TORONTO — Gordon Lightfoot’s ties to Massey Hall stretch back to his childhood, so it’s fitting he will be the last performer at the legendary venue before it undergoes major renovations this summer.
The 79-year-old singer plays three concerts — Friday, Saturday and Canada Day on Sunday — before Massey begins interior and exterior repairs that are expected to last two years.
“It’s a time of joy for us, it’s a spiritual thing,” says Lightfoot of performing at the venue, which he’s done countless times throughout his career.
“I have an affinity for Massey Hall that’s very strong. It’s been my venue since 1966.”
Actually, if you count Lightfoot’s appearances there as a teenager, it’s been his venue for much longer. He first stepped onto its stage at 13 years old, he says, after winning a music competition for young singers.
The performance set alight a career of songwriting that left an indelible mark on the Canadian music canon, helped by tracks like “If Your Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown.”
Thousands of prominent artists performed at Massey over its 124 years — including Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who famously recorded his “Live at Massey Hall 1971” album in the space — but few demonstrated an unwavering loyalty quite like Lightfoot.
In 1967, he started a tradition of playing annual concerts in the venue, something that he continued for years before scaling back to appearances every two years.
Lightfoot says he doesn’t consider his upcoming run of shows a farewell to Massey, only a brief parting of ways.
“When it’s open and ready to go, we’ll go back in there again,” Lightfoot assures.
“Let the chips fall where they may.”
Lightfoot reflected on his memories of Massey Hall with The Canadian Press and looked towards his plans for the three dates over the weekend.
CP: Your ties to Massey Hall start at an earlier age than most other musicians. You first stepped onto its stage when you were barely a teenager, as the winner of the Kiwanis Music Festival in your hometown of Orillia, Ont. What was that night like for you?
Lightfoot: It was a beautiful thing to stand there unamplified, accompanied by a piano. I remember the thrill of being in front of the crowd. We had a lot of people in there. And it was a stepping stone for me. I was getting somewhere. After me, there was a clarinet player, a young guy about 14 years old, who did his solo and it reminded me of something you’d hear in a Mozart arrangement. This kid was so good. I never forgot him.
CP: Was Massey Hall your first very large crowd?
Lightfoot: You could say so. I was doing events all around. I was playing at weddings, all the various clubs, the ladies auxiliary in the Orillia area. My dad took us all out to dinner at a restaurant in Toronto when we were down. My father did all the driving — Gord Sr., my dad — he had to drive me everywhere.
CP: How long was it before you returned to Massey Hall to perform again?
Lightfoot: I did an event with the (Orillia barbershop harmony quartet) sometime around 17 years old. One of the events we were on featured the Buffalo Bills, one of the great quartets of barbershopping. We got on the front end of one of their shows. The third time would’ve been with Oscar Brand, a musicologist and performer. He presented a show there in the hootenanny era between 1960 and 1963.
CP: People talk about the uniqueness of the venue, everything from its steep seating to this historic structure resting in the heart of downtown Toronto. As a performer, is there anything that makes Massey Hall one-of-a-kind to you?
Lightfoot: It has a character all its own and it breathes when you’re up there. It’s the way the audience of this place surrounds you. It sweeps around you. I love halls that go right up into the ceiling.
CP: Do you have any fond memories of seeing other performers at the venue?
Lightfoot: I witnessed quite a few shows in there. I remember going down to see Stan Getz (an American jazz saxophonist) at one time and Oscar Peterson another. My goodness, I saw Luciano Pavarotti there. I think of the times I’ve been to see the Toronto Symphony. I would’ve liked to have gone more often. I went to see the (Toronto) Mendelssohn Choir, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, more recently Neil Young. I’ve gone to a lot shows there.
CP: Clearly the venue struck a chord with you, since you made a habit of playing there nearly every year.
Lightfoot: After a while it became tradition. All of my kids come down, all of my former wives. It’s kind of a family reunion for me. Sometimes you even feel their feathers are being ruffled every once in awhile. That’s part of the tradition. I’ve got my grandkids, my cousins drive in from out of town. Everybody gets into hotels. It’s lots of fun having people around.
CP: Have any musicians expressed interest in joining you on stage this week as special guests?
Lightfoot: We’ve had some rustles here and there. I’ve thought about that. I think we’ll just go in there and get the job done.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press