by Chris Matei
General Motors Place was still called General Motors Place in 1998, and Vancouver was a different city: a city without hockey riots, without a condo crisis (well, perhaps a leaky one): it was the kind of city a ten-year-old grew up in listening to Up to Here when he got to go on car trips with his dad, camping, karate practice. General Motors Place felt as big as a whole city of its own when the Tragically Hip took the stage, waaaay down there, musky with beer and what a ten-year-old didn’t yet know was weed smoke, loud, louder than hockey games, later than it felt like he’d ever stayed up before.
Flash forward. Flash past festival stages where vast throngs chant “Hip! Hip! Hip!” – past the violet-lit gloom of Montreal’s Metropolis club, past the Vogue theatre, and each time, focus on the warped storytelling, the feral growls of voice and amplifier, the puppet-string sputtering theatrics, the microphone stand destruction, the handkerchiefs soaked in sweat, the way the first two bars of “Bobcaygeon” feel.
Flash to 2016: General Motors Place is now called Rogers Arena, you are twenty-eight years old, and this is all happening again for the very last time.
Gord Downie does not talk about cancer. Clad in shimmering metallic suits, he makes familiarly semi-cryptic remarks to the audience: he gyrates and jerks, mimes harpooning great invisible beasts, winces, occasionally stumbles over lyrics, points toward himself, smirks, and bellows the titular lyric of new-album cut “Tired as Fuck” in a winking bit of black humour. There are no concessions to doom here, no Oscar moments: there’s just a rock band doing what they do best with the make-it-look-easy swagger that they’ve carried through their whole career.
The set list spans a poetically large discography, segmented visually and spatially, but there can’t be room for everything. This is no canned nostalgia exercise, and the Hip in this live incarnation breathe just as much energy into a number of new-album cuts that have yet to attain cult status as they do the older material that gets the night’s most titanic roars of approval. There’s no “38 Years Old,” no “Nautical Disaster” – at least, not tonight. No one seems to mind. Downie’s trademark baritone has shifted timbres over the years, but he’s as up to the task as he’s ever been.
As the last note of “New Orleans is Sinking” flares out over the crowd, the band retreats and for a long minute it’s just Gord and the lights and us, bittersweet. So much is left out there to say that it all becomes the din of tens of thousands of voices with arms raised up in appreciation. The Hip will load out their road cases next week and roll east toward Kingston and the final show of their storied career. Even for those that don’t make it to the shows, it’s an occasion to look back – maybe to 1998 – and remember those stories.