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review

Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip perform on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Toronto, Canada.Arthur Mola

The first song, The Luxury, a rainy vamp from 1991, was mere introduction. On the next one, Little Bones, a high-octane, deep-riffed blues rocker from the same year, the gears kicked in.

The band was bunched together tight at the centre of a large stage, perhaps a recreation of the close quarters that were routine when they played the Kingston taprooms as kids. Frontman Gord Downie, in a silver, high-shine leather suit and a purple Dylan-inspired chapeau, worked tightly – a brief strut, an embellished check of his cuticles, a pirouette, a blown kiss or two.

He sang a warning about eating chicken slow ("it's full of all those little bones") as he worked the small space he had allowed himself.

Downie, a pro, was dancing on the ass of an elephant, a career goal of his.

Everybody in the arena knew the score. The Tragically Hip's current Man Machine Poem Tour was announced this spring, at the same time the news of the singer-lyricist Downie's dire brain cancer diagnosis was made public. The concerts (including the first of three at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday evening) would be a flocking to a beloved Canadian band, unavoidably freighted with send-off heaviness.

But beyond that – if we can get beyond that – these shows hold all the prospects that performances by the Hip and the others of their kind have always offered. A celebration, sure, but there is also the surrender to the noise, the freedom of a one-night wilderness. These are rock 'n' roll shows. The road goes on; the band lets it ride.

"Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy," an energetic Downie sang on At the Hundredth Meridian, but there will be time for that later.

A 20-song main setlist covered the Hip's long career with grouped samplings of a range of albums, starting with a quartet from Road Apples and continuing with four-song bursts of Man Machine Poem (the band's persuasive latest), Music @ Work, Trouble at the Henhouse and Fully Completely.

The four-piece band was greased and potent, but most eyes were on Downie, the curious poet who changed leather suits twice. On new song In a World Possessed by the Human Mind he flashed a mischievous grin – perhaps at the lyrical secrets he keeps to himself. He was in fine voice, his hard quivering style recognizable for miles.

The concert was filmed, which allowed for Downie to play to the camera at one point, his eyes staring deep into the lens as he mouthed words and moved in slow motion. His stage mannerisms were relatively restrained, with nothing rehearsed. He operates in the moment, his charismatic quirks coming from microsecond calculations on the fly.

Downie didn't address the audience directly, except once. "How are you, good?" he asked, and then added, "That's an intentional really big question." Or maybe he said "really vague question." Either works.

The sold-out crowd – looking good (and robust and joyful) – often sang along, particularly to the contemplative acoustic-driven numbers such as Wheat Kings, about a late-breaking story on the CBC and David Milgaard, a man wrongly convicted for something he didn't do. An audience waved smart phones as candles and passed their audition by contributing harmonies to the line "let's just see what tomorrow brings."

In her 2005 article in the Oxford American, Carol Ann Fitzgerald had something to say about a life lived fully, as it related to the Depression-era blues artist Bessie Smith. "If she's somewhere in the universe, I think she's not complaining about the duration of her odyssey because – doggone it – she had a good time," wrote Fitzgerald. "How many of us get to share our easy inner rhythms and wry spirits with the tone-deaf planet?"

Smith, who died at age 43, sang about the end of the "long old road," and shaking hands with a friend when she got there. From rock stars, blues people and singer-songwriters, we take our advice selectively. Neil Young wrote that it was better to burn out than fade away. Bob Dylan offered that if one wasn't busy being born they were busy dying. And Leadbelly sang "bam-ba lam."

At the Air Canada Centre, between the two euphoric encore sets, Downie was left alone on stage. He waved, soaked in the crowd's deep veneration and seemed to fight back tears. There was no need for any kind of flashy pyrotechnic send-off – our minds held all the fireworks required.

It ended with well-known numbers Bobcaygeon and Poets, and with Downie hugging and kissing each of his long-time bandmates.

Downie had shaken hands with friends in his own rock 'n' roll way and contributed some philosophy, too. What's left to say but that when a man in a metallic turquoise outfit and a feathered hat sings "no dress rehearsal, this is our life," one best pay attention to him.

Setlist

The Luxury

Little Bones

Fiddler's Green

Three Pistols

In a World Possessed by the Human Mind

Tired as Fuck

What Blue

Machine

My Music at Work

Lake Fever

Toronto #4

Putting Down

Gift Shop

Springtime in Vienna

Flamenco

Ahead By a Century

Fully Completely

At the Hundredth Meridian

Wheat Kings

Fifty Mission Cap

First encore

Grace, Too

So Hard Done By

Nautical Disaster

Second encore

Bobcaygeon

Poets