As I wrote in my review of the documentary The Tragically Hip: Long Time Running, “On May 24, 2016, it was announced that the Tragically Hip’s lead singer Gord Downie had incurable brain cancer. In spite of that, they intended to tour in support their thirteenth studio album, Man Machine Poem, set for release a few weeks later. They played 15 shows across Canada in just under a month, concluding with a hometown show on August 20, 2016, at the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario. It was an unofficial, though presumed, farewell tour, which became official with the passing of Downie on October 17, 2017. The final concert was broadcast to nearly 12 million people across the CBC’s distribution platforms and has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, titled A National Celebration.”
Before the show, Downie hugs and kisses bandmates guitarist Paul Langlois, guitarist Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay in a way that reveals these men are more than co-workers or friends, but brothers. On stage, they begin positioned in a small circle, nearby to provide any support that Downie might need but the music and the love from the audience are clearly enough to sustain him.
Starting with four straight songs from Fully Completely, the band’s breakout album, the crowd sings along with opener “Fifty Mission Cup” and even have a brief duet with Downie during “Courage”, which came at the best time for the band this evening. Baker grabs an acoustic guitar for the gentler ‘Wheat Kings,” and the band cranks it back up during “At the Hundredth Merdian”. The “If I die of vanity” verse is much more meaningful. The band stops halfway through it while Downie continues. The crowd roars triumphantly when he completes the verse about how he’d prefer to be buried.
While the end might be near, there’s still new music to be appreciated and the Hip go into a four-song block from Man Machine Poem. The lyrics, especially “Tired as Fuck”, take on greater significance to fit with Downie’s condition. Before “Machine”, Downie briefly speaks out about the horrible treatment of First Nations people. MMP is the only album of theirs from the 21st century they draw from this evening.
After a brief break, which includes an outfit change for Downie, the band, now positioned farther apart across the stage, play four from Music @ Work, and then five from Road Apples. During the extended outro of “Little Bones”, Downie steps away for another costume change while the roadies move some equipment. The rhythm section during “The Last of the Unplucked Gems” delivers a marvelous slow drone over which Baker plays and Downie sings. The set concludes with four from Phantom Power. Band members embrace Downie and leave him alone on stage. The crowd, some of which can be seen crying, chants his name and then he provides a brief history of playing in their hometown.
They return for three from their debut album, Up to Here, starting with the bluesy “New Orleans Is Sinking”. There’s another break and Downie talks about the Prime Minister and the need to take care of the people up north that have been ignored for so long. Of course, they have to come back to visit their best-selling album, Day for Night. After a powerful, passionate performance of “Grace, Too”, the band hugs Downie and leaves again.
Downie says they never do third encores, though it’s hard to believe they would have stop without stopped playing these last few. They revisit Fully Completely with “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” and close out the evening with two from Trouble at the Henhouse, including ending the night with their biggest single. “Ahead by a Century”. As the band plays the rockin’ outro, Downie waves goodbye to the crowd.
Throughout the concert, the band’s appeal to the crowd and the country is clear. Downie is a compelling storyteller and frequently makes reference to people, places, and ideals of Canada in his lyrics. The musicians show off their talents without resorting to excessive soloing. Most songs are straight up rock and roll, but their playing can effortlessly segue from the gentle, country-tinged ‘Fiddler’s Green” to the rollicking “Little Bones”.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio: 1.78:1. Under the bright stage lights, the band and their equipment look well-defined, only occasionally slipping out of focus due to the combination of individuals and cameras moving. Colors come through in bright hues, especially Downie’s outfits. Blacks are inky. Rare moments of banding seen in the lights beaming down from the back of the stage,
The audio has been given a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and the elements are balanced well in the mix. Downie is not overwhelmed by the instruments, which all can be heard with good separation. The background vocals by Langlois and/or Sinclair also come through clearly. The subwoofer offers decent support of the bottom end. The music and also the crowd can be heard in the surrounds.
A National Celebration is a wonderful concert by and celebration of the Tragically Hip. The Blu-ray showcases the event, which thankfully is allowed to play before the viewer without the heavy hand of a director or editor causing distraction. Ironically, the 30 songs played here make a brilliant introduction to the band as they said goodbye to their fans. Highly recommended no matter one’s level of awareness about the band.