Madison Cunningham at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto Nov 4, 2021
by Tom Breen
Like many other North American cities with a vibrant live music scene, Toronto has suffered its share of challenges over these last twenty months, seeing venues shuttered (some permanently) and shows postponed repeatedly or outright cancelled. This is a town that loves its live entertainment, and audiences have been desperately anticipating a return to clubs, stadiums and dive bars to take in their favorite artists, and even just to be in the company of other likeminded music fans.
Madison Cunningham brought her show to Toronto this week, a small step in the gradual rehabilitation and reopening of the Toronto live music landscape. Where better to host this dynamic singer-songwriter, fresh from two nights in NYC at Madison Square Garden opening for pop sensation Harry Styles, than at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern on Queen St. West? The storied watering hole and performance space has hosted such noteworthy acts over the decades as Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones and The Ramones, as well as fostering the early careers of such well known Canadian acts as Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip and Joel Plaskett.
After a bracing opening set from Kentucky singer/songwriter S.G. Goodman, Madison Cunnigham stepped onto the historic Horseshoe stage Thursday night to the raucous applause of a robust crowd that has been thirsting for live performance for almost two years, and the San Diego native did not disappoint. Her opening offering was the poignant and topical “Last Boat to Freedom” from her 2018 For The Sake Of The Rhyme EP, and the charming lyrics and uptempo electric vibe behind the thoughtful delivery struck the tone for the evening.
Cunningham spent the rest of the night in the company of a rapt audience, backed by her energetic three piece band, delivering a sixteen song set full of power chords and deft caresses that wandered effortlessly amongst a diverse selection of her catalog to date, pulling songs from her various EPs and her full length album Who Are You Now.
The set was a journey of songcraft and candid self-reflection, with Cunningham peppering the time between songs with endearing stories and anecdotes that pulled her guests along with her for the ride. The show was very plugged in, the majority of songs delivered with adroit fret work on Madison’s varied collection of electric guitars, with her acoustic elements present on the appropriate numbers scattered throughout the set. The star of the show, of course, was Madison’s voice, all controlled strength and gentle power, a perfect instrument to fill the smallish space of the Horseshoe stage for an intimate audience. At times, shades of Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair and Joni Mitchell (who graced the Horseshoe stage herself many times as an emerging Canadian songstress) visited the set, but Madison Cunningham’s voice is unquestionably her own, and she is using it in the best way possible to share her stories.
Highlights of the night included a stirring rendition of the gentle ‘Beauty Into Cliches’, a fun romp through her 2019 hit “Pin It Down,” a strong solo acoustic delivery of”‘Life According to Raechel” (an ode to her late grandmother) and the quirky playfulness of “In From Japan.” The band and their engaging frontwoman delivered on every expectation, the set as strong and full as any patron could have hoped for that night.
Madison Cunningham brought an oasis of grooves and warmth on a chilly Canadian night, and the evening heralded not only a return to live music for a legendary venue, but another step in the rise of an emerging and evolving voice in Americana songwriting and performance. Frankly, we can’t wait to hear more from this exciting talent, and hope that her future travels continue to bring her to this side of the border. We The North are here for it. http://www.madisoncunningham.com