The Newly Renovated Massey Hall Is the Vibe Shift Toronto Needs

The historic venue is fresh off a three-year, $184-million restoration. It's a big win for Toronto's music scene, aesthetically and functionally. Here's why.

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Publicist

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Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic bodied our social lives and forced the world into hermitude, Toronto music fans have been dreaming of the day when things would return to normal. We’re not quite sure if that day is coming. Sure, live music is back, but things look drastically different now. Beloved venues across the city have shuttered; rehearsal spaces are vanishing; kids are linking up at metaverse concerts. Still, some things have undeniably changed for the better.

One such thing: the new-and-improved Massey Hall. The venerated, 128-year-old venue—which has hosted iconic Canadian acts like Rush and Neil Young over the years—is fresh off a three-year, $184-million restoration led by veteran architect Marianna McKenna. It’s a triumph, in terms of aesthetics and inclusivity (more on that later). The once-crumbling plaster ceiling has been repaired, the stage and seats (now with legroom!) have been souped up, and there are two sleek and spacious new Grolsch bars ensuring you’ll no longer need to elbow your way into the basement for a pre-show beverage. We are here for this new normal.

Grolsch bar at renovated Massey Hall
Grolsch bar at renovated Massey Hall

The additional bar areas were unveiled by Grolsch last week as hometown indie-rock heroes Broken Social Scene made their Massey Hall debut, marking 20 years as a band. It checks out—an open and communal collective helps launch an open and communal space.

Broken Social Scene performing at Massey Hall

“We’ve been in Canada for a long time and music has been a really core part of our brand for many, many years,” said Keith Fawcett, GM of Asahi Canada, Grolsch’s parent company, who was on hand to pour the bar’s inaugural pint. “We couldn’t think of a better way to bring that to life in a more significant way than partnering with Massey Hall and the Allied Music Centre, one of the most iconic venues in the world. It’s a great place for us to bring our brand, have people connect over it, and share real moments with real music and real people.”

Hey, as the world goes increasingly virtual, some realness is appreciated. “When people get into the bar, we really want them to be able to have a great experience, even just in 20 minutes at intermission,” Jesse Kumagai, President and CEO of Massey Hall, told us. “You get your beer and you’re wandering around, but we want people to actually be entertained and not feel like they’re in a hotel bar.”

Massey Hall renovated interior in Toronto
Massey Hall venue interior

The Travelodge watering hole this is not. The new Grolsch refreshment areas add a breathable dimension to Massey, allowing patrons room to explore and congregate between sets. Besides being an accessibility win (there are now bars and bathrooms on every floor, rather than just in the basement), it allows for more human interaction, among both fans and artists; of note hobnobbing with commoners were members of July Talk and even a few Broken Social Scenesters. The Screwface Capital could use a bit more superconnectedness.

massey-hall-bar-corridor

And if talking ain’t your trip, there’s plenty to stand around and look at. Connecting patrons to the bar area is a glass-walled corridor overlooking Shuter Street, while a hallway on the opposite end features Massey memorabilia like Win Butler’s Neon Bible-era shirt and Feist’s sequined jumpsuit. You could also just gawk at one of the 100 painstakingly restored stained-glass windows displayed throughout the place, which have been hidden since the ’50s. “One of the reasons they got boarded up in the first place was because the sound of horses out on the street clomping along was leaking into the shows,” says Kumagai, reminding us the venue was built in 1984.

Damaged stained-glass window at Massey Hall
Massey Hall stained glass window

Of course, updating Massey Hall for 2022 involves more than rethinking horse-proofing measures—it means ensuring the venue serves audiences beyond the “Wagon Wheel” set too. While the hall has long been considered a place singer-songwriter types play once they’ve “made it,” its revitalization includes efforts to foster emerging local artists. The new seven-storey tower attached to Massey, which houses the Grolsch bars, will serve as a multi-purpose performance facility dubbed the Allied Music Centre. Featuring four smaller venues, recording studios, and rehearsal spaces, it will be part of an artist development program aimed at helping talent work toward their dreams of headlining massive venues like Massey. With mid-sized venues across the city disappearing, that’s a welcome addition.

Allied Music Centre at Massey Hall

“It’s been brutal!” says Kumagai of Toronto’s spate of venue closures. “Try finding the real estate in the city now that you can afford and figure out how to turn it into a venue that makes sense. It’s almost impossible. Which is why it was so important for us to build these small ones…. If you get rid of all the small rooms, it means that no one’s doing the development work to feature artists in rooms like this or to get people up to the arena level. You lose all those parts of the ecosystem. So you need it all. We want everybody in here, just making some music. Doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.”

That last part is important. While Massey is often associated with a certain plaid-wearing demographic, Kumagai is aware Canada’s musical landscape, like its population, is incredibly diverse. Part of the intent behind Massey’s revitalization was to make it appealing to artists of other genres. Adding removable main-floor seating—meaning the venue can now accommodate a general admission area—is a great start. It means they can now book acts that want a dancefloor. Or a mosh pit. Building back better never looked more fun.

Broken Social Scene performing at Massey Hall

“Whether it’s Majid Jordan or Mitski, we’ve had a pile of GA shows already that just transforms the vibe,” says Kumagai. “There were even people sitting up in the balcony soaking up that energy. The whole vibe has changed completely. We’re seeing people in the hall that we haven’t seen before. I’ve worked here since 2003; I can tell when it’s someone’s fifth time here or not, and when people come in and are looking around, you see they’re having that experience for the first time. I just love the fact that we’re really more open now. People are associating us with more than just the singer-songwriter thing, which to me, is beautiful. It’s moving forward.”

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