6 hours at a Fredericton bar, serving drinks for Canada's band
Bartenders like to picture themselves pouring drinks for icons who wander in.
In 2007, after months of campaigning, Fredericton rock radio station 105.3 the Fox caught the attention of the band after the city was left off the World Container tour.
It had been close to two decades since the Tragically Hip had played in Fredericton, but they took note of the outcry from local fans and added the capital city to the tour.
After a clamour from fans after Fredericton was left off a Tragically Hip tour, the band performed at the Aitken Centre on Sept. 11, 2007. (Shane Fowler/CBC)
On Sept. 10 that year, I worked my regular bar shift at the James Joyce Irish Pub, inside the Crown Plaza Lord Beaverbrook hotel in downtown Fredericton.
I was 23. It was a Monday. And it was dead. Until a server rushed in wide-eyed.
Sure enough, as we peered out the frosted windows of the pub doors, we could see the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, sitting in a red hotel lobby chair, wearing a brown jacket, looking comfortable.
Before getting to the rest of the story, something about my admiration for the band: Like many Canadians, my close-knit group of friends could sing Tragically Hip anthems word for word.
We'd been to their concerts, bought their CDs, later copied the music onto our MP3 players. If we looked over our fathers' dusty collections, Tragically Hip cassettes were the only ones we'd pay attention to. Their music became our classic rock.
They were the only band that could unify musical tastes at a party. Belting out songs, with eyes closed and drink in hand, it was comforting to feel your friends beside you doing the same. At a campfire, a lake, a kitchen party or in the backyard.
But then the James Joyce staff got back to work, serving the handful of customers in the bar. It was going to be a crappy night for tips.
An hour or two later, a short man with a Newfoundland accent came through the doors wearing a jean jacket over a black hoodie. He asked if it was "always this dead."
We told him it was a Monday in Fredericton, and it was always this dead. He shrugged and said he might be back later with friends.
An hour later, the Tragically Hip walked in, except for the lead singer.
They ordered drinks — from me, a shaggy-haired, wide-eyed bartender doing his best to keep his cool.
The band was joined by their roadies. The tables filled as more of the tour group filled the pub. They got comfortable. More drinks were ordered.
And nobody from the outside world took notice. It was just the tour group and bar staff.
Smartphones weren't everywhere yet and social media wasn't engrained in our consciousness as the immediate go-to. I did text another bartender friend from my clamshell phone, but he never got it in time. He still kicks himself.
Although I felt almost dazed having a legend in my bar, Gord was just a man among friends. Laughing and smiling, he joined his people, while I sat slack-jawed and star-struck, willing him to order a drink.
My beat-up CD of "Live Between Us," which I often played during work hours, sat under the bar, waiting for the right moment to be signed.
Gord eventually ordered. Cranberry and 7-Up. He was the only one in that group of about 25 who wasn't drinking alcohol. The Newfoundlander in the jean jacket drank a lot of Alpine. Rob Baker drank rum and cokes.
But Gord Downie ordered several glasses of cranberry juice and 7-Up. He took them outside during "smoke breaks" on the back steps.
For six hours, we served the Tragically Hip. The band and the crew swapped war stories of tours past. They told of getting stranded in cities during storms. Inside jokes abounded. The roadies repeatedly told us how good they had it. Everyone just hung out.
It felt more like a holiday gathering of friends and family than a night at the bar. They weren't overwhelmed by fans as they drank, and they never asked us to close our doors. But they were in Fredericton on a Monday night, and the bar was theirs.
Things never got rowdy, although they laughed loud. A few fans did filter in toward the end of the night. Gord took photos with all of them, along with the servers and the sheepish bartender.
He offered us tickets to the show, but of course I already had mine. The wait staff got zip-up hoodies with the World Container logo. My CD was signed.
The night wound down as the group slowly went back to their hotel rooms. One person settled the whole tab. He tipped very well.
The next night the Tragically Hip played what became their last live show in Fredericton.
But my strongest memory is of the night before, when we spent six hours with just a man and his family.