The Grand Old Lady is not only getting a facelift, but a makeover.

Massey Hall, originally built in 1894 by Canadian industrialist and philanthropist Hart Massey at a cost of $152,000, is in the midst of a $139 million revitalization that will see the iconic, downtown-Toronto, 2,765-seat music venue shutter for a little over two years, starting July 30, 2018.

When it re-opens in September 2020, not only will the building emerge as a technically upgraded hybrid of history and modernization, but its restoration will also bring an expansion that will include two additional venues, one of which can run concurrently with any booked main hall performances. Massey Hall will also be home to the Eastern extension of Calgary’s National Music Centre, lodging a music museum to celebrate Toronto’s rich musical heritage.

Deane Cameron, President and CEO of The Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall Corporation, says five years of meticulous planning will hopefully pay off in increased activity, traffic, and business that will secure its future. “We feel a great sense of responsibility to revitalize it the right way, build it back to its former glory,” says Cameron, the former, longtime President and CEO of EMI Music Canada, who came out of retirement to assume the position two years ago. “Our ambition is to return to the original vision of Hart Massey, which is to make it a civic engagement venue as much as it is entertainment.”

While there’s still much money to be raised – Cameron is hoping for an additional $70 million from the federal and Ontario provincial governments, and another $40 million from private funding (of which 25%-30% has been procured) – the first of Massey Hall’s two-phase revitalization has been completed. In 2014, the adjacent Albert Hall, initially constructed as a janitorial residence, was purchased from some condo developers and was razed last year – in order to build a much-needed loading dock for gear. The lack of a loading dock means that acts are forced to wheel their equipment through the front entrance, which takes as much as two days.

The new seven-storey replacement building for the Albert allows not only for the dock, but several other crucial “missing” components: an expanded backstage area, proper dressing and “green” rooms for visiting acts, and a new, flexible, 500-capacity, 260-seat performance space with a separate entrance, that can host events simultaneously with the main hall. The basement bar Centuries will also be expanded to a 500-capacity venue, likely for shows after the ones in the main hall are finished.  The renovations and expansion will double number of shows held at Massey, and lead to Canadian artist development, education and outreach.

“We feel a great sense of responsibility to revitalize it the right way, build it back to its former glory.” – Deane Cameron, President and CEO of The Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall Corporation

In terms of cosmetics, the outer hull of Massey, a heritage building, will be restored to its former 1894 glory, albeit with a modern twist: aside from the re-instatement of its original stone sign, and 104 original stained-glass windows, each wing will be covered by a glass passarelle revealing the second-and-third story expansions, including bars, lounges and washrooms. The fourth storey will include the newly constructed venue and also be home to National Music Centre East – the museum extension of Calgary’s music institution.

“Level 5,” which Cameron describes as a mezzanine, will be “our recording studio for content capture. We’ll be able to record right off the fourth-floor location of the new venue and directly from the hall.”

For the interior, the 1933 art deco lobby will be fully refurnished and supplemented with additional lighting. In the main auditorium, all the seating is being replaced – with each seat upgraded in width ranging from an inch-and-a-half to upwards of two inches “due to code.” Additional seats will be added to the balcony. More than 50 of the 80 currently obstructed seats will disappear once the new chairs are installed.  Accessible seating – currently confined to the orchestra level – will be provided on all three auditorium levels. A retractable floor will allow seats to be stored under the stage for general admission events, increasing the venue’s capacity to 2,900.

Although Massey Hall is celebrated for its musical pedigree (everyone from opera legend Enrico Caruso, to jazz innovator Charlie Parker, to Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Rush have graced its stage,) it’s also served as a lecture podium for the likes of activist Nellie McClung and future British PM Winston Churchill. “We want to be able to be known for our lunchtime lectures,” says Cameron. “There’s a return to being a big-picture venue. It’s become a little too niched as a popular music venue.” He also says that in order to accommodate Toronto International Film Festival screenings, Massey Hall will be film-ready.

The Downtown Yonge BIA on the renovation
Mark Garner, Executive Director and COO of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association, says the importance of Massey Hall in generating local business can’t be overstated. “All those restaurants around show times are booming,” he says. “The Senator Café, Jazz Bistro, all the restaurants along Victoria Street… We’re going to see about 70,000 people move onto Yonge Street in the next three-to-five years… All those people moving into those condos will want to go to a live performance show. You don’t want to drive and get onto public transit – you want to be able to walk that eight-block radius, and Massey is in that location… We’ll miss Massey during its downtime, but when it opens back up again, that’s when we’ll do the key economics, and we’ll see it just blossom.”

Gordon Lightfoot will close the venue on June 29 and 30, 2018, but not before Massey’s 124th birthday is celebrated on June 14. He also promises that during the venue’s closure, Massey Hall will continue to program other shows at such neighbourhood venues as the Elgin Theatre and the Winter Garden Theatre. Roy Thomson Hall is also going to try to take up some of the slack.

Although Massey’s closure may hurt downtown Toronto economically for the months that it is closed, Nordicity – a Toronto strategic, policy and economic consulting firm – predicts in a study that the venue will contribute $348.1 million to the GDP, create 3,950 full-time jobs, and generate $108.1 million in federal and provincial taxes between 2016 and 2025.

“We’re going to increase activity,” says Cameron. “We’re going to increase business. We’re going to be good for the neighbourhood. We’ve done estimates showing the provincial and federal governments that if they give us the $34M we’ve asked from each, one government will get their money back in eight years and the other in 12, just through taxation, and that’s conservative.”

Of course, once the Massey Hall doors re-open, the big winners are going to be arts lovers, culture enthusiasts and musicians – as well as the surrounding restaurants, bars, hotels and retailers.

 


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On the other end of the line, in rural Québec area code 819, Denis Massé couldn’t be happier to share the 20th anniversary of his band, Les Tireux d’Roches, born in 1998 at the Ste-Élie-de-Caxton’s café La Pierre Angulaire. He was the owner of the place back then. A 16-year-old Fred Pellerin, at the time, swept the floor, when he wasn’t presenting – under the guise of a folk tale – the roughly 100 shows a year that the place hosted.

Les Tireux d’Roches“It was built on a cliff,” says Massé. “At the end of a rural road. The café printed its own newspaper and Fred distributed it in and around the village to about 60 drop points. It was a great era to own a café venue: Pierre Calvé, Pierre Létourneau and Bertrand Gosselin, to name just a few, were all doing comebacks.”

Six albums later, and more than 1,000 gigs in Québec, Europe and Asia, the fiuve members of Les Tireux d’Roches’ are still going strong, sharing traditional Québécois songs.

“The source is inexhaustible,” says Massé. “We cherish those little gems of memory. I live in the countryside, and on the road to my house there lives an 87-year-old woman who wants to sing me the 21 songs she knows by heart, which she learned from her father, who also learned them by heart. I recorded all of it, and one of them is featured on our latest album, Tarmacadam.

“Every region of Québec has deep repertoires like this. But Lanaudière, an outstanding traditional region, stands apart: St-Côme is the Mecca of traditional songs in Québec. I truly believe each house has its own repertoire of songs. André Marchand (Les Charbonniers de l’enfer) and Yves Lambert (La Bottine souriante) unearthed those treasures.”

Davy Hay Gallant – known for producing for Cirque Éloize, artistic-directing the Mondial des Cultures, as well as having played guitar for the Francophone Saskatchewan band Hart Rouge (1995–2005), as well as for Chloé Sainte-Marie – contributed his studio in Drummondville, Dogger Pound. “Usually, we record in a cabin, we do our own thing,” says Massé. We “weren’t necessarily thrilled to have a producer meddle in our stuff, but the connection with Davy was instantaneous. We got to his studio with fully formed and arranged songs. Usually, a producer will want to put his stamp on that aspect of creation, so you take him aback a little. He did shine bright, thanks to his immense talent as a multi-instrumentalist; you can hear all kinds of new sounds, thanks to him.

“Each new album by the Tireux d’Roches is always a little bit disorienting,” says Massé. “We never have a very precise direction. But this time around, we wanted something closer to our roots, rooted in our territory. And we also write a lot, so much so that now, people can no longer distinguish between a public domain song and one of our new ones.”

Yet, it’s outside of the studio that the magic truly happens. “We exist for the stage, we basically have a rock attitude, but with acoustic instruments in our hands,” says Massé. “Unavoidably, the energy is irresistible, and even people outside of Québec succumb to it, even if the lyrics are unintelligible to them. And although we do hybridize a lot, it’s style music from Québec’s terroir, and people know it, regardless of the fact that they’re Chinese, German or Spanish. Obviously, it’s very festive…”

Ironically, it’s often far from Québec that the band finds its inspiration. There are frequently pauses of several days between gigs. “We rent a house in the hills or by the seaside, we’re like a closed-circuit, and we work relentlessly,” says Massé. “Our most fruitful writing sessions are always on tour, which happens four or five times a year.

“Time has bonded the Tireux d’Roches. While on tour, we spend two hours on stage, and the 22 other hours together, non-stop. Thank God we get along!”

To top it all off, Massé also tours another show: Henri Godon, chansons pour toute sorte d’enfants (songs for all kinds of kids), which he co-presents with Jeannot Bournival, a fellow Ste-Élie resident, and also tours a lot in Europe. “I truly believe in the trade of songwriting for children,” he says.


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It’s been more than a decade since country-punk trio WD-40 has offered us new material. The release of La nuit juste après le déluge, their fifth album – fully rowd-funded in less than 72 hours (!) – signals the return of one of the last still-active, ferociously independent cult bands to come out of Québec’s early-‘90s alternative rock scene. We meet Alex Jones, his inseparable brother Jean-Lou, and drummer/archivist/communications person/chief bottle-washer Hugo Lachance, as they step off the stage after a memorable (as always) launch party at Montréal’s Lion d’Or.

WD-40 are celebrating 25 years of existence, or survival; of rockin’, of underground-classic songs, of excess, of not-always-controlled wipeouts, of aborted near-successes, and of often mythical and sometimes pathetic gigs. But always true to a reputation for authenticity that’s guided this Saguenay-born band since its inception.

Upon listening to La nuit après le deluge…, it’s clear that the band’s unexpected return wasn’t motivated by profit, or any desire to surf a wave of nostalgia for a bygone era. The vast majority of their 10 new songs mirror recent events, painful ones, yet expressed with more poetry and subtlety than on their previous efforts – with none of songwriter, singer, and bassist Alex Jones hurt feelings spared. The man can’t help singing the truth, to whoever cares to listen.

The genesis of the album dates two years back, a time during which Jones was going through a painful breakup. “Three-quarters of those songs were written during the year of my separation,” says Jones in the lobby of the Lion d’Or, where die-hard fans say hi to him, one by one, as they leave the venue – after buying a T-shirt at the merch table. “We’ve gotten back together since, she and I… But it still is the album where I bared my soul the most, it tells the story of what I went through, the story of my life. That’s what I’ve always done, but nowadays, the consequences are much more dire.

“It’s one thing to be 20, to go on a bender and to cheat on your girlfriend. But when you’re 40 and you cheat on your girlfriend, and there are kids involved, a mortgage to pay… That’s heavy, trying to find a balance, to make everything work again, that’s what inspired the lyrics on La nuit juste après le deluge…  I didn’t write it verbatim as I used to do; instead, I tried to capture the essence of the feelings I had. I ended up with nothing, I hit rock bottom, just like when I was a junkie… I create in pain and withdrawal.”

“The only reason I’m interesting is because I create music. Otherwise, I’m a complete nobody. It’s what gives my life meaning, and what makes my daughters proud of me.”

Pain and withdrawal, for all their creative impetus, have also been Jones’ worst enemies. The man has fallen off the addiction wagon more than once, using various substances to fill the void and numb the pain. So much so that he couldn’t keep up. “I didn’t have anything left, I’d even sold my clothes!” he admits. “But I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, I quit music, had kids, bought a bungalow in the ‘burbs, dove headfirst into [Québec] TV series [most notably Au secours de Béatrice], climbing the ladder from set technician to artistic director. And it helped me tremendously, it was how I earned a living for four years.”

As far as the music goes, La nuit juste après le deluge… is a bona fide WD-40 album, but with a greater rockabilly and psycho-billy influence. This new stylistic direction perfectly integrates into the band’s musical personality, yet gives this album a clearly defined edge. “That’s where I wanted to go, and I asked Yann Perreau if he would care to be involved in the production of the album,” says Jones. “I met with him in a café one morning, and he invited me back to his place. We drank rum and listened to the demos in his kitchen, and he’s the one who said I should explore the rockabilly side of things more. In the end, he was too busy to help with the production, but I did heed his advice! It’s his contribution to the album. I love Yann!”

In the end, it’s Mingo L’Indien, keyboardist and guitarslinger of the “petrochemical rock” outfit Les Georges Leningrad who was in charge of the recording, production and mix for La nuit juste après le deluge… It’s a choice Jones doesn’t regret for a second, despite the man’s peculiar personality. “Mingo’s a very elusive man, a truly strange man,” says Jones. “The songwriting and recording sessions were spread out over three years, and we needed somebody to corral all of that in, so that it could end being somewhat cohesive. He did a great job.”

As this impromptu interview draws to a close, Jones won’t let go. WD-40 is his whole life. Nowadays, his desire for recognition is more aligned with the actual chances of achieving popular success. (His goal, now, is to get invited to play the music variety TV show Belle et Bum.) He’s as convinced as ever that his place is onstage, no matter which one, as long as he and his partners-in-crime are welcome – in order to celebrate and share the cathartic effect of rock.

“The only reason I’m interesting is because I create music, otherwise, I’m a complete nobody,” he says. “It’s what gives my life meaning, and what makes my daughters proud of me. That means that as long as people call me to play somewhere, I’ll go. I’m not going to wait 11 years to release another album. It’s what I like the most in life and it’s not going to stop. Life is way too short. Now is the time to do things. If you do nothing now, nothing’s going to happen later.”

WD-40 will be back on the Lion d’Or stage on March 2, 2018, during Montréal en Lumière.


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