The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern marks its 70th birthday on December 6, 2017, and will celebrate with a series of very special concerts billed as the Horseshoe 70th Concert Series kicking off Tuesday, September 26 and running until December 31.
The series features notable artists doing multiple night ‘underplay residencies’, as well as one night stands by artists who have performed at the famed Toronto venue in previous decades.
There are more b-day events and concert series to be announced including the once-every-10-years private industry party on Tuesday, December 5th, and a special concert by a longtime H-Shoe artist on the actual birthday, Wednesday, December 6th.
Although the building at 370 Queen St. W. was erected in 1861 as a blacksmith’s shop, the Tavern’s storied music history began in 1947 once provincial liquor laws were ushered in, permitting longtime owner Jack Starr to convert the commercial property into a restaurant-tavern. In the mid-50’s Starr re-converted the bar to the Country Roots n’ Rockabilly Music Tavern, a 500 seat live music venue featuring country and rockabilly acts. Notorious bank robbers The Boyd Gang were known to be regulars but more noteworthy, the venue began sealing its reputation as a cultural musical institution, booking country superstars like Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, and Loretta Lynn to name a few. Stompin’ Tom Connors famously built his name at the Horseshoe playing extended residencies, and Starr became key in helping develop Canadian national and local acts like Ian and Sylvia Tyson and The Band.
Upon Starr’s retirement in the late 70’s, he rented the business to Toronto music promoters Gary Topp and Gary Cormier who quickly made a name for the venue by featuring a gamut of cutting edge and eclectic acts. The duo introduced Toronto to punk & new wave music like The Cramps, The Ramones, Talking Heads, MC-5, and famously bringing The Police to Canada for the first time. Unfortunately the Garys’ vision was miles ahead of its time and the venue closed under the weight of its own progression. Their final concert at the venue, known as the ‘Last Pogo’, became historic both for the music, the scene, and a documentary by filmmaker Colin Brunton.
Forgetting short stints as both another country club, and a strip club, an historic turn for the building occurred with the synthesis of Ken Sprackman closing the Hotel Isabella, deciding to drive cars to Florida while in-between occupations, and the building sitting empty. True story, Starr, an avid ‘snowbirder’ needed his car driven to Florida, Ken answered the call, they struck up a friendship, and before you know it, Ken became the next operator of the ‘Shoe. Really you can’t make this stuff up!
After Kenny modernized the bar for Starr, he was offered to buy the business, on one condition, Sprackman had to take Kingston resident Michael (X-Ray) Macrae, on as a partner. He had been bugging Starr for years to operate the venue. X-Ray introduced Kenny to his local friends Dan Aykroyd, and Richard Crook, and the four became the second generation owners of the H-Shoe Tavern.
Kenny and X-Ray re-invented the venue as we know it today. Sprackman managed the bar and revised venue operations, some of which impacted the entire Canadian Music industry. The duo introduced the ‘artist takes the door – the venue takes the bar’ booking policy – a radical move at the time which ultimately became the standard for local bookings in practically every original live music venue in the country. Similarly X-Ray focused on booking the music, he welcomed developing artists from St. John’s to Victoria, including The Watchmen, The Odds, Amanda Marshall, and with a focus on one emerging band from X-Ray’s hometown of Kingston, The Tragically Hip.
As the Toronto music scene began to coalesce next door at the Cameron House (which featured Handsome Ned and Jack Dekeyzer) and on Queen St with former punks like Greg Keelor, Jim Cuddy, and Bazil Donavan, who had a keen interest in Americana and Canadiana roots music. X-Ray also began importing the newest and best bands from Austin, Texas and the South. The Horseshoe quickly became the preferred touring showcase for new roots music, indie promoters, and was the go-to hangout for locals, music industry types and visiting celebrities.
Fast forward to the 90’s, when Jeff “JC” Cohen was hired by Kenny and X-Ray to lead the venue into the 21st century. Cohen had the distinction of opening the country’s first dedicated all-ages venue, ‘One Step Beyond’ (in Ottawa) and his punk-a-fied alternative music bio includes stints as a booking agent (Rheostatics, One, Lowest of the Low, Big Sugar, Malhavoc, Mahones) working alongside Ralph James, talent buyer (Apocalypse Club and El Mocambo), and management consultant. (The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, 13 Engines, Big Rude Jake)
Along with his then ‘assistant’ – and now ‘partner’ – Craig Laskey, the Horseshoe was given a shot of Garys like music adrenaline, cemented with initial bookings like Dick Dale, Link Wray, Olivia Tremor Control, the Oblivians, Neutral Milk Hotel, Wilco, the Old 97’s, Sunvolt, Neko Case, the Jayhawks, Golden Smog, and Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams’, while re-committing to being a national showcase for emerging Canadian artists like Nickelback, Great Big Sea, Joel Plaskett Emergency, and Big Wreck.
“I honestly thought Kenny and X-Ray would give us about the same short leash Starr gave the Garys,” says Cohen. “I thought our musical taste might be far too progressive for the venue, and Craig was always nervous about continually filling an entire week’s worth of bookings, but Kenny was extremely supportive from the get-go. He let us update the way the ‘Shoe ticketed shows and promoted its brand, and X-Ray loved our re-commitment to cutting edge roots music from Texas. He literally made us to go to our first SXSW in 1996, picked up Steve Jordan and us at the airport, insisted we head over to the Green Mesquite for our first ever Texas meal, and taught us where and what we should be seeing. SXSW became our primary source of A&R; it’s been like 22 years, and we haven’t missed one yet.’
By 1998, the venue’s reputation had evolved into the quintessential local venue to catch emerging artists like The National, Death Cab For Cutie, Spoon, and Frank Turner, new recording release showcases for Billy Bragg, Bad Religion, The Dropkick Murphys, Soundtrack Of Our Lives, and Foster The People, and surprise performances from industry heavyweights like the Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, Bryan Adams, Melissa Etheridge, The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, and Dead Weather.
In the fall of 1998 Cohen was brought in as managing partner, Laskey took over the talent buying, before he too became an owner in the mid 2000’s, along with in house comptroller Naomi Montpetit.
Says Cohen, “We’re 3rd generation owners, having been given the opportunity by X-Ray and Kenny [Sprackman] to guide the venue into modern times, and not fuck it up. It’s been close to 23 years now and I think I did ok. The ’Shoe is not just still in business, but the venue is just as relevant, musically, and culturally speaking, as it ever was, if not even more so.”
A couple of years back, local author David McPherson approached Craig and JC about writing a book about the venue, in which JC suggested would be an ideal tie to the 70th celebration. David spent years talking to artists, managers, staff, and the Starr family, gathering decades of stories for his upcoming book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History, set for publication by Dundurn Press on September 23.
The scene at the Horseshoe Tavern on Thursday November 23, 2017 was full of good tidings and singalongs. As the crowd got ready to celebrate the Horseshoe Tavern’s 70th with 54-40 – the energy in the room was ready to go in anticipation of what songs were going to be showcased and the potential memories that would be tapped into.
54-40 began in 1981 as a trio consisting of Brad Merritt (bass), Ian Franey (drums), and Neil Osborne (vocals/guitar). They made their recording debut that same year, with four tracks on the independent compilation LP Things Are Still Coming Ashore, which also featured music by Vancouver bands Animal Slaves and Junco Run. The following year, the band issued the EP Selection.
The band was keen to play all of their old music but also a wonderful selection of new tunes off their latest album, “Sucker For Your Love”. The new songs were feel good tracks and easy to dip into as you sipped your pint in front of the stage. At one point, the band was joined on stage by Osborne’s daughter, Kandle. She illuminated ‘Baby Ran’ and ‘I Go Blind’.
Last night’s show at Toronto The Horseshoe Tavern ached nostalgia. A nostalgia deeply connected to the Horseshoe’s legacy. Heart warming music for local folk (and perhaps not so local folk). Regardless of your lineage – like 54-40, the Horseshoe embraces fans of music in all of its rustic, vintage glory. 54-40’s fans were wide-eyed and eagerly danced where many had danced before on that wooden dance floor up front.
As the show concluded the good nights referred to the guy’s high school roots and perhaps how they still see themselves from small towns in British Columbia. Humility, kindness and genuineness. Osborne and the guys smiled goodbye with a cheeky hopeful intent that we’d see each other again soon. Indeed, we will.