History & Criticism

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Centre and Periphery, Roots and Exile

Centre and Periphery, Roots and Exile

Interpreting the Music of István Anhalt, György Kurtág, and Sándor Veress
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The Flyer Vault

The Flyer Vault

150 Years of Toronto Concert History
also available: eBook
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The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History has been a long time coming. Although I saw the Supremes at the O’Keefe Centre when I was 11, my first real rock show was Jefferson Airplane at the same venue in the spring of 1970. In the years since those first two shows, I have seen easily 2,000, maybe even 3,000 concerts. From the start, I kept a handwritten list of every show, noting the date, venue, and name of each artist in the order they appeared onstage.

Over the years I would hear about shows that happened before my time, such as Cream at Massey Hall, Led Zeppelin at the Rock Pile, and festivals such as the Rock and Roll Revival, which featured the Doors and John Lennon at Varsity Stadium, all of which I had missed by just a year or two. By the time I was 15, I was writing for rock and roll magazines and eventually I became an ethnomusicologist and a professor of music. My interest in all things popular music continued to expand both forward and backward in time.

Several years ago I began to try to document all the shows from the 1960s that occurred before I started going to concerts. This led back into the 1950s, and eventually, given my disparate tastes in music and what I do in my professional life, I kept going farther back in time, curious about whether heroes of mine, such as John Coltrane, Hank Williams, Bessie Smith, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, had ever played Toronto.

In the meantime, on his own life path, Daniel Tate was working the street team beat for a local concert company from 1995 to 2005 and started collecting flyers and posters. Daniel eventually accumulated a collection of several thousand flyers, storing them in a bin at his parents’ home. Twenty or so years later, he started the well-known Instagram account The Flyer Vault, where he posted some of the gems in his collection along with contextual commentary about each respective show.

In the fall of 2017 Daniel reached out to me. I had done the research and written the liner notes for three different CD sets of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Daniel wanted to know if I had any flyers for the group’s legendary shows at the Hawk’s Nest in 1969 and 1970. I didn’t, but over coffee, while looking through Daniel’s incredible collection on his laptop, we quickly figured out that our interests, knowledge, and individual collections dovetailed perfectly. With each of us spurring the other on, over many months Daniel’s collection of posters, flyers, and concert advertisements expanded to about 8,000 items while my database of musical performances in Toronto increased at a similar rate. Daniel’s earliest image was an incredible advertisement for Jenny Lind’s famous performances at the St. Lawrence Hall in 1851, while I had found references to music performances by touring ensembles playing Toronto going back to 1840, a mere six years after the city incorporated. We decided that a book comprised of a number of Daniel’s images combined with my contextual knowledge would be a worthwhile project. So, here we are.

While both of us have wide interests in music and music history, we decided from the start that, with the exception of Jenny Lind and the first Toronto performances by the famous African American soprano Sissieretta Jones, we were not going to include classical music in the project. What we have done is complicated and unwieldy enough. To adequately document performances of Western art music in Toronto would require a wholly separate book unto itself. We also decided to use the year 2000 as a cut-off date. Maybe in a subsequent volume we will take on the Toronto concert scene in the 21st century.

Narrowing down Daniel’s collection of 8,000 images to the approximately 170 images included in this book was an extraordinarily difficult and painful task. There are hundreds of additional images we would have loved to have included. There were similar problems in writing the text (Daniel wrote the Hip Hop, Contemporary R&B, and Electronic and Dance Music chapters; I wrote all the others). The more we dug into this project, the more we uncovered; consequently, the project kept shapeshifting. New information would come to light and we’d realize that what we previously thought were the earliest performances in a given genre or by a given artist were completely wrong and we’d have to rewrite. This was especially true the farther back in time we went.

For anything before the mid-1960s, we had to rely heavily on newspaper articles, ads, and reviews. Both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail are digitized. The Star goes back to 1894, while the Globe was first published in 1844. Being able to digitally search back issues of those two papers made this project possible. While we both did substantial work with microfilm copies of the now-defunct Toronto Telegram, Share, and Contrast, and had access to print copies of Toronto’s NOW magazine, the majority of what we were able to access came from the Globe and the Star. If we had several more years and could go through every issue of the Telegram, the Toronto Sun, and earlier newspapers such as the Toronto World and Toronto Empire, I am sure we would find information and stories about concerts that we at present don’t know about. So, there are bound to be things we’ve missed or have gotten wrong.

We have organized the chapters by genre. Obviously, at times there will be overlap, so punk performances appear in both the chapter focused on punk, new wave, and hardcore, as well as in the chapter that covers the Queen Street scene of the late 1970s and 1980s. The book focuses on touring shows coming to Toronto, but we also tried to reference many, but perhaps not nearly enough, of the great local artists that have been so important to Toronto’s nightlife going back to the 19th century.

At times, especially for early material, for which reviews are rare and seldom very informative and there’s nobody alive who can tell us anything about the shows, the chapters can become a little bit like encyclopedia entries. And, while fascinating in terms of sheer information, these do not have as many stories as we would have liked. We tended to focus on debut performances by artists and shows that for one reason or another were exceptional. For example, we talk about the Rolling Stones’ first appearances in Toronto in the 1960s, as well as the famous El Mocambo show in 1977, but we don’t talk about the group’s appearances in 1972, 1975, 1989, 1994, etc. If we had taken any other approach, the book would have ballooned to the point of being unpublishable.

When looking back at the wealth of information that we accumulated in researching this book, it is fascinating to see how early Toronto became one of the most important cities for touring musicians in North America, and, by extension, the world. This was largely because of the railway that connected Toronto to Detroit (beginning in 1856); in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Toronto was considered part of a Midwest circuit that included Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. In later years, when Toronto became the largest city in Canada, it served as a sort of gateway to the country. Subsequently, it evolved, alongside New York and Los Angeles, into one of the three cities in North America that bands simply had to play. For more than a century and a half, Toronto has been an extraordinary place to see the world’s greatest musicians perform. Its history in this regard is something to marvel at.

— Rob Bowman

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