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This summer, a storied Toronto music venue shuts down for two years of renovations. Brad Wheeler takes a look back at the big shows that built its reputation

Massey Hall, shown the year it opened in 1894, was conceived and financed by philanthropist Hart Massey. The Massey family, which included Hart’s grandson and governor-general Vincent Massey, was renowned for its patronage of the arts.B.W. Kilbourn/Massey Hall archives

In 2014, Neil Young was on stage at Massey Hall. “Don’t let them change this place,” the troubadour said. But the landmark venue has changed many times over its 124 years. Even the building’s original name, “Massey Music Hall,” has changed.

After a concert on July 1 by Gordon Lightfoot (the Sundown singer who is semi-synonymous with the venue), Massey Hall will undergo the final stages of its massive revitalization project. The building, gifted to the citizens of Toronto by 19th-century industrialist Hart Massey, will be closed for two years.

To mark the occasion, we’ve curated a list of the landmark hall’s most culturally important concerts over the years, with a special focus on Canadian artists (and to the exclusion of such distinguished Massey visitors as Enrico Caruso, George Gershwin, Aretha Franklin, Igor Stravinsky, Patsy Cline, Luciano Pavarotti, James Brown, Maria Callas, B.B. King and countless others). The concert reviews are transcribed from the original stories as they appeared in The Globe.

The interior of Massey Hall in 1894. The venue’s debut concert was a performance of Handel’s Messiah.Massey Hall Archives

June 14, 1894

The first concert: ‘A hall for the people’

The long-expected Massey Music Hall festival, the greatest musical event in the history of Toronto, was inaugurated last evening with a grand production of The Messiah. The magnificent structure which Mr. Massey has placed at the disposal of the citizens was crowded to its utmost capacity with an audience brilliant, fashionable and cultured, who were enraptured not only with the music, but also with the hall, affording, as it did, the promise of future concerts of a grade which the lack of such a hall has hitherto practically prevented the people of Toronto from enjoying.

Much has been written of the beauty of the hall, its capacity and acoustic properties, but the highest expectations which had been formed from these descriptions were exceeded last night when the hall was seen in all its magnificence of colour and light, filled with an audience of over 4,000 well-dressed people, and when the glorious music of The Messiah was heard with perfect acoustic surroundings.

After the first part of the oratorio, Mr. Geo. Musson called the audience to order, and announced the interesting ceremony of the formal delivery of the key and trust deed of the building to the trustees. OWing to the illness of Mr. Massey, who, though present, was unable to take part in the formal proceedings, he called upon Mr. G.H. Watson, Q.C., solicitor for Mr. Massey, to make the presentation. After expressing regret that Mr. Massey, who was present contrary to the wishes of his physician, was unable to himself perform the duty, Mr. Watson read the following address of presentation, which Mr. Massey had prepared:

“I rejoice greatly tonight in seeing the first audience assembled in this hall, since it marks the completion of a long-cherished undertaking. For some six or seven years the need for such a building as this in our city has been apparent to me – an auditorium, spacious, substantial and comfortable, where public meetings, conventions, musical and other entertainments, lectures, etc., could be given, admitting of the largest number of people attending and enjoying them at a minimum cost of admission. An audience of this character, it has seemed to me, would be a great boon to our city; it would permit of drawing to this centre large conventions with the attendant benefits, which otherwise could not be accommodated, and, more particularly, it would advance educational, musical and religious interests amongst us.

“The erection of a suitable building would involve too large an outlay to warrant the undertaking as a business speculation, for it would not pay any interest on the investment. If therefore we were to have such a hall, it would have to be built by the municpality or by private generosity. As the former would be an improbable and unwise course, the latter expediency only was open. I called to my counsel a number of our leading citizens, who fully confirmed my own opinion in the matter. The idea appealed to me forcibly as a most worthy one in itself, and at the same time gave me an opportunity to memorialize the name of my beloved son, the late Charles Albert Massey, for some years a resident of this city, one who was exceedingly fond of music and filled the position of a church organist at the early age of 13.

Philanthropist Hart Massey, who died two years after the Massey Music Hall opened, dedicated the hall to the memory of his late son, Charles Albert Massey.

“My counsellors and advisers also approved of this site as being the very best location, it having been settled upon and obtained after two or three years’ careful consideration. To carry out the project I called to my assistance an eminent architect of wide experience in building public halls, Mr. S. R. Badgley of Cleveland, Ohio, and also Mr. George M. Miller, a well-known architect of this city, who has thoughtfully, carefully and critically supervised its erection. The first consideration in a building of this character is its strength and solidity, and to this end no pains have been spared; the design for the iron and steel work, of which the frame work is largely composed, being prepared and approved by scientific experts. Extra large foundations were put in – considerably larger than were deemed to be necessary, so that much of the cost of this building is buried deep underground, where it ensures great solidity.

“Other features carefully considered were the spacious entrances and broad stairways enclosed in brick walls, admitting of promptly emptying the hall and preventing the exits from beng cut off in case of fire. Great care has also been exercised in arranging the system of ventilation and heating, as well as the lighting and seating arrangements. These have already been commented upon in the public press.

“The building is modest in appearance, not too costly nor too elegant, it being in every sense a hall for the people, and I only hope it may fulfil my expectations concerning it, and be a great source of usefulness and enjoyment to our citizens. Further, I hope that in the matter of conventions our fellow-countrymen throughout the province may derive benefits therefrom, both directly and indirectly. If the building is disappointing to you in any way it cannot be for lack of time and thought on my part, for I have given it the closest possible attention in all its details.

“The contractors have performed their respective work faithfully and well, and it gives me pleasure to record their names: masonry and brick, Thomas J. Self; carpentry and joining, J. Hanrahan, and Withrow & Hillock; iron and steel, Dominion Bridge Co.; slate roofing, Rennie & Son; galvanized iron, Douglas Bros.; heating, ventilating, plumbing and lighting, Bennett & Wright; electric wiring, Toronto Incandescent Light Co.; plastering, W.J. Hynes; painting and glazing, Faircloth Bros.; decorating, Cooks Bros., Cleveland, Ohio; seating, Canadian Office & School Furniture Co. of Preston, Ont.

“I have to thank them for their hearty co-operation in the work, and for the successful effort they have made in bringing the works to so early a completion. It is also a source of gratification to me to note that, notwithstanding the magnitude of this undertaking, no serious accident has taken place during the course of construction.

An architectural diagram of the hall as seen from Shuter Street. The building was designed by the Canadian-born, Ohio-based architect Sidney Badgley.Massey Hall Archives

“After thoughtful consideration, since the City Council have not secured legislation enabling them to exempt the property from taxation, I have concluded to waive my original stipulations and to place the enterprise in the hands of three trustees, whose duty it shall be to manage it in the best interests of our children as specifically defined in the deed, which is open to the public, trusting that our people will sustain the efforts of the trustees in making the building a permanent success.

“In the selection of the Trust Board for the supervision and management of this hall, I have chosen three gentlemen who, I think, will give the work their earnest attention and heartiest support. The chairman, Mr. J.J. Withrow, has for many years enjoyed the confidence of the public, and has, as a citizen, shown great interest in the welfare of his fellows. The people of Toronto may be congratulated that he has consented to give his services to this enterprise and to co-operate with the other two members of the Trust Board.

“Again I express the hope that the trustees will have the fullest confidence of the public, and that the people of Toronto and surrounding country will give them their hearty co-operation in using the property to cultivate and promote an interest in music, education, temperance, philanthropy and religion, and in every way to make the most out of this building for the good of the people in whose midst it stands.”

At the conclusion of the address Mr. Massey, who appeared to be very feeble, presented the key and deed to Mayor Kennedy, representing Mr. J.J. Withrow, president of the Board of Trustees, who was absent in New York. The entire audience remained standing during the presentation. His Worship then read the address of thanks from the city, previously published, and added a few kindly words of regret at Mr. Massey’s illness. Mr. C.D. Massey, a son of the generous donor of the building, briefly replied to the address. As Mr. Massey was assisted to the platform the audience applauded loudly, and the male members of the chorus gave three hearty cheers, the ladies waving their hankerchiefs.

That the executive committee chose wisely in selecting Handel’s sublime oratorio, The Messiah, for the opening of the Massey Music Hall was amply attested by the magnificent audience that greeted the perfromance and by the rapt attention and generous applause with which the sublime work was received. The wealth, beauty and fashion of Toronto were well represented, many visitors from surrounding towns were noticed, and his Excellency the Governor-General, his Honour the Lieutenant-Governor and Mr.s Kirkpatrick and his Worship the Mayor and Miss Kennedy graced the occasion with their presence, occupying a handsomely draped box in the first gallery opposite the stage.

The concert was in every respect an unqualified success, and it is safe to say that the immortal epic, which for more than 150 years has maintained its hold upon the affections of the people of the civilized world, was never before so effectively rendered in this city. The chorus, numbering upwards of 500 carefully selected voices, sang with great precision and spirit, displaying a splendid volume, and superb quality of tone. The choruses, Behold the Lamb of God and The Sound Hath Gone Out, are worthy of special mention, and the Hallelujah was given with telling effect, the vast audience rising to its feet and remaining standing while it was being sung.

The orchestra, which numbered 75 instruments, was decidedly in advance of any previous local organization. The tone was excellent, the balance of parts all that could be desired, and careful attention was paid to light and shade and expression generally. The last-named characteristic was specially noticeable in the accompaniments to the solo numbers, which were most satisfactorily played. The soloist of the occasion were Miss Emma Juch, soprano; Mrs. Carl Alves, contralto; Mr. W.H. Reiger, tenor; and Dr. Carl E. Dufft, baritone.

Miss Juch is well known and a great favourite here, where she has frequently appeared in opera and concert, although never before in oratorio. She is essentially an earnest, honest, soulful, conscientious singer, and her voice is admirably adapted for sacred music. The well-known solos, Come Unto Me, Rejoice Greatly and I Know That My Redeemer Liveth were charmingly rendered by this gifted artiste.

Mrs. Alves has a genuine and highly cultivated contralto voice of sympathetic quality, and her rendering of the different solo numbers allotted to her, notably He Shall Feed His Flock and He Was Despised, was received with every manifestation of approval.

Mr. W.H. Rieger has a tenor voice of delightful quality, and he sings with consummate taste. His different solos were rendered in a most finished and artistic manner. Dr. Dufft’s voice is a robust baritone, or, perhaps, more properly speaking, basso cantante, and, in spite of a suspicion of throatiness, he sang most effectively throughout. His best effort was Why Do the Nations? in which his perfect vocalization was a feature.

Mrs. Blight played the organ part, and the trumpet obligato was rendered by Mr. Herbert L. Clarke. Mr. Torrington may be congratulated on the conspicuous success which has marked the opening concert of the festival.

This afternoon a delightful miscellaneous concert will be given, all the solo artists except Miss Blauvelt, and including Miss Juch and Arthur Friedhelm, taking part, and tonight Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise and Fisher’s cantata Wreck of the Hesperus will be given with full chorus and orchestra and some soloists, with the substitute of Miss Lillian Blauvelt for Miss Juch.

The plan will be at the hall from 10 to 5 o’clock, and good seats are to be had for all the remaining concerts.

April 23, 1923

New Symphony Orchestra: ‘The concert excited the genuine enthusiasm of those present’

[Note: The 58-member New Symphony Orchestra was renamed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1927. The TSO moved from Massey Hall to Roy Thomson Hall in 1982.]

Review by E.R. Parkhurst

The inaugural concert of the new Symphony Orchestra which was given yesterday afternoon in Massey Hall met with a most enthusiastic reception from a select assemblage of lovers of orchestral music.

During an intermission Mr. Flank Welsman, the conductor of the late Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in a brief address to the audience, said that Toronto could not well take the position in music to which it should be entitled until it possessed a permanent symphony orchestra capable of playing the best types of orchestral music.

With great self-sacrifice the members of the New Symphony Orchestra, with Mr. Von Kunits as conductor, had agreed to give up the necessary time in rehearsals for concerts free of charge, but if the organization was to be permanent the players would in the near future have to be renumerated for their services.

The visits of the famous foreign orchestras would, of course, always be desirable, but outside organizations could not accomplish the educational development which could be reached through the agency of an orchestra of our own.

Mr. Wiesman’s remarks were received with hearty applause.

The program given consisted of works that are to a certain extent familiar here, and each number ranks high in its special class of composition. The opening selection was Weber’s romantically weird overture Der Freischutz, which is always welcome on account of the engaging melody of its leading themes and its most vivid contrasts so suggestive of the supernatural. The performance was surprisingly effective, the various parts being played with excellent technical finish and a good quality of tone.

A Slavonic dance by Dvorak, and two Hungarian dances by Brahms, were rendered with the characteristic abandon of their national type, and the concert was brought to a close with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which the second movement was the principal feature on account of its smooth flow of melody and the refined nuances of tone which the players produced.

Mr. Von Kunits conducted with the authority of one familiar with the music, and his interpretations were always expressive without at any time being forced or exaggerated.

The concert excited the genuine enthusiasm of those present, and the promoters were well pleased with the reception of their enterprise.

It was announced that the second concert will be given on May 8 at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and it is expected that the attendance on that occasion will show a marked increase.

Conductor Walter Susskind and Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform at Massey Hall in 1958.Massey Hall Archives

March 7, 1946

Oscar Peterson: ‘Technique, imagination and terrific drive’

March 6, 1946: Oscar Peterson, 20, sits at the piano surrounded by young admirers at the Home Service Community Centre on Bathurst Street the day of his concert at Massey Hall.The Globe and Mail

Oscar Peterson’s first appearance in Massey Hall last night had the large audience shouting for encores as he left, and revealed a swing pianist of wide abilities and a young man with a promising career.

Most of the audience had heard Peterson before only in the short snatches of a 10-inch recording, or in brief radio bits. His ability even under these cramped conditions brought them out in droves. With all the elbow room he needed in the two-hour concert, the 20-year-old Montreal musician cut loose.

Peterson has technique, imagination and terrific drive, combined with that relaxed self-possession which allows a musician to give his best at all times. His fault might be the occasional use of a boogie beat when not needed, and overuse of the same riff on one or two occasions.

His program was well paced, with varied tempos, consisting mainly of standard tunes of bygones years which have weathered the test of time, and all played with an easy informality. When his version of Ellington’s C Jam Blues drew perhaps the heaviest applause of the evening, Peterson laughingly sat down and played it again with different improvisations.

Some of his finest keyboard work was heard on numerous choruses of Gershwin’s The Man I Love. At slow tempo, Peterson was finally drawing a misty haze of singing tones in beautiful variations from the piano, with his grounding in classical music assisting him in developing complex harmonies and ringing arpeggios. The same was achieved with such tunes as Time on My Hands, Autumn Serenade, Sophisticated Lady and If I Could Be With You.

On pieces like Flying Home and Oscar’s Boogie and the C Jam Blues, his left hand roared over the keyboard like a fast express zooming down-grade, while his right hand clanged syncopations over it with gusto. Throughout the evening he was ably assisted from time to time by Joe Niosi on bass fiddle, and Russ Dufort on drums.

May 8, 1946

Glenn Gould: ‘A little choppy ... but with obvious possibilities’

Review by Allan Sangster

A small but select group of students appeared as soloists with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, under Ettore Mazzoleni, in the second of the Toronto Conservatory’s closing concerts at Massey Hall.

They included Audrey Farnell, from George Lambert’s studio; Charles Dobias, violin pupil of Kathleen Purlow; Elizabeth Guy and Ronald Stewart, representing Ernesto Vinci’s students; and Glenn Gould, 13-year-old piano student of Alberto Guerrero.

The concert, announced for 8:10, got away at 8:14. This might be an example for all impresarios, since if Mr. Mazzoleni can get a hundred or so students assembled and ready to play on time, anyone else, dealing with adults, should find it possible to do as well.

Miss Farnell, who within the last week has attracted some attention by winning a $500 nation-wide shcolarship, led off with Debussy’s Air de Lia from l’Enfant Prodigue. This, hampered by a little too much orchestra and an obvious cold, she sang very well but without quite as much fervour and vocal warmth as she has shown.

Mr. Dobias did the Allegro movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto with pleasant tone, some intonational lapses, a good deal of verve, and excellent feeling for the music’s romantic aspects.

The evening’s highlight, to my mind, was the presentation of the closing scene from Aida, in which Miss Guy and Mr. Stewart appeared, together with an unnamed contralto and a small chorus. The soloists displayed excellent voices and admirable feeling for their music; in especial, Elizabeth Guy in her solo just after the first entrance of the chorus. There was, perhaps, some unbalance as among soloists, chorus and orchestra, but this is a difficulty which even professional opera companies do not always master.

Glenn Gould’s offering was the opening movement of the Beethoven G Major Piano Concerto. Not too much dynamic range here, phrasing a little choppy and sometimes puzzling to one familiar with Schnabel, but with obvious possibilities.

Glenn Gould at the piano with his dog and budgie in Toronto, 1945.Gordon W.Powley

The entire second half was given over to the Brahms Fourth Symphony. Here, as in its earlier accompanying jobs, these young musicians turned in some surprisingly fine playing. There was, of course, some harshness of tone; there were, as old Corno di Basseto said, “occasions to say that they were out of tune but certainly couldn’t say that they were in,” but despite that the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra is to be reckoned with. It is, you might say, easily comparable with the Toronto Philharmonic on one of its off nights.

On the whole, it seems that the Toronto Conservatory of Music is training musicians.

May 15, 1953

Jazz at Massey Hall: ‘Gillespie and Parker rarely approached the exciting heights their works of some years ago achieved’

Review by Alex Barris

The New Jazz Society’s concert at Massey Hall last Friday was a two-and-a-half-hour clambake offering about equal parts of Graham Topping’s 17-man home team and the visiting quintet led by Dizzy Gillespie. By 11:30, when the boys called it quits, the score read: A few scattered hits, some interesting runs by visiting pianist Bud Powell, and a number of errors by both sides.

Easily the best works of the evening were provided by Powell, drummer Max Roach and bassist Charles Mingus, who without benefit of Gillespie or Charlie Parker were allowed a five-number set after the intermission. With those two deposed bop kings off the stage, there was more opportunity to hear Bud’s brilliant, coherent playing as well as the flawless drumming of roach and the precise bass playing of Mingus.

Gillespie and Parker rarely approached the exciting heights their works of some years ago achieved, and, in fact, even when playing some of their old standby tunes, seemed unable to reproduce the sounds they had once been capable of. Not all the encouraging cries of the less inhibited in the audience could spur them on to greater results, and when Dizzy could at last retreat behind his comedian’s mask, Parker had to be content with occasionally releasing a torrent of unrelated notes in an attempt to dazzle the crowd.

The home team’s contribution to the program was, in some ways, more substantial. Topping assembled some of Toronto’s best jazz musicians for the date and a number of them supplied arrangements that gave ample opportunity for the band to display its abilities, both collectively and individually.

Among the soloists were Ralph Frazer, piano; Gord Evans and Bernie Pilch, alto saxes; Hart Wheeler and Julian Filanowski, tenor saxes; Ross Cully, trombone; and Topping, Ton Johnson and Julius Piekarz, trumpets.

The band members, all with more or less modern overtones, were reasonably well executed, considering that this band does not play together regularly (although many of the musicians worked together from time to time on radio and TV shows) and at least some of the arrangements are new. The trumpet, trombone and reed sections sounded pretty clean but the balance between sections wasn’t always just right. One other disturbing factor was the tendency of drummer Doug Bennett to pick up speed.

Among the numbers we liked best were Just Where You Are, arranged by Russ Myers; Roy Smith’s arrangement of The Nearness of You, featuring Ross Cully; Harvard Blues, a Jerry Toth arrangement; Elevation, which was fine until Hart Wheeler gave into the temptation to honk a couple of choruses.

All in all, it was neither a great concert nor a bad one. The audience, about half the hall’s capacity, was probably just big enough so taht the New Jazz Society managed to keep its head above water, and future concerts would seem possible. That better ones are possible is hardly debatable.

Nov. 14, 1965

Bob Dylan: ‘Now he’s got a rock beat, and they don’t know what to do’

[Note: The thumping backing band identified as “Levon and his Hawks” in this review would go on to become The Band, comprised of American drummer Levon Helm and Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. The Band gave its own concert at Massey Hall on Nov. 17, 1970. A concert review appeared under the headline: “Home again, The Band does it right.” – B.W.]

Review by Bruce Lawson

“I’m goin’ back to Noo York City, I do believe I’ve had enough,” wailed Bob Dylan at Massey Hall last night.

“Booo!” shouted someone in the packed audience. “Sssss!” went somebody else. “Elvis!” spat out a third. There was some weak applause in Dylan’s support. Most of the audience appeared to be sitting on their hands, as they did for most of the night.

It was an expression of the mixed feelings folk fans have about the young man who has been their idol. Now he’s got a rock beat, and they don’t know what to do.

Bob Dylan playing bass at a recording session in 1965, the year of his much-maligned electric phase.Sony Music Entertainment Inc.

A few people walked out of the concert soon after the start of the second (rock) part of the performance.

“He was the greatest writer,” said one, emphasizing the past tense. “He’s just a cheap imitation of the Beatles,” bewailed another.

“He’s changed from when he was here last time,” one young man said. “It’s like he wanted to be somewhere else. I’m going home and play his first records,” said another, walking out into the night.

“I’d do anything in this world, if you’d just let me follow you down,” Dylan’s voice drifted out from inside, as Levon and his Hawks thumped out their backing.

Dylan and his troupe flew into Toronto – in their own plane, so I was told – late yesterday afternoon. Would he be available for an interview before the show? “No,” replied a young man called Dan Weiner, who said he “handles all the finance for him.”

An interview after the show? “No.” Tomorrow some time before his second performance on Monday night? “I don’t think so. He doesn’t usually talk to the press.”

So, sitting in the audience, I conducted my own interview. Just Bob, me and the audience. For the first half, Dylan was on his own, under a hard spotlight: Grey suit, pink shirt, guitar, harmonica harnessed close to his mouth. There were touches of vintage Dylan. The only spontaneous applause during a song came as he started Mr. Tambourine Man.

What about the early songs of protest and desolation; are they no more? I asked silently. Back came the answer across the audience: “A vagabond comes rappin’ on your door. He’s wearing the clothes you once wore,” wails Dylan.

What has happened to him? The frail figure flings back through lips that never smiled all night: ”... killed him with confidence, after poisoning him with words.”

Can that be true, Mr. Dylan? “When you asked me how I was doin’, was that some kind of joke? ... There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all,” he sings mournfully. The audience is silent. Rapt? Bored? Who can tell, but nobody stirs.

He sings of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; he rhymes silence with violence; mixes Ophelia and Noah in one verse, Cinderella and Romeo in another. The harmonica squeals too close to the microphone. “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, sing a song to me ... I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m goin’ to ...”

The first half of the jingle-jangle evening ends, and we know we have seen and heard part of what we use to know as the real Dylan.

The long-distance interview continues with the reticent Mr. Dylan as he comes front and centre with the Hawks for the second half. Why is he shy with the press? “Go ’way from my window,” the answer booms back. “I’m not the one you want, baby, I’m not the one you need.”

Can you amplify on that? I ask silently. “There oughta be a law ‘gainst you comin’ round ... Something is happ’nin’ here, and you don’t know what it is – do you Mr. Jones?” comes the multi-decible reply, reinforced by the Hawk beat and almost every electronic gadget ever invented to boost noise to the unbearable level. Then he sings about a one-eyed dwarf.

One last question, for the interest of the fans. Who are you like as a person? “Baby if you want me to, I can be just like you. And pretend that we never touched.”

He hurries offstage, and perhaps 30 people – mostly young girls – jump onstage and chase him. None of them gets near him.

Thank you, Mr. Dylan.

Neil Young at Massey Hall in 1971. ’From the opening ovation to the closing and standing ovation, the audience was positively adulatory,’ The Globe and Mail’s reviewer wrote at the time.

Jan. 12, 2014: Neil Young performs at Massey Hall as part of the ‘Honour the Treaties’ tour, a series of benefit concerts to raise money for a legal fight against the expansion of the Athabasca oil sands. ’Don’t let them change this place,’ he said of the then-120-year-old venue.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Jan. 17, 1971

Neil Young: ‘He’s bound to stick around for a long time’

Review by Jack Batten

All of a sudden, without anyone (except a million kids) noticing, Neil Young of Winnipeg and Toronto has arrived as a major pop star, someone to reckon with on the rich, heady, crowd-drawing level of James Taylor. If you don’t believe it, you should have been at Massey Hall last night where he played two concerts for sell-out houses of mostly young people who were there not merely to listen but to worship.

From the opening ovation to the closing and standing ovation, the audience was positively adulatory, rewarding Young with constant bursts of clapping for every trivial move, from sipping water to announcing new songs, a fact I mention not merely because the handclapping was by itself a drag but also because it constantly intruded on any close relationship between Young and the best part of his audience.

Anyway, it’s worth taking stock of Young’s relatively recent and certainly overwhelming appeal. For Toronto audiences, there is, for starters, something nationalistic about him. I’m not talking about any sense of chauvinism, but about a peculiarly Canadian touch in his voice, a light, fresh, high sound that suggests wide, clear, open land. (This is old-fashioned Canada, you understand, when our wilderness was secure, not recent, urban, polluted Canada.)

There are other clues to his Canadianism. There’s no mistaking his sly manner, his flat speaking voice and his rather dour facial expression (which not even long hair can disguise) for anyone but a northerner. There’s a quality in all of those things that I, and apparently those thousands of kids last night, find especially personable.

Maybe it’s Canadian, maybe it’s not, but Young comes across as one of the more honest and direct of today’s folk-pop-rock singers and songwriters. There is, not to put too fine a point on it, no crap about him.

His songwriting isn’t his strongest talent. (His lovely clean voice is.) He does have a knack for writing one- and two-liners that stick in the head, and occasionally, as in a new song he sang about a hired man on his ranch, he comes up with numbers that sustain a mood for their entire duration.

But somehow his songs suggest a need for more seasoning – he is, after all, only 24 years old – and more work. Some of his current things, for example, collapse under the weight of a naive line (“When so many love you, is it always the same?”) or an image that doesn’t make sense (“My love kept me warm, until my brain touched the sky”) or a cliche (“Buildings scraped the sky”).

But never mind the quibbles. There is in Young so much talent and so much quiet charm that he’s bound to stick around for a long time, maturing and writing and rewarding his audiences.

Nov. 18, 1992

Tragically Hip: ‘Canadian, fully and completely’

[Note: The Tragically Hip’s first concert at Massey Hall took place on Nov. 18, 1992. On Feb. 2, 2017, the band’s singer Gord Downie gave his final public performance on the same stage, where he joined Blue Rodeo for its song Lost Together. – B.W.]

Review by Elizabeth Renzetti

A true piece of buddy banter from Wednesday night’s Tragically Hip concert: “You mean your chick doesn’t like the Hip? Then what the hell are you doing with her?” Now, this is not a comment on the retro-chic of sixties labels (although the sweet smell of the Summer of Love did waft over the audience for much of the concert), but to demonstrate what SCTV used to refer to as a true Canadian fact – people who love The Tragically Hip cannot understand why anyone with their faculties intact would not. After seeing the Kingston band storm through one of its two sold-out shows at Massey Hall, I, too, would ask doubters: Whaddarya, deaf as well as dumb?

In sound and configuration, the Hip somewhat resemble the sinuous, dangerous Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main Street. That is, a five-man band consisting of a rib-rattling rhythm section (Johnny Fay and Gord Sinclair), two guitars (Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois) and a charismatic frontman (Gordon Downie). There the comparisons end, for the Hip, with their unadorned earthiness, their earnest “Thank yous” and their hockey-player hair, are Canadian, fully and completely. Look at what they chose to sing about – novelist Hugh Maclennan, language bigotry in the Soo, the unjust imprisonment of David Milgaard, vanishing national icons.

“Your country seems to be very famous for disappearances,” Downie told the audience (in which bobbed enough newly purchased baseball caps to start a Tragically Hip grapefruit league south of the border) before launching into the Tom Thomson-inspired Three Pistols. The mystery of the painter’s death didn’t preoccupy the jiving, singalong crowd, nor did the disappearance of Maple Leaf star Bill Barilko, mourned in Fifty-Mission Cap from the Hip’s latest album, Fully Completely.

Downie actually said little to the crowd, but he didn’t have to – every eye in the house was trained on him. Every rock ‘n’ roll band should have such a lead singer – bright, frenetic, possessing a glorious, growling voice. Although drawing out comparisons with the Stones would be useless – he possesses little of the young Mick Jagger’s sultriness or smugness – he’s as interesting to watch as Jagger was before the demon of campiness took him away. Downie grins maniacally, looking variously like a cherub, a satyr, and a young, thin Joe Cocker, and tailors his personality to fit the tune. He’s tight and coiled for Locked in the Trunk of a Car, a demented mime during Lionized, a bespectacled professor for Twist My Arm (“Martyrs don’t do much for me / Though I enjoy them vicariously”).

Grooving, not listening to lyrics, seemed foremost in most fans’ minds, which is understandable given the raunchiness of the music. But the Hip bear close listening – their songs are unashamedly clever, from the King Lear references in Cordelia (“I am not Cordelia, I will not be there”) to the bang-on imagery of Eldorado (“Just the mention of Berlin makes me sexy”).

What more could a chick ask?

Vancouver’s Sons of Freedom, the opening act, offered a typically energetic set, with singer James Jerome Kingston, looking as if he were wrapped in a Mondrian painting, sporting the evening’s most eye-catching gear. Which of the two revolutionary Lenin/Lennons did Kingston have on the back of his jacket? Interestingly, the recently discredited one.

May 19, 2005

Gordon Lightfoot: ‘At 66, Gord is back’

[Note: In a Globe and Mail review of a Massey Hall concert by Gordon Lightfoot on March 31, 1967, music critic Peter Goddard described young Lightfoot as a Canadian Charles Aznavour: “He showed himself to be a competent lyricist, an individualistic performer and an unusually gifted melodist.” But Goddard also wrote that the “country-and-Lightfoot parade of Canadiana” was due for a change, cautioning that Lightfoot was in danger of becoming one of the sacred Canadian cows, and that if something didn’t happen soon he was “merely being fattened for extinction.” The following review is of Lightfoot’s first concert at Massey Hall in 2005 after being away from the venue for four years after suffering an abdominal aneurysm. – B.W.]

Review by James Adams

A famous critic once described jazz as “the sound of surprise.” There wasn’t much jazz at Massey Hall last night (the chord changes in Beautiful notwithstanding) or much surprise. But there was much pleasure and not a little pathos as Gordon Lightfoot once again trod upon the hall’s fabled boards as he has so famously done, off and on, for the last 38 years.

Mr. Lightfoot, in fact, hasn’t graced the grand old lady of Shuter Street since May of 2001. He was last scheduled to play a series of dates there in the fall of 2002, but then an abdominal aneurysm that September put him seriously out of commission. For the next 19 months and 22 days, fans wondered if Canada’s most famous troubadour would survive the three operations he eventually had, and if he did survive, would he be able to perform again.

The answer came in the form of 27 songs expertly played over more than two hours before an adoring crowd of about 2,700. At 66, Gord is back – a little short of wind, his baritone thin on the top end, his body almost spookily thin, and the face carved into stark planes, but back nevertheless.

Indeed, it took a while last night for one to sense that – 14 songs and one intermission, to be precise – but once Mr. Lightfoot and his veteran four-piece band appeared for the second set, all seemed right between performer and audience.

May 17, 2005: Gordon Lightfoot at a sound check at Massey Hall.Aaron Harris/The Globe and Mail

Of course, there was nothing radical about last night’s concert. A Lightfoot performance is nothing if not a celebration of the pleasures of the predictable as Mr. Lightfoot and band – bassist Rick Haynes (who’s been with him for 36 years), guitarist Terry Clements (35 years), drummer Barry Keane (29 years) and keyboardist Mike Heffernan (at Mr. Lightfoot’s right hand for 18 years) – serve up one familiar song after another, interspersed with material that at first seems lesser-known songs then familiar all the same.

Unsurprisingly, the mostly older audience (at intermission, I stood in line, a long, long line, to the men’s washroom with a Lightfoot acquaintance from New York who remarked that he should have worn Depends) was on Mr. Lightfoot’s side right from the moment he joined his bandmates on stage around 8:10 p.m. “Sorry I’m late,” he joked as the crowd, which included Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, responded with a standing ovation of whoops, whistles and handclaps that lasted more than two minutes.

The first set, a mixture of gems (Cotton Jenny, Minstrel of the Dawn, Sundown) and clunkers (including a relatively new song, Couchiching, from last year’s Harmony CD that is better left forgotten or else sold as a jingle for the Orillia Chamber of Commerce), seemed rather strained and tentative as all concerned tried to find their bearings and adjust their expectations.

But a sense of both relaxation and purposefulness eventually settled on both Mr. Lightfoot and his associates, something especially evident in their assaying of classics such as If You Could Read My Mind, A Painter Passing Through, Ghost of Cape Horn, Baby Step Back and Beautiful.

Here lines such as, “And after all is said and done/is there no rainbow’s end,” and, “To be just once again/With you,” carried an added poignancy and greater intimations of mortality as a result of Mr. Lightfoot’s tribulations of recent years.

Of course, the big question on most of the audience’s mind was, would he do Canadian Railroad Trilogy, perhaps his most epic and most challenging (at least in terms of duration) song? Well, he did, as the first of what were two encores (the last was another chestnut, Bitter Green). It was pretty good, if strained in the later going. In fact, the drama here was found less in the grandiose lyrics and more in the audience’s prayers that the singer would get through the composition more or less intact.

Which he did. Because Mr. Lightfoot clearly felt the love last night. There’s nothing, it seems, like a near-death experience to deepen one’s appreciation of old friendships, sturdy craftsmanship and the grace of sheer perseverance.

Joni Mitchell at Massey Hall, in 1971 and 2013.Jack Dobson and J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

June 18, 2013

Joni Mitchell: ‘Something above entertainment’

[Note: Reviewing her performance at Massey Hall in 1972, Globe and Mail music critic Jack Britton praised Joni Mitchell as “the one folksinger who manages to sound genteel and spontaneous at the same time.” In the summer of 2013, a long-retired Mitchell surprised a Massey Hall audience by singing at a tribute concert in her honour. >B.W.]

Review by Brad Wheeler

Joni Mitchell sang the blues.

At a Luminato Festival event on Tuesday, the first of a pair of tribute concerts in Mitchell’s honour at Massey Hall in Toronto, the long-retired icon performed surprisingly and more willingly than would have been imagined. She was only supposed to recite a new poem, set to music. Which she did – This Rain, This Rain was directly inspired by the writings of painter Emily Carr – but not before hinting that something else would follow. “I wasn’t sure if I could sing tonight,” she said. “I’m still not sure, but I’m going to try.”

On Sunday, during an onstage Luminato interview at the Isabel Bader Theatre, the Saskatchewan-raised warbler-supreme had spoke of a time when her voice was up to octave-related challenges. “I could sing any note I could think,” recalled Mitchell, whose musical thoughts were often ambitious. “It was fun,” she continued, with no lament. “It was effortless.”

Onstage at Massey, where she followed performances of her material by a cast of singers (Glen Hansard, Liam Titcomb, Rufus Wainwright, Lizz Wright, Kathleen Edwards and Cold Specks’s Al Spx), Mitchell’s range was revealed as greatly reduced. She blames the vocal decline on Morgellons syndrome, not age or chain-smoking. Whatever the cause, there was grace to the way she managed within her lower, limited register, both on 1975′s Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow and on Furry Sings the Blues, a character study of the one-legged bluesman Furry Lewis from 1976′s Hejira LP.

Furry Sings the Blues is Mitchell at her pop-jazzy poetic best. “Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps in the grey decay” captures the degeneration of Memphis’s Beale Street in the 1970s. There are lines about the deteriorating Lewis – “It’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel, but there was one song he played I could really feel” – and there is a comment on the relationship between younger, privileged audiences with older music and its players: “W.C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fay, and I’m not familiar with what you played/ but I get such a strong impressions of your heyday.”

At Massey, either when Wainwright sang A Case of You or when Mitchell offered three songs herself (including the closer Woodstock, with the guest artists surrounding her), the impressions of Mitchell’s halcyon days were striking and unmistakable, as were her cheekbones, humour and luminosity.

Mitchell’s canon is unusual in that the songs are both idiosyncratic and eminently coverable. While Wright’s rich alto carried Shades of Scarlet Conquering traditionally and elegantly, Spx’s version of Black Crow was a spooky reimagination. Whether confessional, character-driven or topical, the material is transferable, thus ensuring the legacy of Mitchell, that Nietzsche-spouting lady with a head full of quandary.

Even though the star does not turn 70 until November, the very end of the concert included the crowd’s impromptu offering of Happy Birthday. Holding the shoes she had kicked off earlier, Mitchell took a final bow, saying that it had been “so much fun.”

Yes, it had been. Mitchell, who danced atop a paradise paved over and who found comfort in the melancholy, was something above entertainment, though she was (and still is) very entertaining. Fun and blues are not mutually exclusive, Furry and Joni told us so.

Massey Hall in 2018, at its birthday party and sendoff concert. The venue will be closed for two years, starting in July.Jag Gundu