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The Tragically Hip play their final concert in Kingston, Ont.

Mike Homer

Inside the Rogers K-Rock Arena on Saturday night, it's all concrete and grey plastic, with bare white lights that make it seem as if we are a part of a rehearsal. Justin Trudeau's the main distraction, as usual, posing for cameras on an upper balcony. The cheering crowd seems bemused, empty of reverence.

This night's already reached its quota for national heroes - the five musicians waiting in the wings- so it's not until after the prime minister disappears that a rippling Canadian flag gets unfurled from somewhere and dispersed through the arena. Then someone gets the idea to start yelling the national anthem, of course, and then the crowd's on its feet singing, of course, letting love of country stand in for love of band, or love of band for love of country, or something. And then everyone just yells "Hip, Hip, Hip!" and I hope Justin's doing so too, from the cheap seats, til his throat is hoarse.

Because finally the Tragically Hip come onto the stage. They come up in blue light. Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair are dressed in monochrome. Downie is wearing silver. He is wearing that feathered hat. 6,700 people bellow their adoration. The giant screen above the Hip's heads shows the band's movements in black and white and for an eerie moment what is happening right now looks as if it is already archival footage, long-past.

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I feel a wrench of sadness that at once is smashed away and overtaken by the first chorus of Fifty-Mission Cap. The hairs on my arms are standing up, they are actually standing up, and I wonder if this is true of my neighbour and his neighbour, and everyone in this building, or in Kingston's Market Square, or at home or in the park, or watching the Hip's final Man Machine Tour concert on a mobile phone in Mississippi, or anywhere.

I am struck by how loud the band are, but this strange loudness with frills at its edges - and I realize this is the noise of a country singing along with every word.

It's earlier in the day. The sun is out and nobody is crying yet. Downtown Kingston is filled with people squinting through the August light, greeting each other with the words "Hip, Hip, Hip!". There are coffee-shops blasting Tragically Hip rarities and sandwich-boards displaying Tragically Hip puns and an arena at 1 The Tragically Hip Way that has been built, the story goes, so the Tragically Hip have somewhere in town to play.

The Hip are home but no one seems certain whether their fans should be celebrating. Even the happiest clutch of devotees seems tentative, somewhat apprehensive. Gord Downie, the band's frontman, is dying of cancer; Saturday night is the group's last scheduled show. Wandering through town, what I observe is that it is possible to yell the words "Hip, Hip, Hip!" without quite knowing why you are yelling them. It is possible to yell them simply to hear those words alive in the air.

Most people are wearing Tragically Hip-related activewear. Baseball caps, hockey sweaters, dozens of different T-shirts - 30 years of tour merch, plus an array of homemade tributes, hand-lettered or screen-printed, and huddles of fans in silver trousers and Jaws T-shirts, or feathered hats, in tribute to the outfits Downie had worn on stage in Kingston and at recent concerts.

Sometimes it can be a little gauche to wear a band's merch at their very own show; it's over-eager somehow, or on the nose. Not in Kingston. Not on Saturday. Lining up at the K-Rock Arena as strangers gather for selfies, as some of the band's oldest fans clutch precious tickets, their hearts trembling a little, all those shirts and caps say something else besides, "This is the music I like." They say, "The Hip and I have a history together." They say, "This band is a part of my life." They make that past present, in 100 percent cotton.

Later, inside the arena, Downie sounds triumphant. The music dazzles across the room and there is such freedom in this ailing man, such force. He pulls open his silver top to show the Jaws T underneath, bounding from Courage into Wheat Kings, and it's only at this song's opening chords that a terrible thought finally lands. Is this the last time they'll play this song?

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All though this night, old lyrics find new resonances. "Let's see what tomorrow brings," Downie sings. "I'm kinda done but so are you." Or this: "Disappointing you is getting me down." Meaning comes at unexpected times, while a few moments feel surprisingly empty. Wheat Kings has lines about the CBC and our "parents' prime minister"; Downie acknowledges the special significance of neither.

For long stretches of the show, especially its first half, he relies heavily on a teleprompter. This is his illness at work. He misses words here and there, or sings a half-beat off, but at the same time his spirit seems to anticipate the swells of the song better than any of us can. He knows where he is going to take it, feels the tug of those old tides, and the flipside of those memory lapses is that sometimes Downie seems as if he is rediscovering his lyrics, inventing them anew.

His face is always changing, his eyes are always glinting; he grins about "the useless night" and people "high up above", and seems particularly smitten by the best of the Hip's new songs, Tired As Fuck. (Perhaps because it's being broadcast, uncensored, from coast to coast.)

Downie also takes an acute joy from his bandmates. Baker's guitar-playing has never sounded prouder; he, Langlois and Sinclair are prowling animals on songs like Machine or At The Hundredth Meridian, and especially after the first set break. When Downie reappears - poised in new, crimson duds - he seems revitalized, and conducts the band through a commanding suite of rock songs, including Putting Down and Little Bones.

Before playing Fiddler's Green, Downie sends out his thanks: to all the people, "for keeping me pushing". As he sings that song, I look at the people around me - the old friends swaying with arms around their shoulders, the mother with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Downie misses some words here and there, and at the end of the number he gazes out into the same crowd. Watching his face it is impossible not to see how much work it is taking to keep it together.

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The audience does the only thing it knows how to do: it yells "GORDIE, GORDIE, GORDIE...!" But this tableau underscores the paradox of this concert, its secret rules of engagement. The setlist contains both Courage and Scared. Is it better to show that you're frightened, or to admit that you're brave?

Mostly the Tragically Hip reveal their strength, not their frailty. New Orleans Is Sinking blows the room right open, Boots Or Hearts turns the place into a honky-tonk, Blow at High Dough makes it seem like the ground's about to catch fire. Even Scared isn't scary - it's playful, almost mischievous. Downie's no longer a spindly Bowie - he's a preening heron, a fool, a man half in black.

Whereas initially his bandmates were keeping their eyes safely to themselves, now I see them passing grins around, all that bittersweetness blinked away. In this storied concert's later minutes it becomes less storied somehow, more normal.

It is a relief for all of us to forget what we know - to love a band that is just making its noise. They play beautiful Bobcaygeon, one of the great rock'n'roll songs, without any unnecessary softness. They close their final encore with Ahead By A Century - gorgeous and adamant, fierce but unforced.

But it's Grace, Too whose notes linger most in mind after the band gave their final bow. Hours after the last camera flicked off, with dawn in the curtains, I'm still hearing the performance's plain drumbeat and ivied guitars. I'm still thinking of Downie's voice full of asking, his face full of strain. Was he feeling sorrow? Was it fury? Gratitude, ruination, all of those things? The only part I'm certain of is that he didn't seem scared. So many of us were standing with him, together, and we wouldn't let him.

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