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Larger Than Life: Massey Hall’s Hamilton Connection

Crow Bar

The City of Hamilton and Toronto's Massey Hall share deep connections, going back more than 50 years. In 1971, seminal Steeltown rockers Crowbar played a show, which was later released as the first live in concert album by a Canadian band. Many Hamiltonians, like Tom Wilson, grew up seeing shows at the Grand Dame on Shuter Street in downtown Toronto; others only heard about its mystique from their parents or grandparents. Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) started going to concerts at the Hall as a teenager; the songwriter knew no matter who he went to see, that room was going to capture something in the performance and in the audience and it was going to connect. Wilson has played Massey Hall both as a solo performer, opening for Jeff Beck, and as a headliner with Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. In 2008, Hamilton native Daniel Lanois headlined a show at Massey Hall while more recently, Arkells have rocked that storied stage and Hamilton’s own Terra Lightfoot has brought her swagger to this temple of music. 

As six bagpipers played "Amazing Grace", the stage came alive with lights and smoke to reveal a huge cardboard cake. Before Crowbar even started to play, a topless woman emerged from the cake, followed by the band members.

Excerpt from Massey Hall by David McPherson © 2021.

The idea that you couldn’t make it in Canada unless you made it in the United States first really started in the late 1960s. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young both saw their dreams come to fruition in California, while Leonard Cohen found success in New York. Europeans were much more aware of American acts and lumped Canadian artists in with them. In the early 1970s, the music press in the U.K. weren’t aware of the variety of unique songwriters and groups that were emerging in Canada. Massey Hall has helped support homegrown talent throughout its existence: from booking some of the first performances from giants like Gould and Peterson, to being the stage where artists such as the Tragically Hip, Jann Arden, and Barenaked Ladies found an annual home decades later. So it’s fitting that the venue was chosen to showcase our musicians to the world early in the 1970s. In 1972, music journalist Ritchie Yorke and Arnold Gosewich (president of Capitol Records Canada at the time) invited about a hundred European record producers and reporters to Canada for an all-expenses-paid trip to experience this emerging scene. Dubbed the Maple Music Junket, the trip included visits to Montreal and to Toronto, where a pair of memorable back-to-back shows occurred at Massey Hall. These gigs changed things for Canadian musicians. Once again, the hall played a key role in advancing and promoting our culture and artists to the world.

American country crooner George Hamilton IV, a regular at the Horseshoe Tavern in the 1960s, emceed the first show on June 6. The Mercey Brothers opened, followed by Christopher Kearney, Murray McLauchlan, Fergus, Bruce Cockburn, Gary Buck, and Perth County Conspiracy.

“This event was about trying to get us in the position where a Valdy, or any one of these Canadian musicians, could be a musician who doesn’t rely on being a cover band,” says Bill King, whose first time playing Massey Hall was as part of the Junket lineup backing up singer-songwriter Chris Kearney. “They needed to do something to say we have an industry of artists who are developing that will be performing artists. This is what the Junket was about.”

The second night saw Edward Bear open, followed by Fludd, April Wine, Mashmakhan, Pepper Tree, and Lighthouse. Hamilton rockers Crowbar capped off the evening, and they knew they had to make a statement despite the fact that the visiting journalists were worn out from the whirlwind trip. As Crowbar’s drummer, Sonnie Bernardi, reflected years later, “We really had to do something to catch these fellas and entertain them.”

And what an entrance the band made. As six bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” the stage came alive with lights and smoke to reveal a huge cardboard cake. Before Crowbar even started to play, a topless woman emerged from the cake, followed by the band members. Larger-than-life lead singer Kelly Jay was the last to appear, opening bottles of champagne, sharing it with those in the front row and spraying others in the audience. A high-energy set followed and not a soul in the hall remained in their seats, everyone standing up, clapping, hooting, and hollering. Bernardi believes Crowbar’s performance made a lasting impression and even helped the band get the slots and venues they did when they finally toured in Europe. 

It wasn’t just Crowbar that benefitted; the Junket served to leave a lasting impression that helped to distinguish Canadian music from that coming out of America. In archival interview footage, one reporter states, “I thought Canadian music is the same like American music, but now I know the difference.”

Larger Than Life (and Live’r Than You’ve Ever Been)

Crowbar 1971, Daffodil Records

A billboard advertising the concert hung high above Yonge Street. T-shirts were made. The show, held on September 23, 1971, was billed as “An Evening of Love with Daffodil Records.” The concert was later released as the double album Larger Than Life (And Live’r Than You’ve Ever Been). Numerous guests appeared with the band that night, including members of Lighthouse, Dr. Music, and Everyday People. King Biscuit Boy also returned to perform with his former Crowbar bandmates. The recording and release of the album are significant as being the first time a Canadian band had recorded and released a “live in concert” album. It was also the first time that a live concert was broadcast simultaneously on CHUM. Larger Than Life went Gold 17 days after its release, becoming the first live album by a Canadian artist to do so. Frank Davies, who was then president of Daffodil Records, says the concert enshrined the band into Canadian rock ’n’ roll folklore.  Click here to hear the live album 

Excerpt from Massey Hall by David McPherson © 2021. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press Limited.