At Spadina: The Horseshoe Tavern
It's 10 p.m. on a weeknight, and Milo & the Bad Lads are on stage at the Horseshoe Tavern, tuned up and ready to go.
"Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the legendary Horseshoe Tavern," lead singer Milo McMahon, 24, bellows into the microphone before the smattering of people in the dark room at the back of the bar.
Above the garage-band trio hangs the age-old, red-and-gold "Horseshoe Tavern" sign. Around them, epic rock 'n' roll nights past take shape in photographs, set lists and yellowing newspaper clippings plastered on the walls.
Blue Rodeo lead singer Jim Cuddy calls the Horseshoe Tavern "the Mecca for music," housing the "embryonic Canadian roots scene."
On a street that continues to be home to numerous rock 'n' roll landmarks — including The Rivoli and The Cameron in the west and the Opera House in the east — the 'Shoe is the most storied.
It's the second Horseshoe gig for Milo & the Bad Lads, a feat the emerging band take in stride as they strike the first chord of "Feel Alive" on the same stage once graced by The Rolling Stones, The Police, the Tragically Hip and countless others.
"I try not to think about it too much or I'll forget the chords," McMahon says, admitting the pressure his band — which includes Chris Canton on bass and James Miller on drums — feels when taking the stage.
From the sidewalk, the 'Shoe is a reminder of Queen St. W. past. Once attracting artists and students with cheap rents and cheaper beer, the stretch has become a hub of chic boutiques, chain stores and upscale coffee shops.
Flanked on either side by a cellphone store and a closed-down lounge, the Horseshoe Tavern — near the corner of Queen and Spadina — is as unassuming as it is iconic.
"This is a bar with floorboards soaked with beer and walls held together by gig posters," says Alan Cross, a Toronto-based music writer and former host of 102.1 The Edge's "Ongoing History of New Music."
It's all part of the charm, 64 years in the making.
Toronto entrepreneur Jack Starr bought space in the building at 368-370 Queen W. in 1947. He turned it into an 87-seat tavern and called it Jack Starr's Country Roots 'n' Rockabilly Tavern, serving food and occasionally hosting live music.
In the mid-1950s, Starr converted the original bar into a 500-seat live music club featuring appearances by country sensations Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Loretta. The music on offer at the venue evolved from blues and folk in the 1960s to rock and punk in the 1970s.
The punk-rock phase proved near disastrous, and the owners were forced to shut down the establishment in 1978.
Before closing the doors, promoters Gary Cormier and Garry Topp threw a now-infamous goodbye party dubbed "The Last Pogo," a punk-rock showcase featuring The Scenics, The Cardboard Brains, The Viletones, Teenage Head and others that ended in a riot when police tried to shut down the show.
Starr, who retired in 1976, returned in 1983 to encourage Toronto businessman Kenny Sprackman and three others —including Dan Aykroyd — to buy the club.
The once-thriving music club was resurrected — and so began the "modern era" of the Horseshoe Tavern.
Under the direction of Jeff Cohen and Craig Laskey, the place brought in local, emerging talent. Teaming up with 102.1 The Edge radio host Dave Bookman for "Nu Music Nites," the club provided newer bands the chance to perform early in the week. Weekends were reserved for bigger acts.
"It's a room that gives young bands a chance," says Joel Plaskett, who has played the 'Shoe with former band Thrush Hermit and more recently, Joel Plaskett Emergency. "It's a really incredible place and an important place in
Cuddy remembers Blue Rodeo's first few gigs at the tavern in the 1980s.
"People pay attention to the Horseshoe . . . it's a tastemaker," he says. "It was the first evidence that Canadians really loved their own music."
For now semi-retired co-owner Kenny Sprackman, it's all about those "magic moments."
"You never know what's going to happen there," he says.
Asked about a favourite memory, Sprackman describes the time in 1989 when The Band was playing on stage and Robbie Robertson —who had not played with the group for several years — walked in the back door and got on stage.
As for Milo & the Bad Lads, even a second gig at the Horseshoe is thrilling.
Says McMahon: "This is the most standout, epic place we've played."
'Milo and The Bad Lads' members Milo McMahon, left, Chris Canton, right, and James Miller, It’s the second Horseshoe gig for the band, on the same stage once graced by The Rolling Stones, The Police, the Tragically Hip and countless others..
AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR
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