Former arena's bad acoustics kept Tragically Hip from playing in hometown

While there is clearly mutual affection between the hometown boys and the city, there was a time when Gord Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay weren't exactly keen on playing in Kingston.

Concert Saturday in their hometown marks culmination of emotional Man Machine Poem tour

The Tragically Hip, performing here in Vancouver in their Man Machine Poem tour, will play on Saturday in Kingston, the band's hometown. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Of course, The Tragically Hip's emotional Man Machine Poem tour would have to culminate in their hometown of Kingston, the eastern Ontario city that has so embraced these local heroes.

To mark the final concert of this summer tour — made all the more poignant by the announcement that the Hip's lead singer Gord Downie is suffering from terminal brain cancer — the city has proclaimed Saturday The Tragically Hip Day.

The band is scheduled to play at 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday.

At Kingston's Springer Market Square, crowds of people are expected to pack in to watch the large LED screen set up to livestream the performance, taking place just blocks away at the Rogers K-Rock Centre on The Tragically Hip Way.

While there is clearly mutual affection between the hometown boys and the city, there was a time when Gord Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay weren't exactly keen on playing in their city.

"There was a period of years that they didn't play here," said Greg Burliuk, a recently retired journalist for the Kingston Whig-Standard who covered the arts and music scene for roughly 40 years.

Tragically Hip fans can enjoy the band's final stop on this tour through many media. (Arthur Mola/Invision/ Associated Press)

That may be somewhat surprising, given the band's strong roots in the community. All five members hail from Kingston, and four of them formed the group while attending Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute. Langlois joined later.

They played local venues, developing a solid fan base. They were extremely popular with the Queen's University crowd.

'They just took right off'

"That's where they just took right off," said Steve Cheesman, formerly a waiter at the now defunct Lakeview Manor, a popular performing spot for the flourishing band.

Cheesman said they would perform there every couple of weeks, packing the place every time.

"The thing with those guys, they laid their roots down pretty nicely here," said Burliuk. "[At the Lakeview Manor], they kind of earned their spurs."

By 1991, they also earned a key to the city. While there had been other talented musicians in Kingston, this group was "achieving a status that was beyond what we'd experienced in the past," said former Kingston mayor Helen Cooper. 

The Rogers K-Rock Centre, on The Tragically Hip Way in Kingston, Ont., will be the last stop on the band's 11-show tour. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

But in the summer of 1999, the Hip suggested that Kingston might no longer be a concert stop for them because it didn't have any suitable venues. ''There's nowhere to play here,'' drummer Fay told the Whig-Standard.

Bad acoustics

The largest venue, the Memorial Centre, was considered horrible acoustically. Baker added that all the city's other spaces were too small.

The comments sparked a minor controversy, and there was some debate about whether they had actually said those words, recalled Paul Schliesmann, a veteran reporter with the paper.

As Schliesmann wrote, many people came forth to "defend the band's honour," claiming there was no way the Hip would "turn their backs on Kingston and refuse to play here."

Such devotion did Kingston residents have for the band that most of the blowback was directed against the paper, said Schliesmann. "I clearly remember there was a little bit of shoot-the-messenger type of attitude."

But Schliesmann agreed with the Hip, writing that their comments provided "an honest assessment of the sad state of concert facilities in this city."

'Had to sound good'

"They had to sound good and they weren't going to sound good at the Memorial Centre," Schliesmann told CBC News.

About a month later, the band did play in Kingston, at the Limestone Blues Festival. But with the exception of a performance at the Royal Military College in 2004, the Tragically Hip played no major concerts in the city from 1999 to 2008.

Burliuk believed the Hip were being "a little fussy," but acknowledged that his was a minority viewpoint, adding that he never heard anyone criticize them for their absence.

Chris Brown signs a book of best wishes for Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip at Kingston City hall after it was announced the lead singer has incurable brain cancer. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

And in the end, they were key in pushing for the new arena. In 2008, the band would return to Kingston, becoming the first to play at the newly built Rogers K-Rock Centre, which has just under 7,000 seats.

"It might not have happened had they not pushed for it. They were really active in that," Burliuk said.

While the town never wavered in its support for the band, Burliuk said his own relationship with the Hip cooled after they took exception to a line in a review of their concert at Fort Henry in 1991.

"[It was] their first big concert and the only comment I made was: 'You're not in a bar anymore, so when you're playing in a concert you have to face the people."

"That was it. I was persona non grata. They would sometimes talk, when it was kind of convenient. But at first they wouldn't talk to me at all."

'The golden boys and rightfully so'

Eventually, Burliuk said tensions with the band thawed, and he developed a pretty good relationship with Langlois, who did charity work with Burliuk's wife and Baker, with whom he shared a chiropractor.

He said the band deserves all the praise and support it gets from Kingston, citing the charity work they do around the city.

"They've always been the golden boys and rightfully so," he said.

Schliesmann said the band's contributions to the city are "remarkable," ranging from big concerts to raising money for hospitals and local charities, to appearances at a small event just to raise its profile.

"Their contributions have been wonderful. Not only in the obvious things, the profile they've given the city, but what they've quietly given back as citizens of Kingston."

How to watch

Watch or listen online worldwide via:

Watch nationally on:

CBC Television

Listen nationally on:

CBC Radio One
CBC Radio 2
CBC Radio One on Sirius XM Channel 169


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?