Wednesday October 18, 2017

That time Gord Downie sang Knockin' on Heaven's Door with a high school band in Fort Albany

Gord Downie, left, performs in a high school gym with The Northern Revolution in Fort Albany, Ont., in 2012. Braiden Metatawabin, centre, plays guitar while Roseanne Knapaysweet sings along.

Gord Downie, left, performs in a high school gym with The Northern Revolution in Fort Albany, Ont., in 2012. Braiden Metatawabin, centre, plays guitar while Roseanne Knapaysweet sings along. (Submitted by Roseanne Knapaysweet)

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Story transcript

When Braiden Metatawabin was 15 years old, he played lead guitar for Gord Downie in a high school gym in Fort Albany, Ont.

"With his passing it just, you know, makes me feel a little bit even more special that I got to do that with him before he even got sick," Metatawabin told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The Tragically Hip frontman died Tuesday surrounded by his children and family. He was 53.

The Hip were in Fort Albany in 2012 for The Great Moon Gathering, an annual event that celebrates Cree culture, and Metatawabin's band, The Northern Revolution, landed a last-minute gig opening for the Canadian rock legends at the Peetabek school gym.

Metatawabin remembers Downie and his bandmates arriving in town and meeting everyone involved in the event before the show.

'It meant for the community that Fort Albany wasn't just this tiny spec of a place in the middle of nowhere, right?' - Braiden Metatawabin

"My friend who was also playing bass came up to me. He's like, 'I just met Gord, I'm gonna go ask him to play a song with us.' And I had my doubts, of course. Why would a famous person want to play with a high school band, right?" he said.

"He said that he was honoured to play with us. It was crazy to hear him say that."

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The Tragically Hip performed in Fort Albany, Ont., for The Great Moon Gathering in 2012. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Northern Revolution promptly informed Downie they would be playing Knockin' On Heaven's Door. Downie was openly pleased with the selection because he already knew the song. 

But Downie, as it turned out, was only familiar with the orginal Bob Dylan tune — not the Guns 'N' Roses cover the Fort Albany teens had rehearsed.

Midway through their performance, Downie jumped into the second verse before the band was ready.

"I went for it. It just felt right," Downie later wrote in Maclean's.

"I looked back at Braiden; he was shaking his head vigorously back and forth. 'Wrong! No!' he was saying with his eyes. We had a decision to make and a barre to make it. I'd already started singing. I thought, 'This kid is shaking me off!'"

Metatawabin laughed when Off recounted Downie's version of revents. What he remembers is that he was was panic-stricken.

"I thought that we would have had to, like, stop playing," he said.

"We didn't actually rehearse the song with Gord himself. He just kind of just, you know, appeared on stage and said, 'Alright, let's do this.' That's literally what he said as he walked on stage. He looked at me, he said, 'OK, Braiden, let's do this.'"

Fortunately for Nothern Revolution, Downie was an experienced frontman and was able to steer the band through the rest of the song without a hitch — even leaving room for a sick guitar solo. 

"Not only do we get out of the song alive, we flourish. In a brief moment, we all look at each other the way bands have looked at each other for centuries, with the 'What just happened?' look that only comes with suddenly knowing you've done something that means something," Downie wrote.

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TheTragically Hip concert had an impact on the whole community, says Braiden Metatawabin. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Metatawabin has kept that "cherished childhood memory" with him all these years.

The evening had an incredible impact not only on him and his bandmates, he said, but the entire community. 

"It meant for the community that Fort Albany wasn't just this tiny spec of a place in the middle of nowhere, right?" he said. "It made us feel like exceptionally special to have like such a huge celebrity band come up just to be present."