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‘I love the vibe,’ but hate the rules: Burton Cummings on Massey Hall

Musician, composer Burton Cummings is photographed on Oct 22 2012 during an interview at Massey Hall in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Clap for the wolfman, and clap for Burton Cummings too. The singer-pianist sat down last week at Massey Hall to discuss his new live album, Massey, recorded at the venerable Toronto hall. We found him in feisty form, with no time for Auto-Tune, union rules and dirt-dishing autobiographies.

Why did you decide to record your album at Massey Hall? Unlike Gordon Lightfoot, you're not associated with the venue.

The sound. The sound here is wonderful. It's mostly wood and carpet. There's very little metal and stone for the sound to reverberate.

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Does it matter? Anything can be fixed and sweetened after the fact, right?

I wanted to make this record as original as possible. Sure, you can fix it up with Auto-Tune and digital delays. That's okay for some people, but we tried to keep this really honest. And I don't use Auto-Tune. I sing in key, thank you very much.

Still, I imagine there was some repair work involved.

Very little. The odd piano clunker – I'm not going to leave that in there. I sweat so much. My hands are drenched and they slip off the black keys. I'm not Bill Evans. I'm not Keith Jarrett. I'm basically a singer who plays along with his voice.

Putting out rerecordings of classic songs, were you worried about the live versions not measuring up to the originals?

That was my main concern. You can't be lame about it. I really wanted the performances to be as good as the records. In some cases I think I've topped them.

Are you talking about Hand Me Down World? I understand you were never happy with the original recording.

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Yeah. It does sound better. I never liked the original record. [Producer] Jack Richardson was wonderful, but they missed the boat on that one. It was an awful recording of a great song.

As a song it stands up well.

The lyrics could have been written last night. That was [Guess Who songwriter-guitarist] Kurt Winter's song. Don't give me no hand me down world, man, that's exactly what's going on right now, with the green movement. And Share the Land still has optimism for the future. It still makes sense to me.

What's your history with Massey Hall? Did the Guess Who play here?

The first time I played here was right after I went solo, in 1976. When the Guess Who were flying high, we played Maple Leaf Gardens. I'm not being arrogant about it, but I think Massey was a little too small back when we had American Woman and No Sugar Tonight and Share the Land and Wolfman and all those records.

The second of the two shows taped for this live album happened last year, with your induction into Canada's Walk of Fame. You broke Massey's notorious curfew, right?

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I paid the fine that night. It was $3,000 or $4,000, I think. This place is like being in lockup. I love the hall. I love the sound. I love the vibe. It's the union nonsense that makes you crazy. I mean, today we're doing an interview here, and we're not allowed to step onto the stage. Well, excuse me. Is this the Vatican? You find a lot of this nonsense with the CBC too.

The Guess Who once worked for the CBC, correct?

In the sixties we did two years of weekly television in Winnipeg. There were more rules than Heinz has pickles. Every time you turned around you were doing something wrong. It's the same here at Massey. I love the hall, but I don't like the big brother feeling.

Another Winnipegger who you know, Neil Young, has just put out an autobiography. Any chance of you doing the same?

My book is already online. I can type 150 words a minute. I took typing in high school. I can put up a blog in 10 seconds. There's like 14,000 pages on blogs in the last four years.You can download it for free.

Any kiss-and-tell stuff?

That's just it. Everybody wants the dirt. There's risqué stuff, but it's all about me. I've told people about bad acid trips and almost dying and the many, many times I dodged a bullet. I don't hold back. I'm almost 65 years old. I don't have to keep secrets any more about myself. But, about other people, why stir up dirt? There's no reason.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Recorded live at Massey

Burton Cummings's new album Massey is one in a long lineage of live recordings taped at the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street.

Jazz at Massey Hall (1953): With a title that is both perfunctory and elegantly absolute, the album captures the be-bop meeting of giants named Gillespie, Parker, Powell, Mingus and Roach.

An expanded version, Complete Jazz at Massey Hall, was released in 2004.

Rush's All the World's a Stage (1976): After bassist Geddy Lee watched Jack Bruce and Cream perform at Massey Hall in 1968 – none other than Burton Cummings was also in the audience – he decided to devote himself to the trio format. Eight years later, Rush recorded a foundation-shaking double album at the same venue.

Let it Rock (1995): Ronnie Hawkins led an all-star rockestra, with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Jeff Healey and members of the Band trying not to step on each other's blue suede shoes.

Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (2002): Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Michael Brecker, John Patitucci and Brian Blade celebrate Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to Grammy-winning effect.

Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007): A solo-acoustic homecoming from the maple-blooded singer-songwriter. An accompanying DVD uses synched footage from a concert in Connecticut on the same tour.

Gordon Lightfoot's Sunday Concert (1976) and All Live (2012): King George V, Wilfrid Laurier, Winston Churchill and the Dalai Lama have graced the boards there, but it is the rainy-day troubadour who rules at Massey.

Neil Young Journeys (2012): "They give you this, but you pay for that." After sound perfectionist Young discovered the digital files of Jonathan Demme's film were of slightly inferior quality, he went back to Massey and played the mixes through the PA system and rerecorded the house sound at a higher resolution.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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