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Singer Gord Downie Of The Tragically Hip Dies At 53



The Tragically Hip has been called Canada's house band, the Canadian Bruce Springsteen, the most Canadian band ever. Over three decades, frontman Gord Downie and his band rose from high school buddies playing bars in Kingston, Ontario, to a national treasure, singing about Canada's landscape and history.


GORD DOWNIE: (Singing) Sundown in the Paris of the prairie, wheat kings have all their treasures buried. And all you hear are the rusty breezes pushing around weathervane Jesus.

SHAPIRO: In May of last year, Gord Downie revealed that he'd been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The Tragically Hip announced one last tour. Venues across Canada sold out. Their final concert in August of 2016 back in Kingston was televised nationally by the CBC and seen by almost 12 million Canadians.


SHAPIRO: Gord Downie died last night at the age of 53. Joining us now is Talia Schlanger, who hosts the music program World Cafe produced by WXPN. And she was in the crowd about final show. Hi, Talia.

TALIA SCHLANGER, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe this loss?

SCHLANGER: It's colossal (laughter). It really is. I mean, we all - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today, we all knew that it was coming, and we all hoped that it wouldn't. I think that the entire nation mourned when the news came out last May, and the feelings around that final concert - I mean, I was in the crowd, and I'll never forget it as long as I live.

Everyone would cope with news like that in a different way, but what Gord did was use it to dig deeper into the things that he believed in and the things that made him an important artist - working for First Nations and indigenous rights and reconciliation, working for causes to do with water safety in Canada and in Ontario and to really be this beacon of love. And to see him take all of that strength and conviction and courage and put it into those final performances - I mean, I'll never forget it.

SHAPIRO: Take us to that venue in what everybody knew would be the band's last performance, this beloved singer onstage for two and a half hours. What was it like?

SCHLANGER: The vibe in that arena that night - I mean, the remarkable thing about Gord was that he could unite the deepest poets and the deepest thinkers along with rabid hockey fans who would scream in a crowd and college kids. And so the mix of people who were there - I was sitting directly across from Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who was wearing a Tragically Hip T-Shirt. And about 10 minutes before the concert started, 10 minutes before Gord walked out onstage, the entire crowd erupted in "O Canada," the national anthem, and passed around this Canadian flag that made its way around the entire crowd and paused under the prime minister.

And then that show - I mean, nearly three hours - Gord as a performer, he was so magnetic and so mystifying, and he was in his best form that night. And the thing that really sticks with me and even makes me tear up now is at the end of the show, he was up there with his bandmates, his brothers, his family, and on national television, in front of a third of Canada who ended up watching it, he kissed each of them on the lips. He's a straight man with a lot of hockey fans.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SCHLANGER: And that was his way to express the love and gratitude that he had in his heart for what he'd been through with these people. And he just was the absolute epitome of courage.

SHAPIRO: Talia Schlanger hosts the music program World Cafe produced by WXPN. She's remembering Gord Downie, who died last night at the age of 53. Thanks so much, Talia.

SCHLANGER: Hey, thank you, Ari. I really appreciate it.


DOWNIE: (Singing) Watch the band through a bunch of dancers. Quickly, follow the unknown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.