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New chapter for the Masonic Temple


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From The Globe And Mail.

New chapter for the Masonic Temple

BRAD WHEELER

Canadian rocker Sam Roberts and American hip-hop artist Kanye West cut the ribbon Tuesday evening on Toronto's freshly renovated Masonic Temple, a storied venue subject to more rebirths than even Shirley MacLaine.

Commanding the uptown corner of Yonge and Davenport, the stone structure's gala rechristening as a live concert space came precisely one month after Canada's MTV franchise launched. Packed with media, contest winners and music-industry types (not exactly the usual crowds for Roberts or West), the performances took on a film-premiere air, complete with search lights, red carpets and other celebratory flourishes.

Although the success of the fledgling Canadian network remains to be seen, the venue itself is a triumph. Under the direction of 3rd Uncle design, the same firm responsible for the city's stylish Drake Hotel, roughly $9-million was spent to restore the concert hall to its past dignity, and then some.

The Montreal-based Sam Roberts Band took to the stage first, taking its place under an ornate proscenium arch. The hall's new sound system was formidable, handling the bass-driven psychedelic rock comfortably and warmly. The sound, projected by two metre speakers hanging high to each side of the stage and managed by a NASA-level sound board, carried better on the floor than to the balcony level.

Although 10 cameras recorded the event, Roberts paid little mind to the filming, performing just as he would at a normal show. He drew from his Juno-winning We Were Born in a Flame from 2003, as well as the just-released album Chemical City.

Owned and operated by CTV, MTV in Canada took over the cable space of talktv, a defunct specialty channel with an all-talk mandate. Because MTV is beholden to the same broadcast licence as talktv, any live concerts filmed at the Masonic Temple will air on CTV. (Tuesday's show is scheduled for a May 12 broadcast.) During the long process to convert the stage to Kanye West's requirements, a crowd of 600 or so milled around a room half the size of a basketball court. Film equipment, including a camera mounted on swooping space-arm-like jib, took up a good amount of the balcony space, while catwalk runways on the edges of the main level further diminished the room's capacity. Take away the television-studio elements, and the venue has a capacity of approximately 1,200, according to Brad Schwartz, senior vice-president and general manager of MTV in Canada.

"It's obviously a television studio," Schwartz said, remarking on the hall's refurbishment. "But it's also a live-music venue. We restored it with an ear and an eye to the past, and we respected the history."

The hall's main use will be the home for MTV Live, an evening news and lifestyle show. Although it would be a highly desirable mid-size venue for touring acts, CTV has no plans to rent out the hall, according to Schwartz. "But if Radiohead or Arcade Fire want to film an unplugged show or something that like, are we going to say no? Of course not."

Headline act West, a braggadocio rapper with modest singing skills, performed with a female 12-piece string ensemble, a backing-vocal duo that included Canadian rhythm and blues star Jully Black and laptop music sampler A-Trak, also a Canadian. Hits such as Gold Digger (built around a Ray Charles sample), Touch the Sky (Curtis Mayfield) and Jesus Walks got their play.

During breaks, a microphone-holding crowd-rouser suggested that "history was in the making," perhaps alluding to the building's past. Built by the Masons in 1918 at a cost of $220,864, the Masonic Temple has undergone several makeovers and name changes over the years.

After decades as a music hall, CTV purchased the building in 1998 and used it as the home studio for Open Mike with Mike Bullard. Famously, the Rolling Stones twice employed the venue as a rehearsal space, in 1997 and 2002.

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