An Ontario Road Trip Inspired by the Band: Part 2, Toronto
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Here we are! Part 2 of our road trip focused on spots that were important to The Band's history in Ontario. If you missed part 1, give it a read OR go check out The Band podcast where we talked about the whole thing. I was given the opportunity to chat with the host, Tyrell Lisson, and the episode is now LIVE!
Toronto is a hotspot for The Band and with good reason. As their career climbed, so too did the city’s music scene. While some of the venues that once housed their live performances have come and gone, others have remained iconic pieces of the city that will go down in history. Toronto is probably the coolest part of the road trip because you can see iconic spots from the beginning of their career and then tie it all together with venues like Massey Hall through the Bob Dylan phase and their triumphant return. The best part? These spots are all within a 26-minute driving range or 7.6km (in good traffic, of course...I take no responsibility for Toronto at rush hour).
Disclaimer: Of course, due to COVID-19, travel is not a safe option for everyone right now. If you're not from Southwestern, Ontario, consider using this blog as a way to plan for a future trip! If you are, be aware and plan ahead as some restaurants and stops along the way may be only open to locals, have altered hours etc.
Stop 1: The Former Coq D’or/ The Hawk’s Nest
Address: 333 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON.
Right now, if you stood at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, you would see a store called Tokyo Smoke- a high end cannabis store surrounded by brands like Five Guys, Winners and more but back in the 50s and 60s, 333 Yonge Street was hopping.
Opening in the late 40s, The Coq D’or became one of the most popular rock n’ roll entertainment spots of the 50s and 60s. It became popular first in 1947 among military men returning from WWII. New, easier liquor laws made Le Coq D’or a popular watering hole because they could finally offer entertainment and booze at the same time. That hadn’t been the case before.
Ronnie Hawkins began gigging here as far back as 1958 when it was a high class cocktail lounge but by the 1960s, it became a little grittier like many of the other venues along Yonge Street: The Colonial, Steele’s Tavern, Friar’s Tavern- you get it. The area was hoppin’. This spot is significant to The Band because on July 11th, 1960, Ronnie & The Hawks played their first Canadian gig there and again they played in 1963. According to a recent Vice article, Ronnie & The Hawks played residencies at Le Coq D’or six nights a week, on and off for over a decade.
To paint a picture, it was sort of a western-style bar with saddle bar stools, red walls and more.
During its hey-day, in 1965, Ronnie Hawkins opened The Hawk’s Nest right above the venue as a teen dance club. He hosted loads of awesome acts including The Kinks and Steppenwolf when they were still known as The Sparrows.
This venue stayed open until the 80s, it turned into a strip club, closed down and then became the flagship store in Toronto for HMV and was iconic that way in and of itself. Today, like I said, it’s Tokyo Smoke but take some time to check out Yonge Street. Right across from the Eaton Centre, it’s still a pretty happening hub in Toronto.
Drive Time to Next Stop:15 mins
Stop 2: Long & McQuade, The Former Concord Tavern
Address: 925 Bloor St. W. Toronto
This is a great stop for music lovers! While Once home of the infamous Concord Tavern, another early Toronto venue for Ronnie & The Hawks, today 925 Bloor St. W. hosts a large Long & McQuade music store. Pop in and check out the instruments, housed in the iconic venue that opened in 1948 and managed to hang tight until 1983. Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks played 2-week long residencies here in November of 1961 and 2 more in August and September of ‘64 at their popular Twist and Dance Nights.
Next Stop: 15 minutes
Stop 3: Massey Hall
Address: 178 Victoria St, Toronto, ON
Massey Hall is Ontario’s, if not Canada’s, most iconic music venue and for good reason. Built between 1892 and 1894, Massey Hall was taken under the belt of Hart Massey in honour of his son who had passed from typhoid. The building would remain Canada’s only venue built specifically for music until the 1920s.
This nationally and provincially designated historic site has incredible acoustics and an ambience that can’t be beat. In addition to that, it’s had a storied history of amazing musicians from Gordon Lightfoot who basically took up the hall as a second home (he’s played over 150 times there) to Neil Young who recorded his infamous live album there and many, MANY others.
Among those many, many others was Bob Dylan who played back to back nights on November 14th and 15th 1965 with Levon & The Hawks. Dylan played two sets: one acoustic and the second electric. You might guess that that second set got booed pretty badly. In a review by Bruce Lawson the next day, The Globe & Mail said the following:
“The first half of the jingle-jangle evening ends, and we know we have seen and heard part of what we use to know as the real Dylan...reinforced by the Hawk beat and almost every electronic gadget ever invented to boost noise to the unbearable level. Then he sings about a one-eyed dwarf.”
Lawson also quoted other reviews from the evening: “He was the greatest writer,” said one, emphasizing the past tense. “He’s just a cheap imitation of the Beatles,” bewailed another.
This wouldn’t be The Band’s last chance to play the venue though. The Band came back as headliners in 1970 to play a set. Appropriately the next day, The Globe and Mail headline read as follows: "Home again, The Band does it right.”
Currently, Massey Hall is undergoing its largest renovation to date. Updating the venue and working with Toronto Heritage, these renovations will finish in 2021, making the venue more accessible, adding a little bit of comfort (those chairs up in the gallery were super uncomfortable) and bringing back the iconic stained glass windows to their former glory after being covered by plywood since the 80s. Finally and probably most importantly, the ceiling which has been crumbling since the 1960s will be getting some much needed love.
Once that’s done, Massey Hall will be resuming public tours and I definitely recommend checking it out (and catching a show!). Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Stop 4: Varsity Stadium
Address: 299 Bloor St W., Toronto, ON
Part of the University of Toronto campus, Varsity Stadium is an outdoor football stadium that once hosted the infamous Toronto Pop Festival in 1969- the Band’s first Canadian performance where they were actually called The Band.
Started by Ken Walker and John Brower, it was the country’s first pop festival and has gone down in history for a seriously epic line up. With 28 groups, over 200 performs all within two days from 12pm-12am- it was a serious party. We’re talking Velvet Underground, Sly & The Family Stone and ol’ Ronnie Hawkins himself. Tickets were $6 for the day or $10 for both.
Stop 5: Maple Leaf Gardens
Address: 250 Carlton St, Toronto, ON.
Not to be outdone, Maple Leaf Gardens is another incredibly iconic spot in Toronto, not just for it’s music history (which is crazy) but also for its sports history. Originally built to host hockey games, it officially opened in 1931 with its opening night being a game between the Maple Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks. In 1961, Maple Leaf Garden expanded its seating and sold out every single game for almost a decade. While the Maple Leafs eventually moved out of the arena, it’s music history is worth talking about too.
First of all- Elvis played one of his first non-American shows here in 1957 and The Beatles stopped by in ‘65, ‘66 and ‘67. Impressive right? Among others were ABBA, Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen and yeah, you guessed it: Bob Dylan with the boys for back to back nights in January 1974. Recordings of this performance are available too:
And so your epic road trip comes to a close!
Thank you so much for reading. There were so many spots through out Ontario that the band touched and we certainly couldn't include them all. We hope you enjoyed what we covered and are able to take your own road trip inspired by the band one day! Don't forget to listen to the podcast.
Peace, love & history.