TORONTO – Jim Cuddy shared the stage with fellow Canadian music star Gord Downie several times over their long careers, but it was a performance last February that was perhaps the most poignant.
Cuddy and his band Blue Rodeo were performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall with opening act the Sadies when they invited Downie onstage at the last minute to perform the hit “Lost Together” as an encore.
It had been nearly a year since Downie announced his diagnosis with an incurable form of brain cancer, but the singer-songwriter had shown herculean strength with a series of musical projects, a cross-country tour, and passionate advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Peoples. He was suffering from memory loss and didn’t know the lyrics to “Lost Together” but he seemed undaunted and full of life onstage.
Cuddy never thought it would end up being Downie’s last public performance. He died Tuesday night at age 53.
“I knew that he had a terminal illness but I guess I just thought Gord would be the one to at least stretch the limit,” an emotional Cuddy said during a phone interview.
“I just didn’t realize the end was so near.”
The encore performance, which is posted on YouTube, came on a night when there were three “iconic Gords” in the audience, said Cuddy. The others were actor Gordon Pinsent and musician Gordon Lightfoot.
Travis Good of the Sadies invited Downie onstage and he obliged, wearing the outfit that became one of his signature looks in the final chapter of his life — a Canadian tuxedo of sorts with a tuque, jean jacket, hoodie and jeans.
Holding a piece of paper with the lyrics to “Lost Together,” Downie sang along with the musicians for a bit before crumpling up the cheat sheet and taking in the audience.
“He was standing beside me for a while and he was talking to me and he was just saying the most complimentary and loving things,” said Cuddy.
“It was so sweet and I just said, ‘No, I’ll guide you, don’t worry. I know you don’t know the song.'”
As it turned out, Cuddy forgot to guide him. But Downie charged on, improvising and even doing a little air guitar.
“Gord was present and he knew what was going on,” said Cuddy. “He didn’t really know the song and he participated in this way that only an incredibly innate and gifted performer could.
“He just suddenly walked to the mic during the piano solo and started to do this beautiful incantation and we were all stunned by how powerful it was.
“It was very valiant to be up there.”
After the show they had a “general celebration,” said Cuddy, noting fans were thrilled to see Downie there.
“I think we were quite aware that it was a historic night,” said Cuddy. “Not that it was the end of anything but that it was a gathering of very close friends that had made their way in music and it was very beautiful.”
Cuddy considered Downie a friend and felt they shared a special connection in the music scene. Both Blue Rodeo and the Hip had parallel success, becoming stars in Canada but not south of the border.
“I have always used Gord as an example of why Canadian music is unique,” said Toronto-based Cuddy.
“People always ask bands like the Hip, ourselves, ‘Why are you popular in Canada and not popular in the States?’ And I realized, because we’re different.”
Downie was “incredibly important” to the Canadian music scene, Cuddy said, noting “he was an extremely good singer” who gave a unique expression to songs including “Ahead by a Century” and “Courage.”
He was also “super funny,” he said, pointing to a showcase the two bands did along with the Eagles in Newfoundland.
The Eagles were slated to perform last, after the Hip, and their manager Irving Azoff “was at the side of the stage gesturing to Gord to shorten his set.”
“I was at the side of the stage just totally offended, like, ‘What are you doing?'” said Cuddy. “And Gord was laughing and laughing, spinning around, doing his show. It was just an amazing show.
“Afterwards I said to him, ‘Didn’t that piss you off?’ He said, ‘I never thought in my life I’d have Irving Azoff telling me to shorten my set. It was awesome.’
“I thought, ‘That’s so Gord, to see the humour in a messed up situation.'”