The Tragically Hip (1988)
It was onstage at Massey Hall that the Tragically Hip first drew international attention. Though only scheduled to play two songs at the 1988 Toronto Music Awards, their performance was seen by MCA’s Bruce Dickinson, who flew up from New York City to see six glorious minutes of The Hip. British journalist Chris Roberts of the Melody Maker, 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.”
Patti Smith (1972)
Her very first big show outside New York City took place in Toronto at Massey Hall in 1972. Critics’ responses ranged from grudging admiration to outright dismissal. “It is not fair to suggest Miss Smith is insincere,” wrote one reviewer tersely. Patti Smith’s triumphant return to a rapt crowd 41 years later, saw her in fine voice. She reminisced that it was the first time she’d been back on the Massey stage since and felt great reverence standing where her idol Maria Callas once stood.
Johnny Cash (1996)
The Man in Black’s final Toronto appearance took place alongside June Carter Cash and family, shortly after the release of Unchained, where he covered everyone from grunge icons Soundgarden to Canadian country legend Hank Snow (“I’ve Been Everywhere”). “The last time I was here was 40 years ago,” he told the crowd. “I felt a lot older then!”
It should not have surprised HEART to drive through blizzards all the way from Winnipeg. Guitarist Nancy Wilson enthused that it was “one of my all-time favourite shows” in their 35 years as a band, citing the acoustics and ambience of the room “and the way the audience brought energy into it.”
Fleet Foxes (2011)
“If there was ever a venue made for Fleet Foxes, it is Massey Hall,” raved the National Post about the band’s second appearance. They were subject to good-natured heckling nonetheless — prompting drummer Josh Tillman to step forward and deliver a rambling lecture on the fall of civilization. Months later he was garnering widespread acclaim as the combative, self-deprecating Father John Misty.
J. Cole (2013)
Hip-hop shows at Massey Hall haven’t been as common, though with the coming retractable seating, we can look forward to more. When a stadium-sized show by the likes of J. Cole squeezed into the venerable venue for two nights, it was a miracle the roof didn’t lift right off. Needless to say, no one sat down the entire night.
After a raucous set that included the live debut of a 10-year-old Smiths song, Morrissey was mobbed by fans during the encore —and was then himself mistaken for a fan by security, who ushered the star offstage mid-song, to the sound of loud booing.
Afro-Cuban All-Stars (1998)
In the wake of the massive (and massively unexpected) 1997 success of the Buena Vista Social Club, this offshoot made their Toronto debut at Massey Hall. The Globe and Mail’s Robert Everett-Green wrote, “The solos seemed to reach higher and higher with every riff, pulling the audience up a ladder that most of us would not know how to find by ourselves, much less climb.”
The Flaming Lips (2002)
Beck was the headliner, but had brought the Flaming Lips along not only as opening act but as his backing band. The Lips had not played a proper Toronto show in years; many in the audience were there just to see them, greeting the band with a prolonged standing ovation the second they took the stage—unusual for any opening act. But three songs in, their elaborate video and sequencing set-up was unplugged by one of the dozen strangers on stage who they had recruited to dress up in stuffed-animal cos- tumes. The Lips recovered by playing four songs acoustically, giving Toronto audiences a Flaming Lips show like no other.
Shortly after marrying Torontonian Manuela Testolini, Prince asked a sold-out Massey Hall crowd, “Y’all want me to buy a house here?” (He soon did, on the Bridle Path.) Plugging his jazz project The Rainbow Children, featuring James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, Prince threatened not to play any of his hits. But he did, as well as a Sly Stone cover and a guest spot from Toronto soul singer Glenn Lewis. Prince lept into the crowd and Parker played on the balcony during the three-hour show—which included a 75-minute encore, of course.
Ron Sexsmith (2006)
For his entire adult life, the Toronto songwriter has made sure to attend one of the annual shows by his hero, Gordon Lightfoot. As Sexsmith’s own star began to rise in the late 1990s, he received many offers to play Massey as an opening act. He refused: if he was going to play Massey, he reckoned, he’d rather wait until he could headline. In 2006, that dream came true, and his hometown crowd gave him an instant standing ovation.
Arcade Fire (2007)
This Montreal group was the hottest new rock act of the decade, and could easily have played Air Canada Centre after the breakthrough success of 2004’s Funeral—which would later top many album-of-the-decade lists—and anticipation for the new Neon Bible. Instead, they set up at Massey Hall for three nights and shook the building to its foundation.
At her third sold-out Toronto show in just over a year, promoting her debut album, the then-20-year-old British superstar wowed the Massey crowd with her voice, if not necessarily her apparel. “I sleep in this jumper,” she joked, of the outfit that the Toronto Sun’s Jane Stevenson described as a “very casual outfit of oversized black-and-white-striped sweater and black tights.” The singer quipped, “Oh my God, I'm wearing my f---ing pajamas.”
Joni Mitchell (2013)
The legend had not toured since 2000, but showed up to a 70th birthday tribute—featuring Rufus Wainwright, Kathleen Edwards, Cold Specks and others—as part of the Luminato Festival. No one expected the ailing singer to take the stage, but she did just that by kicking off her shoes and saying, “I wasn't sure if I could sing tonight. I'm still not sure, but I'm going to try.” She read a new poem before leading the band on “Furry Sings the Blues,” “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” and “Woodstock.” She has not performed on stage since, and her health woes have continued; that night at Massey may well have been the last performance of her storied career.
Dream Serenade (2014)
Toronto songwriter Hayden Desser once played Neil Young’s annual Bridge School benefit in California, benefiting children with physical and speech impediments—including Young’s own children. Twenty years later, when Hayden’s own developmentally disabled child started attending the Beverly School in Toronto, he wanted to follow Young’s example and rally musical friends to fundraise for the cause. The first annual Dream Serenade—featuring Barenaked Ladies, Billy Talent, Feist, Sarah Harmer, members of The National and others—set a high bar for the years to come.
Steve Reich (2016)
The pioneering minimalist composer played his first con- cert of his 80th year at Massey Hall, performing groundbreaking works like “Clapping Music” and “Music for 18 Musicians,” joined by his old friend (and University of Toronto professor) Russell Hartenberger and other local musicians. The Toronto Star reported that “patrons were seen leaning over the railings in the upper balcony with rapt amazement,” while Exclaim! raved that the show was a “thrilling, perception-altering way to hear an already formative piece of music from a living legend.”