Mourning a Canadian icon: The Tragically Hip's beloved singer didn't let cancer stop one last tour

Beloved Canadian singer didn't let cancer stop one last amazing tour

Tragically Hip Gord Downie
Rather than spending his remaining time peacefully at home with close family and friends, Gord Downie and his bandmates announced they would hit to the road for one last tour. Facebook/The Tragically Hip

One of the most memorable live show experiences took place on August 20 across Canada and beyond, stretching as far as Houston’s Maple Leaf Pub, favored by Canadian expatriates for its hockey memorabilia decor, Canada Day parties and Stanley Cup playoff and Olympic hockey atmosphere. That night, fans of the seminal Canadian band, The Tragically Hip, gathered to see the band’s very last performance.

There are thousands of Canadians living in Texas, largely due to the energy and healthcare industries. Most in Texas may not know them, but the story of The Hip, as they are affectionately referred to, is a clear lesson in the power music has to bring people together.

Only months earlier, it was announced that the much beloved and electric lead singer and poet laureate, Gord Downie, had an aggressive form of terminal brain cancer called glioblastoma. Rather than spending his remaining time peacefully at home with close family and friends, Downie and his bandmates announced they would hit to the road for one last tour, culminating in one last show in their hometown Kingston, Ontario. The tour, aptly held in hockey barns, sold out almost immediately.

The Tragically Hip, whose career spans three decades, were a household name in Canada. They had trouble finding an audience in the U.S., peaking at a time when alternative and rock radio played much grungier, more middle-of-the-road rock. But that only endeared them even more back home, where they were hugely popular, a majority of their albums hitting No. 1, their name as synonymous to being as Canadian as maple syrup and Tim Horton’s coffee.

For a 12-year-old kid who moved far away from Canada in the early ‘90s, to a place with oppressive heat and conservative climate, leaving friends and family behind, The Tragically Hip — one of the bands my father and I could rock out together to — was a piece of home. Based on the packed crowd gathered at the Maple Leaf that oppressively hot August evening, many felt the same way.

Nearly 12 million people, one-third of Canada’s population, tuned into that final concert at viewing parties in backyards, parks and town squares. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the concert in person, not as a charismatic leader who would go on to negotiate trade deals with the U.S. President, but as a fan, a sign of how far the band’s influence reached.

The performance was emotional, cathartic and celebratory, a three-hour tour-de-force from an artist going out on his own terms. There were cheers and smiles — and few dry eyes — at the Maple Leaf Pub in Houston and across Canada that night, not to mention a lot of Molson beer consumed.

Gord Downie passed away Tuesday night, but not before he used his remaining months fighting for indigenous rights and environmental issues, courageous until the very end. Prime Minister Trudeau tearfully spoke of Downie’s passing on Wednesday morning from the Parliament building, in an act that would seem downright foreign to any other world leader. That’s the power The Hip had over Canadians, who affectionately referred to them as “our band.”

"Music brings people together,” Downie told my hometown paper, The Winnipeg Free Press, in 2014. “So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in."

Mission accomplished. We will miss you, Gord.

Top Five Albums by The Tragically Hip you should listen to:
1. Fully Completely (1992)
2. Day For Night (1994)
3. Up To Here (1989)
4. Road Apples (1991)
5. Phantom Power (1998)