2016, Music, Religion, Society

The Tragically Hip Live at the K-Rock Centre, August 20, 2016

I wasn’t going to watch this show. The cynic in me found the sudden outpouring of interest in The Hip weird. I felt like people I’d never heard mention this band previously were now obsessed with getting tickets to shows, all because someone (Canadian) famous is dying of cancer.

Instead, I was going to watch the Olympics like I had been doing all day. I don’t know how I was going to watch the Olympics – I don’t have cable and only get CBC – but I was going to watch them. I wasn’t going to let CBC preempt my Olympics with a concert in a hockey arena.

But my cousin texted me at around 7:55 and said he and a friend were going to watch it at the Danforth Music Hall, and did I want to come?

For a substantial part of my life, I would have found an excuse not to go. I am generally a shy person and, when I have the opportunity, a homebody. Even when I am attending an event where I know people, I still have to talk myself into it. But as an adult, I have been trying to just go…. to not say no to invitations when I feel like it, to do more, to see more, and to not give in to my inclination to sit around in my house and not see anyone because I’ve seen too many people (so I tell myself). And it is getting easier. 8 or 10 years ago I might not have gone because I would have come up with some excuse about it being “too last minute” and I would have spent the next few hours trying and failing to stream TSN or Sportsnet.

When we entered the Music Hall, it was full. They had put in a ton of chairs on the ground floor. Ron MacLean, Canada’s sports broadcaster, was awkwardly segueing the show from the Olympics, standing in Rio with a bunch of Olympic athletes, some of whom were very aware of how awkward it was. He had to segue from the Olympics to the concert, of course, because Canada’s public broadcaster interrupted the Olympics for this concert. Even though the Summer Olympics are not the big deal that the Winter Olympics are in Canada, there’s still a lot of interest – coverage runs at least 17 hours a day. And CBC decided that this was more important (or, cynically, that this would get more viewers).

Despite the chairs, people were standing from the first note. After maybe one verse, much of our side of the theatre was standing, meaning that we had to. This happened even though we were in a concert venue without an actual concert, 250km or so away from the actual show.

The Hip started the show with two of their most famous songs. In Canada, there are a lot of famous Hip songs, but there’s a canon of songs that have been played on Canadian rock radio for the last three decades, and those songs are known to most of us, at least most of us who grew up with them. (I was 3 when they formed and 6 when they put out their first record. Contrast that to our other musical giants: Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell – all had their greatest successes before I was born.)

After a couple of songs, they switched to music from the new record. The Bad Music Fan in me said “Play the hits!” and the crowd noticeably calmed – both in the Music Hall and at the K-Rock Centre. But this is their show and their last record. And I have always personally loathed the fact that Hendrix got booed at the Isle of Wight for not playing his hits. I always thought to my self, “How could you live with yourself if you booed Hendrix at the Isle of Wight just before he died?” Now, The Hip have nowhere near the musical importance of Jimi Hendrix, but last night was clear proof that they have more importance to Canada than just about any other group of musicians. So they wanted us to hear some of their new music. So what? We owed it to them. Especially those of us (like me) who haven’t heard a Hip record since Trouble at the Henhouse (released 20 years ago).

After they played a few songs from this last record (well, I assume it was this last record), there was an intermission that we assumed was just a costume change. But they actually moved stages (something I have yet to figure out the logistics of), from a smaller one in the middle of the floor to a bigger stage at one end. We had failed to notice the intimacy of that first stage until after they moved. They had started the show in the crowd – a common thing to do nowadays but still a nice gesture.

Once they got on the big stage, the rest of the set (and the three encores) was the hits. I realized, standing there, that not only did I know more Hip songs than I would have guessed off the top of my head (I have only ever heard their first six albums), but we all did. And when I say we, I mean much of the country. In addition to the thousands of people in the K-Rock Centre, there were a reported 20-25,000 people watching in downtown Kingston (where the band is from, and where the show took place). CBC hosted viewing parties in every province of the country but numerous other people hosted viewing parties in towns and cities throughout the country. I am aware of multiple venues that had thousands of attendees in Toronto alone. I am curious to know the ratings, because it sure felt like the entire country was watching. And, like I said, the country knew the songs. (Here is a much better summary of what they have meant to Canada.)

UPDATE: 12 million people are reported to have watched the show. That’s a third of the country.

I am not a religious man. I am, by some definitions, an atheist. (Though I consider myself agnostic.) Part of this stems from my intellectual curiosity and my unwillingness to accept answers that don’t make sense to me. But another part of this is my lack of interest in the communal aspect of religion. Like most children raised Christian, the communal aspect of the church played a pretty big role in my life as a child. But I haven’t missed it: I am shy and an introvert, I don’t need groups of people to feel okay about myself, but I also never felt that the religious part of it was necessary to the community part and I have found other, non-religious communities to participate in as an adult. I have had a lot of trouble understanding how the feeling of community can overcome common sense; how the feeling people get from being in church, praying and singing and listening can override what should be a natural skepticism over stories about a man in the sky. But I understood last night.

Last night I was a member of the Congregation of Canada and Reverend Gord was preaching the sermon. Is that corny? Hell yeah it’s corny. But for a few fleeting hours, it was true.

I don’t love The Hip; their music started as well-played but pretty standard blues rock and then they jumped onto the alternative rock bandwagon (and I have no idea what has happened since but, based on last night, not much in terms of musical growth). I have always felt Downie was, at worst, an above-average lyricist, but I hadn’t really reflected on what his lyrics meant to people other than me. Last night, I joined millions of Canadians in realizing that this man has told the story of Canada for the last three decades better than most. Yes, he’s done this over rather traditional rock music, but he’s told this story about us and for us. Last night I realized this more than I ever had before. I used to think it was just a right of passage for a lot of people to see a Hip show (one I missed out on, perhaps because I was a little too young to see them in their prime), but they mean a lot more than that. Downie’s lyrics and the band’s music are a collective expression of Canadiana that I don’t know exists our side of our infamous Heritage Moments – and better than those, as it’s more honest.

Last night I felt like I was a Canadian in a way I have rarely felt, even when watching these Olympics. Despite my refusal to to sing the national anthem at sports events, I am fiercely patriotic in my own way – I love my country, I would live nowhere else and I take a great deal of interest in the institutions that exist here. But I realize that, for most of us, patriotism isn’t intellectual; it’s an emotional experience first and foremost, a feeling of community and belonging. I felt that last night, perhaps the first time I felt it in an overwhelming way since Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” over six years ago. I was one of millions of Canadians watching the same thing: a man with cancer giving his all to sing lyrics that have had a profound affect on how we view our country and the people in it. Canada isn’t as divided as the US – what democracy is? – but we have our share of divides; English-French, centre-west, urban-rural, liberal/socialist-conservative. But we were all united last night. I thought only hockey could do that.

I am writing this hungover, from too many beers too quickly last night, and too high alcohol percentage in the last one, watching the press conference summary of the Canadian Olympic Team at Rio this year, having trouble containing my emotions (thanks alcohol!). This has been a pretty great two weeks. But I never thought the moment I would remember from these Olympics would be a rock concert in Kingston by a band that I wasn’t in any rush to see.

PS I did get to catch the women’s 800m from far away.

PPS I had a call with a client today. I was ignorant of her music tastes. The first thing we talked about was The Hip.

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