failed to capture. His grimaces made him look more like a sad clown alone amidst a sea of people than a rock performer. It was a heartbreaking moment for this writer, witnessing that kind of pathos. My own thoughts drifted off to consider the lost potential and the stories he will never tell.
After a brief intermission for a costume change and an expansion of the stage setup with a full drum kit and expanded lighting, they moved into World Container and Day For Night era material, followed later by Phantom Power and Trouble At The Henhouse songs. The audience was supportive, signing along to the choruses and cheering loudly for the songs they recognized.
The expanded setup revealed four large monitors strategically placed around the stage, allowing Downie to stay connected to his own complex lyrical musings. The close-ups of his face showed his eyes darting down to read a line before singing it, and then signing it to align closely with the original recordings. Gone were the stream of consciousness word flows, the riffing on spontaneous ideas sparked during curious performance moments. This lost dynamic was a huge absence for this writer though the crowd seemed grateful, allowing their sing-a-longs to match his delivery. His continued pantomime mannerisms played throughout the show, but they lacked the impact without the accompanying vocal injections.
In place of the literary interludes Downie often stood still and screamed, holding the microphone away from his mouth, but close enough for it to pick up these cries of…anguish. Was he raging against the dying of the light? Was he raging against the injustice of life? It was as if words, so much a part of his being, were no longer a viable form of expression.
During the 20 song set and two encores of five songs, little was said to the screaming and appreciative audience besides a few quick thank-yous. No banter and no song introductions until near the end of the show. “Thank you. Thank you. We’ve been coming here for years and it…felt the same,” stated Downie through some obvious tears, “just like this…”
After each segment, the band left Downie alone on stage. He bowed, he waved, he mouthed thank you in all directions. It was like the moments when you say goodbye to loved ones at the airport, knowing it will be a long time before you see them again, but in this case, it’s likely we’ll never see him again. We all wanted the goodbyes to last, but knew they couldn’t. And in Mr. Downie’s case, he’s lived these scenes of goodbyes six times, with another nine to go.
More power to him and the band for giving Canada the chance to say thank you and goodbye.
Photography by Charles Hope, www.hopephotography.com