How Canadian rock music came of age at Massey Hall in the 90s

Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip points upward
Richard Beland

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

Toronto in the 1990s witnessed a thriving music scene in the clubs scattered throughout the downtown core; from the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street and the El Mocambo on Spadina Avenue to Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street and the Danforth Music Hall to the east, indie rock ruled. Canadian bands such as Barenaked Ladies, the Watchmen, Skydiggers, the Lowest of the Low, Our Lady Peace and Sloan found DIY success initially and gained large, loyal audiences during the decade. Many of these bands progressed from the club circuit and eventually saw their names on Massey’s marquee. The decade was also one of the most explosive and profitable for Canadian women artists on the world stage. Pop stars like Céline Dion (May 25-26, 1993), Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan (November 25-26, 1993), and k.d. lang (June 23-24, 1992) burst onto the scene. As noted, many of them headlined shows at Massey Hall in the 1990s.

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

“A lot of it is a blur, but I do remember one highlight. Our shows at that time could get pretty out of hand, with kids constantly clambering onto the stage while security did their best to catch them before they got to one of the musicians – it was kind of a game for them. At one point, a young man leapt from the balcony to the stage (about a six-metre drop), landing right in front of me with a resonant ‘boom.’ We looked at each other, shook hands and he did a graceful backward dive off the stage and into the audience just as a security person was about to grab him: classy! It seems that any time I meet anyone who was at that show they bring that up.”

The decade was one of continued diversity in the hall’s programming and saw the return to the storied stage of many past performers. Then there was the celebration of the hall’s centennial, which included the opening of a bar onsite and the availability of alcohol for the first time in the venue’s history. The basement bar was aptly named Centuries. This watering hole became the place for many patrons to congregate before shows. The walls lining the entrance to the bar were decorated with displays of newspaper clippings and ads highlighting past shows, speeches and artist appearances by decade, covering the first hundred years of the hall’s existence. This mini museum wall was always a must-stop spot for any artist playing the venue for the first time.

Canadians took centre stage (literally) at the venue throughout the decade: from Stompin’ Tom Connors (October 24-25, 1990; October 29, 1998; September 18, 1999) to the Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, and Blue Rodeo to Amanda Marshall, Jane Siberry, Cowboy Junkies, and Great Big Sea. Increasing in popularity by leaps and bounds at the time, hip-hop was represented by a performance by rapper LL Cool J in 1991. Other musical highlights from the 1990s include Ronnie Hawkins’s 60th birthday bash (January 12, 1995), back-to-back nights with the legendary Aretha Franklin (April 7-8, 1993), a solo Bruce Springsteen show (January 8, 1996), a couple of dates by Johnny Cash, and solo performances from two of classic rock’s biggest 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 decade from Iron Maiden; yes, you read that right: one of the world’s biggest heavy-metal bands, known to sell out stadiums around the world, played Massey Hall on July 20, 1999.

Outside of music, 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 comedy continued to be a big draw, with improv shows by the Royal Canadian Air Farce and stand-up performances from Andrew Dice Clay, Billy Connolly, Jeff Foxworthy, Ellen DeGeneres and Victor Borge, a Massey Hall regular over the years.

Richard Beland

Nancy Beaton, events manager at Massey Hall, says her most memorable show occurred in this decade: Sinead O’Connor in May of 1990, when the Irish singer-songwriter was touring in support of her 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 staircase and heard screaming. I thought something terrible had happened. I remember running up the back stairs and into the auditorium afraid of what I would see. It was just people cheering for her. It was like Beatlemania! Nobody competes with Sinead for intensity… she is magical. That was the first time I heard how loud it could be in there and how powerful the audience can be.”

It was onstage at Massey Hall that the Tragically Hip first drew international attention. Though they were only scheduled to play two songs at the 1988 Toronto Music Awards, MCA’s Bruce Dickinson flew up from New York City on an invitation from the band’s manager, Jake Gold, to see those six glorious minutes of the Hip. “During the first song, Gord [Downie] drops the microphone, it splits apart and comes unplugged,” Dickinson recalls. “The band does not miss a note. I saw a group that was not going to be rattled. They were already pros. I turned to Jake and said, ‘I want to sign your band.’” British journalist Chris Roberts of Melody Maker magazine, in town to see Mary Margaret O’Hara, pronounced them “the discovery of the night.” The hype was justified: only four years later, the Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti witnessed one of their two sold-out nights at Massey Hall and had this to say: “Downie 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,” she added. “People who love the Tragically Hip cannot understand why anyone with their faculties intact would not.”

The quintessential Canadian band played Massey Hall a total of nine times, and each was a seminal moment. The weight of the place was never lost on these Kingston rockers. 

“Massey Hall is the pinnacle,” explains bassist Gord Sinclair. “It’s where you aspire to play. There is just something so special about its aura and the feeling of playing on that stage. It’s a place of communion. It’s a congregation between doctors, lawyers, blue-collar workers and everyone in between. Everyone is there for the same reason: to share an experience. It was a venue circled on our calendar as the high-water mark from the moment the Hip started out. I still get goose bumps just thinking about all of our performances there.”

Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies grew up in Scarborough. Unlike bandmate Kevin Hearn, he never played at 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 knew All The World’s A Stage had been recorded there,” says Robertson. “I think my parents saw Lightfoot there once in the late 70s, as well.”

Flash forward to 1992. That’s the year Robertson and his Barenaked Ladies (BNL) bandmates released their studio debut Gordon, an album that has now sold more than a million copies in Canada alone. On the success of this release, the band was booked for four sold-out nights at Massey Hall in April 1993. The first of these shows was broadcast live on local alternative radio station CFNY – not bad for a band that used to show up at that radio station’s lobby and play for free. Since then, the band has played the hall regularly over the past few decades. For the BNL frontman, that first string of shows is still so special, mostly because his childhood heroes sent them a bottle of bubbly. 

“That’s what I was most excited about,” recalls Robertson, who does not drink but walked around with that bottle for 12 hours, “the fact Rush knew we existed!”

BNL went on to play the venue more than a dozen more times after that four-night stand, but besides all of the matinee shows they did for kids following their children’s record (Snacktime!, 2008) and Christmas shows they performed at Massey Hall, one other night that stands out for the band is November 13, 2015. That’s the evening when Dee Snyder (Twisted Sister’s frontman), who was in town performing in a play, joined the band onstage for the encore to sing his 1980s hit song We’re Not Gonna Take It. 

“Alan Doyle opened that show and he stood watching this moment from the side of the stage,” Robertson recalls. “Alan says it’s one of the top five musical moments of his life and he wasn’t even involved! His guitar player had to hold him by his belt to prevent him from walking on stage.”


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