Gordon Lightfoot went home to Massey Hall on Thursday to begin a three-night stand.
Such a suggestion that anywhere but the Sunshine City could claim Lightfoot is likely to get me banned from future editions of the Mariposa Folk Festival, but I’ll stand by it.
After nearly some three-and-a-half years, the Orillia native returned to his proper place at the front of one of the most hallowed stages in all North America and was kind enough to allow some 2,700 patrons to join him. Being one of those fortunate few will be a memory I’ll cherish forever.
Massey Hall held its grand re-opening Thursday night, capping off a $184-million renovation to the famed music hall in the heart of downtown Toronto.
For decades, it has been a world-class destination for musicians and as popular tastes changed, its programming, too, evolved. From operas to Oscar Peterson, symphonies to Sloan, it has attracted the best and brightest in performing arts.
Its history is unparalleled in this country, as is its sound. You could always see that in the faces of the musicians on stage as they performed. They knew who came before them. They knew that they were on the same marks as legends – an endless list, including Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, to name a few – and they were sharing in the exact same experience.
By 2018, Massey Hall was perfectly imperfect. A relic of another time that still provided the opportunity to create new memories for future generations. However, in all honesty, it needed more. It needed to be brought into this century while keeping everything from the previous century that made it special intact.
Attending that final show in July 2018, I wasn’t sure how it would work. How could you update the building without destroying its charm? How could you improve the audience experience without ruining what made it such an incredible place to see a show?
Apparently, musicians asked prior to the renovation felt the same way, telling the architect to “fix everything, change nothing.”
Twice Thursday, I nearly broke down in tears. The first time was walking into the auditorium and taking my initial look around. It was just as I remembered it, but more inviting. Artificial light poured through the reborn stained-glass windows, providing a preview of the glow the room will have during summer shows when the sun is still shining outside. The chicken wire was a thing of the past and the beautiful detail of the plaster ceiling was on full display.
The second time was walking back out, after doing another tour of the new concourse areas in the gallery and balcony levels – home to what some people considered the best part of the renovation: new restrooms. At this moment it hit me: they did it. They stuck the landing. Not only did they make the room sound as good as it used to, but they also – somehow – made it more intimate.
I realize it was more than that. It was one thing to be there; it’s another to see Lightfoot one more time. There’s no shame in disclosing that as I left Massey Hall July 1, 2018, I wondered if he would be able to re-open the venue in what was then two years time. He’s not a young man; he’s lived a life. If he hadn’t been able to play these shows – by choice or otherwise – people would understand.
But he was here. And maybe he’s not the singer he used to be, or he can’t play guitar as well since his fall earlier this year that required surgery – none of that mattered. He could have read from the phone book Thursday night and people would have left happy.
Honestly, it was over too soon. After a renovation that felt like an eternity, combined with time having little or no meaning during the past 20 or so months of the pandemic, about an hour after Lightfoot picked up his guitar, he put it back down again, waved goodbye and walked off stage.
We can’t call Massey Hall “the house that Gord built” the same way we can credit Babe Ruth for Yankee Stadium, but we can be certain, without fail, that it is his house. Since that first headlining show in 1967, no one artist has been more synonymous with a venue in this country – maybe even the world.
How lucky are we, in all these times of change and upheaval, to be able to come back again to this communal act of performance and experience the people we admire in the places we love?
Welcome back, Massey Hall. And welcome home Gordon Lightfoot.
Patrick Bales is a music lover, record collector and reporter. He covers politics in southern Simcoe County.