Entertainment

Tragically Hip tour, 1st since Gord Downie's cancer revelation, kicks off in Victoria

Hip fans in B.C. are breathlessly anticipating tonight's concert, as the band plays its first show since late May's shocking revelation that front man Gord Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

'No hiding behind the reason why this tour is happening and, for a lot of people, this is a goodbye'

Tragically Hip members Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Gord Downie, Johnny Fay and Rob Baker are in Victoria, B.C. tonight to kick of the band's latest tour in light of Downie's grim brain cancer diagnosis. (Clemens Rikken/Canadian Press )

Fans are breathlessly anticipating the Tragically Hip concert tonight in Victoria.

It's the first show of the band's latest tour following late May's shocking revelation that front man Gord Downie, 52, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

The Hip has been perfecting its artistry for decades, entertaining millions with crowd-pleasers like Bobcaygeon, At the Hundredth Meridian, and Ahead by a Century.

But, given the demands of the road, and with Downie's dire prognosis, people are wondering just how this tour will unfold.

In late May, the Tragically Hip revealed that singer Gord Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. (Canadian Press)

"I don't know how they're feeling [gearing up to] the launch of the tour, but I imagine they're excited. I know their fans are excited," said Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer, who has collaborated with the Hip in the past and says the group has been "firing people up" for years with "amazing" energy at live shows.

(CBC)

"I think they're doing what they do, living in the moment, playing shows, making it unique every night," she told CBC News.

Friday's show will be emotional, "not only for the fans, but for the crew, for the promoters, for the buildings, for anyone who is there," predicted Victoria-based music promoter Nick Blasko, who's worked with the band a number of times.

"I think that there's no hiding behind the reason why this tour is happening and, for a lot of people, this is a goodbye."

In an online statement, the band was careful when referring to the tour, avoiding terms like final or farewell when discussing hitting the road for the Hip's 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem

"We've decided to do another one," the band members wrote, adding they would "try to make this our best tour yet."

On Friday, they're scheduled to take the stage at Victoria's Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre at 8:30 p.m. PT and greet up to 9,000 concertgoers in an arena usually reserved for junior ice hockey games. 

"There's a lot of people arriving in Victoria from all over the country, all walks of our industry — whether it's promoters, agents — people that are in our business are descending on Victoria right now to be a part of this first show," Blasko said.

Over the next month, the band will then continue through a 15-date concert tour across the nation, concluding with a grand finale in its hometown of Kingston, Ont. that will be broadcast and streamed live on CBC.

Toronto singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge is one of many musicians who have been influenced by the iconic band. His 2014 album Daredevil consists strictly of cover versions of Tragically Hip songs.

"There will be sadness among the madness. Most of us simply want to thank them for their contributions to our lives," he said.

"Disbelief, tears, frustration — no one wants Gord to leave. No one knows what to do. We look up to the Tragically Hip as songwriters, musicians, and people."

Gord Downie, pictured here in Charlottetown in 2008, is considered to be one of Canada's most influential musicians. (Chris Wilkinson/Spinphoto)

Health concerns

Any musical tour requires stamina and focus, but for Downie — diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma — the physical toll is likely considerable. 

How will he withstand this month's travel and performances? Will anything be visible to concertgoers: headaches, physical weakness or changes in personality? Is there a back-up plan if, for instance, he feels too ill to perform?

Discussing the rocker's state in late May, neuro-oncologist Dr. James Perry said that following surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Downie's primary symptoms seemed to be fatigue due to his illness and its treatment. The singer-songwriter would likely need more "maintenance chemotherapy," he added at the time.

Gord Downie and his bandmates are scheduled to perform at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria tonight. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Ken McLeod, an associate professor specializing in popular music history at the University of Toronto, expects that fans will be respectful of whatever may come during the concerts.

"People are really excited to see them play, but also conscious of Downie's health situation," he pointed out.

"It's almost, ironically, an emotional embodiment of the contradiction in the band's name itself. It's cool that they're touring, but the circumstances are tragic."

Unprecedented demand

The tour's coveted tickets sold out in seconds in June and though additional dates were added, it soon emerged that computer bots had scooped up a large quantity of available seats, and scalpers were caught posting fake tickets on resale websites

Over the next month, the Hip will continue through a 15-date concert tour across Canada with a grand finale in Kingston, Ont. (Aaron Harris/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, a newly announced lottery is giving fans fresh hope for the opportunity to buy tickets on the day of each show.

Also, since the announcement that CBC would broadcast and stream the final show, nearly 100 organizations across Canada have submitted requests to host public screenings, with nearly 40 of them — from Penticton, B.C. to Winnipeg to Glace Bay, N.S.— granted permission thus far.

After years of touring, racking up millions in record sales as well as numerous awards and achievements, the Hip — one of Canada's most iconic and influential musical acts — faces perhaps its most difficult road trip yet.

The Tragically Hip has sold millions of records, earned numerous awards, and played thousands of concerts since forming in the mid-1980s. (Canadian Press)

Emotions are high and all eyes are on Downie, but only time will tell how the tour will unfold, as Courage becomes more than just a song.


Where to watch

The Kingston concert will begin at 8:30 p.m. ET, and will be broadcast and streamed — commercial free — on CBC Television (main network), CBC Radio One, CBC Radio 2, cbcmusic.ca and CBC's YouTube channels. 

It will also stream online at the following destinations:

Online: cbcmusic.ca/thehip
YouTube channel: youtube.com/cbcmusic
Facebook: facebook.com/cbcmusic
Twitter: twitter.com/cbcmusic
 

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