How Canadian rock music came to fruition at Massey Hall in the 1990s

Many luminaries of the country’s music scene have moved from balcony to stage during this decade, writes David McPherson


Richard Beland

The Tragically Hip first gained international attention on the Massey Hall stage in the late 1980s.

The following is taken from the forthcoming Massey Hall book by David McPherson, which will be published by Dundurn Press November 2. It’s from Chapter 7: Canadians Take Center Stage: The 1990s. This passage was also featured in the fall reading issue of NOW on October 21, 2021.

Toronto in the 1990s witnessed a thriving music scene in clubs dotted around the downtown core; from the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street and El Mocambo on Spadina Avenue to Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street and Danforth Music Hall in the east, indie rock reigned supreme. Canadian bands such as Barenaked Ladies, the Watchmen, Skydiggers, the Lowest of the Low, Our Lady Peace and Sloan first enjoyed DIY success and gained a large loyal following over the decade. Many of these groups progressed from the club circuit and eventually saw their names on the Massey marquee. The decade has also been one of the most explosive and lucrative for Canadian women artists on the world stage. Pop stars like Celine Dion (May 25-26, 1993), Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan (November 25-26, 1993) and kd lang (June 23-24, 1992) burst onto the scene. As noted, many of them made headlines at Massey Hall in the 1990s.

Another Canadian band that performed at Massey Hall in the 1990s was Vancouver’s Grapes of Wrath (October 10, 1991). Kevin Kane, the band’s guitarist and singer, remembers being so stressed that day because playing there was such a big deal. For the occasion, promoter Elliott Lefko gave each of them a pair of monogrammed socks.

“A lot of it is blurry, but I remember one highlight. Our shows around this time could get pretty out of hand, with kids constantly taking the stage as security tried their best to catch them before they reached one of the musicians – it was kind of a game for everyone. them. At one point, a young man leapt from the balcony to the stage (a fall of about six meters), landing right in front of me with a resounding “boom”. We looked at each other, shook hands, and he made a graceful plunge off the stage and into the audience just as a security person was about to grab him: class! It seems like every time I meet someone who was at this show, they talk about it.

The decade was marked by the continued diversity of the venue’s programming and saw the return to the legendary stage of many former artists. Then there was the hall’s centenary celebration, which included the opening of an on-site bar and the availability of alcohol for the first time in the history of the place. The basement bar was aptly named Centuries. This water point has become the gathering place for many customers before the shows. The walls lining the entrance to the bar were decorated with displays of newspaper clippings and advertisements highlighting past performances, speeches and artist appearances by decade, spanning the hall’s first hundred years of existence. This mini museum wall has always been a must-see for any artist performing for the first time in the room.

Canadians have taken center stage (literally) throughout the decade: from Stompin ‘Tom Connors (October 24-25, 1990; October 29, 1998; September 18, 1999) to Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo to Amanda Marshall, Jane Siberry, Cowboy Junkies and Great Big Sea. Gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds at the time, hip-hop was represented by a performance by rapper LL Cool J in 1991. Return evenings with the legendary Aretha Franklin (April 7-8, 1993), a solo show by Bruce Springsteen (January 8, 1996), a few Johnny Cash dates and solo performances by two of classical rock’s greatest guitar gods – the Who’s Pete Townshend (July 10, 1993) and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (February 6, 1993 ). There was even a show at the end of the Iron Maiden decade; Yes, you read that right: one of the world’s greatest heavy metal bands, known for selling out in stadiums around the world, performed at Massey Hall on July 20, 1999.

Apart from music, the programming also included a talk by the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual leader and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who brought his message of “compassion for all sentient beings” in 1990. And the comedy carried on. continued to be a big draw, with improv shows from the Royal Canadian Air Farce and standing performances by Andrew Dice Clay, Billy Connolly, Jeff Foxworthy, Ellen DeGeneres and Victor Borge, a Massey Hall regular over the years. years.

Richard Beland

Sinead O’Connor delivered an intense and memorable performance at Massey Hall in May 1990.

Nancy Beaton, events manager at Massey Hall, says her most memorable show happened in this decade: Sinead O’Connor in May 1990, when the Irish singer-songwriter was on tour to support his second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven ‘t Got, which won a Grammy that year for Best Alternative Music Album and a Juno for International Album of the Year.

“I was near the back stairs and heard screams. I thought something terrible had happened. I remember running down the back stairs and into the auditorium scared of what I would see. It was just people cheering for him. It was like Beatlemania! No one rivals Sinead for intensity… she’s magical. It was the first time I heard how loud it could be in there and how powerful the audience could be.

It was on the Massey Hall stage that Tragically Hip first gained international attention. Although they were only due to play two songs at the 1988 Toronto Music Awards, MCA’s Bruce Dickinson flew from New York at the invitation of band manager Jake Gold to see those glorious six minutes of Hip. “During the first song, Gord [Downie] drop the microphone, it separates and is unplugged, ”recalls Dickinson. “The group does not miss any notes. I saw a group that was not going to be shaken up. They were already pros. I turned to Jake and said, “I want to sign your band.” The hype was justified: just four years later, Elizabeth Renzetti of The Globe and Mail attended one of their two sold-out nights at Massey Hall and said this: “Downie spoke little to the crowd, but he didn’t have to – all eyes in the house were on him. Every rock’n’roll band should have such a singer, ”she added. “People who love Tragically Hip can’t understand why someone with their faculties intact wouldn’t.”

The quintessential Canadian group have performed at Massey Hall nine times in total, and each was a defining moment. The weight of the place has never been lost on these Kingston rockers.

“Massey Hall is the pinnacle,” says bassist Gord Sinclair. “This is where you aspire to play. There is just something so special about her aura and the feeling of performing on this stage. It is a place of communion. It’s a congregation of doctors, lawyers, blue collar workers and everyone in between. Everyone is there for the same reason: to share an experience. It was a place circled on our timeline as the highlight of when Hip started. I still get goosebumps just thinking about all of our performances there.

Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies grew up in Scarborough. Unlike his bandmate Kevin Hearn, he never played or visited Massey Hall with his school. The first time he went there was to see the Kim Mitchell Band in 1986; however, he was aware of Massey’s legacy long before.

“I was such a Rush nerd growing up and I knew All The World’s A Stage was recorded there,” says Robertson. “I think my parents saw Lightfoot there once in the late ’70s as well.”

Fast forward to 1992. This was the year that Robertson and his fellow bandmates Barenaked Ladies (BNL) released their studio debut album Gordon, an album that has now sold over a million dollars. copies in Canada only. Upon the success of this outing, the group was booked for four sold-out nights at Massey Hall in April 1993. The first of these shows was broadcast live on the local alternative radio station CFNY – not bad for a group that showed up at the lobby of this radio station and play for free. Since then, the group has performed regularly in the hall for the past decades. For the BNL frontman, this first series of shows is as special as ever, mainly because his childhood heroes sent them a bottle of champagne.

“That’s what excited me the most,” recalls Robertson, who doesn’t drink but walked around with this bottle for 12 hours, “the fact that Rush knew we existed!”

BNL continued to perform in the venue over a dozen times after this four night adventure, but on top of all the morning shows they did for kids after their kids’ record (Snacktime !, 2008 ) and Christmas shows they performed at Massey Hall, another standout night for the band is November 13, 2015. This is the night Dee Snyder (the frontman of Twisted Sister), who was in town to star in a play, joined the band on stage for the encore to sing their 1980s hit song We Won’t Take It.

“Alan Doyle opened this show and he watched this moment from the side of the stage,” recalls Robertson. “Alan says it’s one of the five best musical moments of his life and he hasn’t even been a part of it! His guitarist had to hold him by his belt to prevent him from walking on stage.

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