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10 Venues That Shaped Toronto’s Live Music Scene

By EVA VOINIGESCU

Toronto live music scene, Massey Hall

Massey Hall is arguably Toronto’s most iconic live music venue

The dynamism of Toronto’s live music scene may not be measurable solely by the hoards of screaming girls at last weekend’s Justin Beiber concert, but if the crowds at his Rogers Centre show indicated anything, it’s that Toronto’s live music venues are definitely a draw for the world’s most popular artists, as well as music events from NXNE and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

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Perhaps our musical bona fides aren’t as robust as, say, New York City; nonetheless, Canada’s largest metropolis has a long history of shining the spotlight on the best of the best at venues large and small, from Massey Hall to the Horseshoe Tavern. The former, especially, has played host to some of Toronto’s most memorable concerts: Enrico Caruso made his Toronto debut at Massey Hall in 1908; young piano phenoms Oscar Peterson and Glenn Gould took the stage in 1946; and on May 15, 1953, it hosted one of the greatest live music summits ever recorded—a performance by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. For those of us too young to have witnessed this one-time-only team-up, the “Jazz at Massey Hall” show is immortalized as a live album that, six decades later, remains a must-have for modern music aficionados.

Massey Hall is also well known to fans of rock and folk music, particularly as the venue for a 1971 solo set by Neil Young, which lived in legend (and on bootleg recordings) until being officially released in 2007, and more than 40 years of shows by beloved Canuck Gordon Lightfoot. These days, Massey Hall audiences are treated concerts by those artists’ torchbearers—think Bon Iver, The National, Grizzly Bear, Wilco and many others.

Toronto Live Music

The Rock Pile hosted Led Zeppelin’s first show in Toronto (photo: ledzeppelin.com)

In terms of scale, the 50,000-seat Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre are naturally home to Toronto’s biggest live music performances, the Biebs included. But the original king of besotted teen girls, Elvis Presley, played his first show outside of the United States at the ACC’s predecessor, Maple Leaf Gardens, back in 1957. Newspapers of the day described a crowd so loud that it made hearing the music close to impossible, though one has to think that at least a few concertgoers were rendered speechless by the full gold lame suit that hugged Elvis’s famous hips.

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At that time, and through to the early 1970s, Toronto’s present-day retail hot spots were home to nightclubs and music venues, too. Led Zeppelin played a memorable show at Yonge Street’s historic Masonic Temple, which was then a club called the Rock Pile, while Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others mingled with writers and artists in Yorkville.

Toronto live music, Lee's Palace

The famous Bloor Street facade of Lee’s Palace (photo: Andrzej Wrotek)

Although those haunts are no more, some things do abide, including the love for our city shown by the Rolling Stones. Contemporary Toronto music fans will remember the Stones’ headlining gig at the massive 2003 “SARSstock” concert (alongside AC/DC, the Flaming Lips, the Guess Who, Justin Timberlake and others), but their history in this town goes back even further: Mick, Keith and their comrades have frequently chosen Toronto as their home base when rehearsing for world tours, playing secret shows at intimate venues like the El Mocambo and Phoenix Concert Theatre. Both of those sites remain fixtures of Toronto’s live music scene, as do similar stages at the Opera House (which notably hosted an early Nirvana show), Lee’s Palace (even more popular with past and present indie-rock heavyweights), and the renowned Horseshoe Tavern. Don’t be confused by this Queen West venue’s hole-in-the-wall exterior. Over the years it’s seen everyone from the Police and the Ramones to Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn pass through, and continues to present a near-daily slate of shows by emerging and established musicians from Canada and around the globe.

In this article:

>> Massey Hall, 178 Victoria St., 416-872-4255, masseyhall.com, map and reviews
>> Rogers Centre, 1 Blue Jays Way, 416-341-2770, rogerscentre.com, map and reviews
>> Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay St., 416-815-5500, theaircanadacentre.com, map and reviews
>> El Mocambo, 464 Spadina Ave., 416-777-1777, elmocambo.com, map and reviews
>> Phoenix Concert Theatre, 410 Sherbourne St., 416-323-1251, phoenixconcerttheatre.com, map and reviews
>> The Opera House, 735 Queen St. E., 416-466-0313, theoperahousetoronto.com, map and reviews
>> Lee’s Palace, 529 Bloor St. W., 416-532-1598, leespalace.com, map and reviews
>> Horseshoe Tavern, 370 Queen St. W., 416-598-4753, horseshoetavern.com, map and reviews

 

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