Toronto has a brand new music venue. After years of rumours, months of COVID-related delays and a few consultations with concerned neighbours, History opened to the public last night (November 7) with a concert by Jack Antonoff’s band Bleachers.
A couple of days before the opening concert, NOW got a peek at the venue as it was being readied.
The 2,553-capacity History is located in the Beaches at 1663 Queen East in a space previously occupied by the off-track betting facility Champions (which is still operating next door in smaller digs). It’s a splashy opening – a collaboration between mega-music promoter Live Nation and music superstar Drake.
The venue adds a much-needed mid-level space to Toronto’s live music scene, which lost the Guvernment complex some years ago. After much angst about vanishing venues, the loosening of pandemic restrictions is actually bringing many such venues to life as of late. The El Mocambo has finally reopened to the public, the Mod Club has re-emerged as Axis Club and the historic Massey Hall is about to reopen later this month after a major revitalization.
Live Nation, the continent’s biggest music promoter, has been pivoting into a vertical integration model, owning many of their own venues in Toronto over the last few years. History adds to their portfolio that includes Danforth Music Hall, Velvet Underground and Budweiser Stage (which, as part of the recently revealed development plans for Ontario Place, will soon become a year-round venue).
Designed with the Design Agency, History is spacey but still somewhat intimate feeling at 35,000 square feet, set up to boast good sightlines no matter where you choose to stand or sit. The main general admission area is two-tiered so there are different levels of elevation, and an upstairs “premium” general admission gives you a bird’s-eye view.
There are multiple VIP spaces – two on the main level, a more private “friends and family” style space above and 10 small box-style seating areas as well as 55 theatre-style seats overlooking the stage from the top balcony (also adjacent to accessible seating).
Those spaces offer a more “elevated” culinary experience with a menu collaboration with the Food Dudes, as well as a fancier bar, private bathrooms and bartenders, and more. Depending on which VIP style you sprint for, you can come in from a separate entrance, enter your section and then stay there for the whole night. If you choose GA, there is still food – most notably grab-and-go pizza slices from Food Dudes restaurant Blondies.
The venue is entirely cashless, tickets are mobile-only and water bottles are refillable. Main floor bathrooms are also gender neutral. There are multiple coat-check areas and $5 parking is an option when you buy your ticket.
The design didn’t change due to the pandemic, but there are some operational pushes towards keeping the crowd flow moving so there aren’t many bottlenecks (though that didn’t stop a first-night lineup outside the venue).
What does Drake have to do with History?
The collaboration with Drake gives them some extra cultural cachet, even if it’s not quite clear what the collaboration is.
As with some of his other hospitality endeavours in the city, the specifics of Drake’s role are ambiguous. When asked if he’s an owner or monetary partner or more involved on the marketing/branding side, a History spokesperson gives a vague answer.
“Partnering with Toronto music legend Drake to create a new live entertainment venue in Toronto was a natural fit for Live Nation,” the spokesperson says. “Drake brings a unique perspective into what artists need when they are touring and performing, while also being keenly aware of what fans expect from a premiere entertainment experience. Drake and Live Nation’s partnership brings together the knowledge and know-how to create an elevated experience for fans and artist alike.”
On our tour, Umu Sowe, History’s director of food & beverage services, offers a bit more insight.
“He didn’t just lend his name though, that’s for sure. He’s really involved, him and his team, in really getting the space up and running into what he wants it to be,” she says. “That vision, that influence is all over this place. He and his team were involved in all of the little touches, from the way the furniture is plush and heavy to the various lighting fixtures around the bar. Nothing is an afterthought, everything was intentional and thought out.”
The name History was coined by Drake, which might explain how they chose something so SEO-unfriendly.
“When I was younger in Toronto the biggest goal in the world to me was… trying to get into this legendary party called History Dance,” Drake wrote on Instagram a few months ago. “I never made it in but I always heard all about it in the days to follow.”
His influence seems like it’s more felt on the artists’ side of the venue. Sowe says one of the goals was to give performers an “arena-style experience” in a much smaller venue.
She says Drake has someone on his team who designs dressing rooms, so the furniture, artwork, even washrooms are all curated based on his experiences playing shows.
The big H logo that greets you on the way in is obvious Instagram bait, but other than that the space is relatively utilitarian and doesn’t call attention to itself. There may actually be more in the spaces that are only accessible to talent. A stairway that leads from the backstage to the stage includes LED lights that can be coloured to performers’ preferences.
Another stairway boasts lyrics from Canadian artists like Avril Lavigne, Neil Young, Arkells, Shania Twain, the Tragically Hip and others. Then the stairway below it spells out one of Drake’s most quoted songs, Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here.
There were rumours for months that Drake would be the first act to play History, but he was nowhere to be seen for opening weekend. Instead, he was in Houston at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival, which turned tragic when eight people were killed when the crowd surged forward. Both Live Nation and Drake are being sued for their roles in the event.
With little local connection, Bleachers felt like an inauspicious opening act. In a way, though, they exemplify the venue’s omni-genre, anything-for-anyone philosophy. The band is led by Jack Antonoff, the go-to producer for pop performers like Lorde, St. Vincent, Lana del Rey and Taylor Swift, but who also makes rock music more reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen.
Upcoming concerts include electronic dance acts like Zeds Dead and Kaytranada, hip-hop and R&B like Jack Harlow and Teyana Taylor, Canadian indie rock like July Talk and the Beaches and jazz-leaning projects like Thundercat and BadBadNotGood.
Despite Drake’s involvement, it’s definitely not a strictly hip-hop venue, but with many venues in Toronto carrying unspoken policies against booking the genre, it will likely become one of the go-to spots for it.
But until Drake shows his face there, he’s going to remain the elephant in the room.