On Saturday, August 20th, 2016 over twenty-five thousand people descended upon Kingston Ontario to make history and celebrate an unrelenting force in Canadian culture. It was not only the final stop for the Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem Tour – but also quite possibly the band’s final show. However, this story is not about illness or sorrow – it’s about something far more profound. The idea for a city-wide celebration had first manifested in the form of a Facebook page entitled: “Tragically Hip Community Block Party” sometime in the spring. It wasn’t long before the City of Kingston offered full support of the idea – and planned a massive screening of the concert in Springer Market Square. The CBC’s announcement to live-stream the tour’s final show live was the icing on the cake.
The day before this historic event was a particularly heavy one. I was excited to have been asked to write this article and help cover the celebration – and even as I write this in retrospect; the sheer energy of it hasn’t subsided at all. I spent all of Friday completely immersed in everything Hip related. I watched documentaries about the band on YouTube, I played a marathon of their music and absorbed as much as I could. The experience was akin to time-traveling. An emotionally charged day-trip filled with nostalgic revelation.
I hadn’t realized just how integrated their music was; with not only my life – but the lives of so many who have grown up to The Hip’s iconic soundtrack narrating our ups – and downs. In a sense, this band has been there for each and every one of us – in ways, we may never truly grasp. It goes without saying that The Hip has become elemental of our national identity. Our musical ambassadors to the world. These guys are not simply a group of good ol’ Kingston boys that made it big. The Tragically Hip is Canada’s band.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I would experience the next day. I arrived in Springer Market Square at 3:00 pm and people were already starting to show up in droves. Within hours the surrounding city blocks were the site of a massive pilgrimage. I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of people from all corners of Canada. One particular group had brought a banner from Bobcaygeon Ontario – others came from as far as Saskatchewan with the sole mission of being present for this occasion.
The overall message and general consensus from both fans and public figures with was one of gratitude, and well wishes for Gord and the band. The various parts of Canada that these fans had traveled from only further fortified the The Hip’s position in our collective psyche.
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By dusk, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, flanked by MP Mark Gerretsen and a small security detail, walked from the Rogers K-Rock Centre and all the way up King Street toward the square where he was met by a crowd of excited fans. He stopped for pictures, embraced people openly and eventually making his way to Springer Market Square to sign a wall of signatures and well wishes for Gord Downie. By the time the band hit the stage, thousands of fans had packed into the square. It was shoulder to shoulder from the edge of the stage all the way to Princess Street. The deafening roar of the crowd drowned out all sounds – and resonated with pure jubilation was likely felt throughout the entire region. In fact, communities all across The Great Waterway held screenings from the Bay of Quinte to Cornwall and the Counties and beyond. Belleville’s Empire Theatre was packed to capacity with fans. In Picton the Mustang Drive-In showed no movies, and dedicated the night to screening the concert.
Brockville and Prescott drew a large crowd to Hardy Park where a public viewing of the show was hosted. The epicenter of this celebration may have been in Kingston – but this was the party quite literally heard ‘round the world’. People from all walks of life were dancing in the streets, people embraced one another and sang along, their faces awash in the crimson and azure lights. This is the phenomenon that surrounds the Tragically Hip; they bring people together and all that matters is the music. The entire city seemed to rumble with a positive energy so concentrated, that it completely drowned out all the fear and uncertainty – replacing it with unfiltered joy. It was a supercharged maelstrom of pure love and positive intent that you could literally feel in your chest.
One particular moment during one of the band’s three encores will forever be etched into my memory. I was at the foot of the screen, hastily taking pictures with my phone – and this moment literally froze me in place. Everything just stopped for a fraction of a second. Gord’s face was a mix of both anguish and pure love. It was an odd combination. I wouldn’t say it was pain on his face; but rather an endearing love of this city, and Canada as a whole. It was the single most inspiring thing I had ever witnessed.
“Have a nice life.” He said as he completed the final encore. I cannot describe how visceral the emotions were; all around me. More than a few tears were shed, fans hugged one another; but the overall sense of unanimous adoration and optimism did not diminish. On Saturday August 20th history was made. There wasn’t a dry eye in all of Canada; and for one night: Kingston was our nation’s capital again.
8 Destinations all alive with excitement