The Tragically Hip, lead singer dying, played their last show, and Canada shut down

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If he has to go — and we all have to, eventually — Gord Downie, lead singer of the iconic Canadian band The Tragically Hip, is at least leaving the stage on his own terms. On Saturday night in Kingston, Ontario, The Tragically Hip played their final show, after a summer tour kicked off with the announcement that Downie, 52, has terminal brain cancer. The last show, in the band’s hometown, sold out in minutes. It was broadcast live, shown in public screenings at hockey arenas and town squares, in restaurants and bars.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a fan since he was a teenager, was at the concert, wearing a black Tragically Hip T-shirt.

“There is a Canadianness that runs through them to the point where new citizens should be given a Tragically Hip CD after they take the oath,” says music historian Alan Cross. The Tragically Hip is “our Stones, our Hendrix, our Zeppelin, our Bob Dylan, all wrapped up in one awesome band,” fan Wes Guidry told The New York Times. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in its interactive tour of the Canadian locales the band references in its songs, called Downie “Canada’s unofficial poet laureate.” The band, whose first of 14 studio albums was released in 1989, never quite took off outside of Canada, and Canadians loved them for it.

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“We’re a country that hasn’t really embraced its history just yet,” Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, who helped produce The Hip’s last album, told The New York Times. “We’re still trying to figure out what makes us Canadian, and we have one of the loudest neighbors in the world, so this band helped a country, and Gord helped people lyrically, slowly start to try to define themselves.” You get the same message from fans CTV spoke with in Kingston before the final show.

“It’s been such a gift that they’ve let us say thank you with this tour,” said Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley, who saw one of their final shows. Downie has had to rely on a teleprompter for the lyrics, but the band’s final performances “were exceptional,” said Broken Social Scene’s Drew. “The detail, the care — they were there and they were present. They pushed themselves.”

The Tragically Hip did not end their last hurrah on a tragic note, but with “Ahead by a Century,” which The New York Times’ Melena Ryzik describes as “a 1996 acoustic-based pop song about childhood innocence, beloved and performed by gymnasiums full of Canadian schoolchildren for years.” If you loved the band or never heard of them, here’s the song they chose to go out on.

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