"Smart as trees in Sault Ste. Marie, I can speak my mother tongue."
On Saturday night, Canadians will come together to watch as the Tragically Hip play what is very likely to be the final concert of their illustrious career.
It will be a fitting, if not bittersweet, hometown send-off for one of this country's most revered bands, as they play one last concert in Kingston, Ont., the last show of a tour that was announced shortly after lead singer Gord Downie revealed that he was battling brain cancer.
Founded in Canada's first capital, with a catalogue of hits that evoke uniquely Canadian memories, imagery, and shared stories, the Hip are undeniably Canadian. They're a band with two guys named Gord, with lyrics that are rooted in place, as most blues-rock can be, in a way that is both specific and deeply personal, whether they're singing about the prairies or Ontario's cottage country.
As someone who has spent her career helping clients build successful brands, I can't help but look at things through the lens of what brings us together. So why do the Hip and their music resonate so deeply with Canadians, so much so that the CBC will be broadcasting their final concert live?
The Hip aren't just one of Canada's greatest rock bands, they are perhaps the most quintessentially and uniquely Canadian musical act this country has ever produced. Their reputation as Canadian artists goes beyond their music: They have achieved an iconic status, one that makes them synonymous with Canada.
The Tragically Hip are both part of the Canadian fabric and born of it. For many, they are the articulation of Canadianness.
And part of their status as Canada's Band no doubt stems from the fact that the Hip never quite caught on with our American neighbours to the South. It's not for lack of trying. In 1995, the Hip appeared on Saturday Night Live after releasing the album Day For Night (which went Platinum in Canada, like their previous two records). Despite the possibility of global success following a showcase on the late-night platform, the performances fell flat in the American consciousness.
What could be seen as one of the band's biggest failings is what has bolstered our dedication. Instead of playing one of their huge guitar singles, like New Orleans Is Sinking, to guaranteed applause, the Hip stayed true to the prolific artistry at their core and played mid-tempo jams of Grace, Too and Nautical Disaster.
It was a typically Hip moment. This combination of nascent singles and Gord Downie's fervent performance left Americans scratching their heads about just who these Canadians were. Despite this, that night in '95 remains a proud moment for many of us – not because of some idle patriotism over a shared passport, but because this peculiar and specific performance was so inherently Canadian. It was us, authentic and familiar.
Over their 30-year career, the Hip have reinforced the idea that Canada is a close-knit country. Mention the Hip, and just about everyone has a story. Especially in Southern Ontario, virtually everyone has met a member of the band, has a family member who is friends with one of them, or knows someone who was touched by an encounter with Gord and his bandmates. (My own Six Degrees of Hip Separation is that in university I waitressed with Gord Downie's sister.)
If you have been one of the fortunate who've witnessed one leg of the Man Machine Poem tour, you've seen Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair form an impossibly tight circle around their friend to start each set. It's a wonderfully Canadian moment, illustrative of our faith in community. Just as we have rallied around the Hip, they do so around Gord
Despite the grim news, the band continues to evolve every show, with an ever-changing set list making their way as much through their discography as they are the country. At every stop, the crowd stands for the entire show, the emotional implications of this last tour making for a powerful experience. No dry eyes, no lack of smiles. With this Saturday's miraculous final show and broadcast from Kingston, where it all began both musically and nationally, coast-to-coast we will say, "We were never more here."
The Tragically Hip are a band, our band, rooted in the stories of the place we call home. They, like us, never needed those stories validated by our neighbours to the south. If our favourite band leaves us confident in only one thing, it's that what makes us Canadian is not simply our un-Americanness.
They've done it their way, unpolished and determined, and looking back, there are some who would say we've found our voice through theirs. On Saturday, we celebrate together, making the most of a tough situation as Canadians do. No dress rehearsal, this is our life.