That time when the O'Keefe Centre was the place to play
The date is October 4th, 2012, and Jack White is tearing it up onstage for the second straight night at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, a music venue Torontonians probably wouldn't immediately associate with intense rock concerts. The Peter Dickinson-designed building at 1 Front Street East with the angled, bulb-filled canopy has seen a steady parade of musicals, ballets and symphonies since its movie palace-style doors first opened almost 52 years to the day (October 1st, 1960). Being as much a student of rock history as he is a dynamic entertainer, don't think White isn't aware of the icons and heroes who have graced the St. Lawrence area building with their presence over the years.
Back in the 1960s, when hockey fans actually saw the Leafs sipping out of Lord Stanley's mug, O'Keefe Ale was one of Canada's best-selling beers and a logical initial sponsor of this eventual landmark. From 1960 until 1996, it was known as the O'Keefe Centre, and a number of high-profile tours chose to make their Toronto stop there due to its superior architectural acoustics. July 31st to August 5th, 1967 saw revolutionary promoter Bill Graham bring the San Francisco Scene in the form of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane for a weeklong residence during the infamous Summer of Love.
Led Zeppelin's twin bill on November 2nd, 1969 (a 5 PM as well as 8:30 PM show), freaked more than a few people out with their newfangled hard rock sound, but it was the precursor to them becoming the biggest band of the '70s. Speaking of which, David Bowie and his elaborate getup brought the glam to T.O. for the first time on June 16th, 1974 in support of Diamond Dogs. Bob Dylan was at the O'Keefe Centre for a 3-night stand between June 5th - 7th, 1990 in the midst of one of his neverending worldwide jaunts. It has even been used as a makeshift television studio; The Doors recorded a trippy version of "The End" there for the CBC on August 8th, 1967, which was broadcast later on an episode of the Noel Harrison-hosted program The Rock Scene: Like It Is.
To this day, the venue prides itself as being Canada's largest soft seat theatre. One of the more shameful incidents in the O'Keefe Centre's history no doubt occurred when numerous of those seats were ripped out by overzealous fans of The Clash on September 26th, 1979, causing thousands in damage at the height of Toronto's New Wave and punk obsession. It was one of the few black marks on the permanent record of a place many residents still refer to as the Hummingbird Centre, even though the latter only had naming rights from 1996 to 2007.
Not because Hummingbird Ltd. was a local software company bought out by Waterloo's Open Text Corporation primarily for its Exceed product, but because of the memorable, lower-key shows that were made to seem like one-off events. June 7th & 8th, 2006 - Radiohead previewed a bevy of new songs to a rapturous audience that will eventually be heard on "pay what you want" album In Rainbows, although not for another 16 months. August 23rd, 2006 - As part of a busy year which saw them return to town less than three months later, Foo Fighters stripped down to their skin and bones, acoustically-speaking, to reveal their tender side. September 22nd, 2007 - Beastie Boys threw "A Gala Event," an all-instrumental affair where attendees were encouraged to take advantage of the Centre's glamourous setting and dress up for the occasion. Sadly, it ended up being the Beasties' last ever Toronto appearance.
And speaking to the upscale feeling it has always exuded, no matter whose corporate name is on the marquee, who wouldn't have wanted to see classy artists such as the enigmatic Lou Reed (June 16th, 2000), swan dress-wearing Björk (October 7th & 8th, 2001), Mr. Cheerful himself, a.k.a. Morrissey (October 12th, 2004), or Marilyn Manson, for God's sake (July 26th, 2003), followed by sipping on a White Zinfandel in one of the spacious, artfully decorated lobbies?
It isn't the city's most booked concert hall, which adds a certain level of prestige for those fortunate enough to have played the elegantly renovated Sony Centre from the time when it reopened for the public in celebration of its 50th anniversary on October 1st, 2010. If you think it's a coincidence that on January 22nd & 23rd, 2011, Robert Plant was on the same stage with the Band of Joy that he was with Led Zeppelin 40+ years earlier, think back to the reverence someone like a Jack White has, who's cut from the same cloth as Plant.
He's not the only one; well before he and his Imposters dragged the colourful "Wheel of Songs" into Toronto on June 23rd, 2011, Elvis Costello made an appearance at the O'Keefe Centre back in November of 1978. His wife, Diana Krall, is no stranger to the place either. The jazz chanteuse tickled the ivories at the then Hummingbird Centre multiple times in the early-2000s. And you can't tell me Roger Daltrey wasn't aware of its reputation for being able to contain intensity in an intimate locale from all the times The Who were selling out the infinitely more cavernous Exhibition Stadium and Maple Leaf Gardens.
Anyone who was present on September 30th, 2011 to witness Tommy Reborn would surely agree that there's nowhere else in Toronto they would rather experience something like that. The Sony Centre seems to possess a certain majesty that is rooted in its unique combination of downtown convenience, gorgeously striking architecture and a healthy dash of glitz, topped off by a deceptively rich music history created by a parade of entertainers who have a genuine respect for the legacy they are helping build. Qualities that a great deal of other venues throughout Toronto would kill for.
Writing by Gilles LeBlanc
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