Rockin’ the Big House pays tribute to The Hip

A night of music at Kingston’s Penitentiary brings mixed reviews

Bill Bell and Tom Cochrane playing at Rockin’ the Big House. 

A historic Kingston jail was host to thousands of The Tragically Hip fans this weekend for the Rockin’ the Big House charity concert.

On Saturday, Sept. 14, 2,500 patrons filled the Kingston Penitentiary for the first-ever public concert held on the grounds of the old prison. 

The event was organized to raise money for the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.

Six years after closing its doors as the city’s largest prison, the courtyards were again filled with people—this time for a very different reason.

Queen’s Political Studies PhD candidate Linda Mussell was one of the first to question the morality of seeking entertainment in a setting filled with such dark history.

Though her statements have triggered conversation around the concert’s acceptability, most concertgoers seemed unbothered by the venue’s past. Some even wore orange or striped jumpsuits with inmate numbers printed on their backs.

But once the concert began, the music was all that mattered.  

Former Tragically Hip guitarist and Kingston local Paul Langlois was the emcee for the night, and joined the bands on stage several times throughout their performances. 

Alt-rock band Kasador was the first to take the stage at 6 p.m. Though the crowds were just beginning to assemble, they cheered throughout the set. As the youngest performers of the night, the group brought a youthful energy to the stage, setting a high bar for the following performers.

The Trews performing at Rockin’ the Big House. Photo by Emilia Von Dem Hagen


Fans were spread across the huge compound. Some sat on lawns and picnic benches, while others cheered the bands on from the front row. Each person had in hand a reusable mug provided by the venue as part of the concert’s effort to minimize waste.

Toronto rock group Pursuit of Happiness took the stage as the sun began to set.

This marked their first show in Kingston in more than 20 years, lead singer Moe Berg told the crowd. The audience’s roaring welcome proved the five-piece band had many fans in attendance.

The previously relaxed atmosphere across the prison’s lawn morphed into an energetic mosh pit by the time the Trews hit the stage at 8:00 p.m.

With the venue now packed, the Trews’ engaging performance had fans screaming their lyrics and raising their mugs to the stage throughout the set.

The band slowed things down only once to sing their 2016 hit “Highway of Heroes” as thousands of flashlights lit up the yard.

Special guest Tom Cochrane followed, and was immediately met by the loud, eager audience’s cheers. Along with guitarist Bill Bell and cellist Kevin Fox, Cochrane played his well-known hit “Life is a Highway.”

Borris Baker playing at Rockin' the Big House.

Boris Baker performing at Rockin’ the Big House. Photo by Emilia Von Dem Hagen


Most of the other bands joined him on stage for the final few songs, and the audience went wild for the group collaboration. 

Hugh Dillon and The Headstones closed out the night. The raucousness of the night culminated during their set, with hundreds of hands in the air and crowd members on one another’s shoulders.

Former Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker, along with Paul Langlois and former Hip bassist Gord Sinclair, brought their guitars out again for a final few jams before concluding the evening. 

Each of the night’s performers was somehow connected to The Tragically Hip. Kasador band member Boris Baker is Rob Baker’s son, and Hugh Dillon attended Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI) with all of the Hip members. It was only natural that the night brought several tributes to the Hip lead singer Gord Downie nearly two years after his death.

A visibly emotional Langlois sang the first solo tribute, saying, “I couldn’t let this go by without a Gord Downie moment. He would’ve been here, he would’ve been all over this.”

The night ended with most of the bands coming together onstage to perform Hip hits “Wheat Kings” and “Ahead By A Century” as the crowd sang along.

The night didn’t end without acknowledging the controversy surrounding the concert’s setting. Langlois alluded to it while speaking to the crowd. He thanked Corrections Canada for allowing the event to take place after a lengthy approval process.

“It’s a tricky thing, but let’s keep this positive. We’re doing this for our community,” the musician said. 

Now that precedent’s been set at the venue, it remains unclear if the Kingston Penitentiary will host more concerts in the future. However, one thing is certain: Rockin’ the Big House was a great success.


Concert, Kingston Penitentiary

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