Massey Hall artists sing the praises of beloved venue

Massey Hall
The stage is set, the auditorium is full, the crowd is ready … the magic at Massey Hall is poised to begin. (Photo by Mitch Fillion)

There’s a buzz in the Hall, as the crew sets the stage.

It’s nearly time and, as we look around at one another, our hearts and hands awaken in anticipation. There has always been something kinetic about Massey Hall, and as the house goes dark and the speakers come alive, a city jumps to its feet.

For more than 120 years, Massey Hall has brought artist and audience together in a unique fashion. The architectural quirks and nuances of the old austere building conspire to create a sound that is unmistakable and unforgettable.

Voices ring out, warm and familiar, and you can make out every instrument, no matter the number of musicians. From the seats down front, to the uppermost balcony, Massey Hall concertgoers rarely feel closer to the music, or to the community.

In July of next year, Massey Hall is set to undergo a seven-year, $135-million renovation. The Hall will close through September of 2020, to address issues of accessibility and comfort while striving to uphold the storied acoustics and intimacy.

Toronto Storeys spoke to five of the country’s finest artists and writers to hear their thoughts on performing at Massey Hall and the proposed changes to the venue.

Ron Sexsmith
Ron Sexsmith (Photo by Pattie Gower)

Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith is a Juno-Award-winning singer-songwriter and author whose work is celebrated around the world. He has just released his first novel, entitled Deer Life, and this winter, Sexsmith will be touring as a special guest of Barenaked Ladies. The tour stops at Massey Hall on Dec. 9.

“In my younger days, I was a courier. I used to deliver in the Massey Hall neighbourhood, and would dream about someday getting to play there. I can remember a Kinks show from the early ’90s that I couldn’t afford to attend.  I listened from the stage door, and it sounded like an amazing show.

Massey Hall has such a rich history of great performances — I saw Leonard Cohen and (Bob) Dylan perform there … but Gordon Lightfoot was always my favourite artist to see at the Hall. Whenever I play there, I am keenly aware of the shoes I’m stepping into…

Whatever changes they do make to Massey Hall, I hope that they don’t lose the charm and character of the place.”

Steven Page
Steven Page (Photo by Nikki Ormerod)

Steven Page

As a solo artist and former member of Barenaked Ladies, Steven Page has sold millions of records and delighted fans the world over with his songs and storied concert performances.  Page has played Massey Hall more than 10 times, and he is currently on tour promoting his latest album, Heal Thyself Pt. 1: Instinct.

“Massey Hall has been home to some amazing performances over the years, and there were plenty of shows I would have loved to see. The 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall show with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell must have been incredible. And I’ve listened to the Neil Young live at Massey Hall show since it was a bootleg and always imagined being in the audience. But so many of the best shows I have seen were also at Massey Hall.

As a teenager and young adult I have great memories of seeing Eurythmics, U2, and Leonard Cohen there. Seeing Tom Waits on the Franks Wild Years Tour was one of the most life-changing and memorable shows for me.

Playing Massey Hall is a unique experience; the wonderful dynamics make songs like “Break Your Heart” or “Call and Answer” come alive like no other place can. And it has the magical feeling of being both grand and, because of the way the tiers are stacked, super intimate as well. Like Toronto itself, it balances right on the line between luxury and austerity. It’s both imposing and self-consciously modest.

It really is the mark of having “made it” when you’re able to play at Massey Hall, and the city celebrates with you when you do. I think we’re all aware of its historical value so both audiences and performers treat it with great reverence.

Will Massey still be Massey if the balcony seats are more comfortable … if there’s more legroom? I don’t want it to lose its essential Massey-ness, but it’s always a bit of a bummer getting obstructed-view seats. That said, I think a change in seat colour would be a mistake.

I’m sure there are technical improvements and modernizations that could be made, as it’s hard to fly things like sound and lighting that are on tour with an artist who’s playing mostly proscenium theatres. But I would hate to see so many changes made that the soul or essence of the Hall get compromised or made generic.”

Serena Ryder
Serena Ryder (Photo by Jimmy Fontaine)

Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder is a six-time Juno Award winner. She has sold more than 1 million singles and her single “Stompa” spent eight weeks at No. 1 on AAA radio in America. Ryder’s new album, Utopia, debuted at No. 1 on the album charts, and she has just released a new single, “Ice Age”, and the music video for “Utopia”. Ryder has performed at Massey Hall on six occasions, and next month she sets out on a headlining tour across Canada.

“My earliest memory of Massey Hall was playing at the Women’s Blues Revue when I was 18 or 19.  I sang “Wang Dang Doodle” and a Fats Domino song. It was mind-blowing and I was so nervous.

I was there recently for a show and it’s a totally different experience from the stage than it is in the audience.  It feels so much smaller from onstage, or maybe ‘intimate’ is a better word. Literally everyone can hear you breathe and feel your heartbeat.

The history of Massey Hall is what makes it so special. I’ve performed there six times and you can feel it as soon as you get on the stage. It’s a pretty deep place to be.

As for the upcoming revitalization, I must confess that I have been privy to all of the changes and I think it’s going to be PERFECT. There’s nothing I would change.”

Sean Cullen (Photo by David Leyes)

Sean Cullen

Sean Cullen is an award-winning comedian, actor and novelist. Cullen was a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, and has appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Cullen has performed numerous times at Massey Hall, and will be hosting the 13th-annual Andy Kim Christmas show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Dec. 6.

“My earliest memory of Massey Hall was when I was living in Peterborough as a child. People were always talking of going to see concerts in Toronto and Massey Hall was often the venue. The first time I ever actually went to see a concert there was when I saw Crowded House in the late nineties.  I was in my late ’80s. Why did I wait so long? I could hardly hear or see by that point.

The first time I performed at Massey Hall was for a New Year’s Eve Comedy Extravaganza. I remember singing without a microphone during the sound check and being amazed at the quality of the acoustics. The sightlines are beautiful and any seat in the house is good.  Most recently, I opened for Ricky Gervais and again I was struck by the power of the audience reaction that seems to be focused by the room itself.

Wandering around backstage and in the dressing rooms, it’s amazing to imagine the thousands of amazing performers who’ve gone before.  It’s inspiring to imagine Gordon Lightfoot having a bowel movement in one of the iconic toilets of the venue.

I have performed at Massey Hall about ten times over the years and it never ceases to be a magical experience.

As the venue undergoes a renovation, I can only hope that there will be more public toilets available for patrons, as it can get very messy in the upper balconies. And I hope they leave the Hall itself unchanged.  It is a perfect place to perform.”

Rob Bowman
Rob Bowman

Rob Bowman

Rob Bowman is a Grammy-Award-winning ethnomusicologist and music writer. His book Soulsville, U.S.A: The Story of Stax Records is regarded as the definitive history of the Memphis record label, and Bowman’s liner notes and books on pop music are commercially and critically acclaimed. Bowman will be hosting Music From People City: Shining A Light on Massey Hall on Sunday, Nov. 12.

“The Hall was built in 1894, and has since been a site of musical and historical significance. Louis Armstrong played Massey at the peak of his youth, while in the midst of revolutionizing the jazz world. The Weavers performed, though blacklisted in the United States. Paul Robeson too was the victim of 1950s McCarthyism, making his incredible performances at the Hall with the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir that much more memorable. And of course, the legendary Jazz at Massey Hall album from ’53 really put the venue on the international map.

The Hall has historical significance for me on a personal level as well. As a teenager, I basically lived there, seeing three concerts a week on average. And I actually got started as a writer because of Massey Hall. I ran into a photographer I knew who took me backstage to meet the editor of Beetle Magazine. She asked if I was a writer … I lied and said yes, and she gave me a gig. It was a good thing she didn’t ask me my age — I was only 15!

Massey Hall was a venue that artists wanted to play at and fans wanted to attend. And those few years of shows between ’71 and ’75 helped to shape me as a music lover and a writer. I saw Neil Young and John Hammond, Miles Davis with his amazing electric band … sat front row at Joni Mitchell’s Blue show, and interviewed B.B. King backstage when I was really just a kid.  Massey has just always been the “go-to” place.

I’m happy that they’re renovating the Hall, as there are some structural things that need addressing. An elevator would certainly help for those seated up in the balconies. And the backstage area is far from world class. But the acoustics truly are world class. That two-second reverberation is near perfect, and they need to protect to uphold the legacy of the place.”


On Sunday, Nov. 12, Grammy-award winning music writer Rob Bowman will host Shining A Light On Massey Hall. Bowman will share stories and secrets from the Hall’s 123-year history, and attendees will be afforded a backstage tour and peek through archival footage of the venue. The event, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is free of charge. Visit masseyhall.com for more details. 

My Massey Hall memory

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