Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham played two nights at the Lodge Room, two stops of her 26-city ‘All I’ve Ever Known’ tour, and I had the pleasure to attend the first night on Tuesday. Madison has been dazzling people with her amazing guitar skills since she was a teenager – she picked up a guitar at 7 – and she managed to impress multi-instrumentalist and studio guru Tyler Chester at the tender age of 15. An accomplished singer-songwriter, her debut LP ‘Who Are You Now’ was nominated for Best Americana Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards, and she will be opening for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden at the end of October.
However, label mate and opener S.G. Goodman deserved plenty of the crowd’s attention, as she immediately won everyone with her Southern tales, and her vulnerable voice going up and down with palpable emotion and yearning. This was contrasting with her deep register and sincere Southern twang she had when she told us funny stories between songs. I knew very little about S.G. Goodman, but she made sure we all knew who she was by the end of her set, as she said she would repeat her name 7 times before she was done. But that was really not necessary, as you had to be really deaf to ignore her greatness, and when she sang the heartbreaking Roy Orbison-esque ‘Space and Time,’ I don’t think anyone in the room was left indifferent. The space is her native Kentucky and the time is now as her album touches on the social and economic issues of the South, the struggles of common people. You could put her Jim-James-produced debut album ‘Old Time Feeling’ under the wide and vague umbrella of the Americana genre, but S.G. Goodman is much more than this. Her songs gave me many different vibes, while her center-stage voice reminded me of a myriad of female artists such as Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett, Cat Power, and Angel Olsen. She went from stomping bluesy style (‘The Way I Talk’) to the catchy and biting ‘Old Time Feeling’ that could sum up her political message: ‘Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change/And then the most of them do something strange/They move where everybody feels the same.’
Beyond her complex and atmospheric songs – you could almost hear the delicate noise of wind chimes or the wind blowing through a desolated plain – S.G. Goodman certainly had a message and a contract going way beyond making her name known: she clearly let us know that there were many progressists in the South. ‘It’s my duty to share the good news that we exist,’ she declared with defiance and pride. Nevertheless, not everything was about politics. Alternating with ease between the poignancy of her music and a humorous tone between the songs, she mentioned people complaining about not being creative during the pandemic: ‘but I am here to tell you that that wasn’t me… I put out a record during the pandemic.’
If her songs were filled with vivid southern imagery and many references to her native state –‘Under the shade of Spanish moss in June’… ‘Cotton blooms left at your house’ – she also found comfort referencing other artists: ‘she sings the blues of a coal miner’s son’ she sang during ‘The Way I Talk,’ alluding to the great Loretta Lynn. ‘Think of you, singing ‘Harvest Moon’ she sang during ‘If it Ain’t Me, Babe,’ before covering Townes Van Zandt with a thunderous rendition of ‘Lungs.’ The last touch was nevertheless at the core of her message, with a cappella reinterpretation of ‘Which Side Are You On’ by Kentucky ‘30s activist Florence Reece, a union hymn to which S.G. Goodman had added her own verse about a Kentucky farmer’s daughter.
The Way I talk
Old Time Feeling
If You Were Someone I Loved
Space and Time
Red Bird Morning
If It Ain’t Me Babe
Keeper of the Time
Which Side Are You On?
Goodman was a difficult act to follow but Madison Cunningham had nothing to worry about. At 24, it’s clear that she has found inspiration among many artists – she has covered acts as diverse as Tom Waits, the Beatles, Radiohead, and John Mayer – but she has also developed her own peculiar style: a new folk/rock/pop kaleidoscopic genre with vaporous and elastic vocals, jazzy and elaborated chord changes interrupted by eruptions of electric guitar.
A lot of songs were showcasing her bright and confident voice while none of her songs were close to being predictable. Rather, they were dancing around moody melodies, bass hooks, and fierce bluesy guitar riffs (‘Trouble Found Me’). ‘Dry As Sand’ exulted a serene and aching beauty before a sonic explosion, escaping genres and simple classification, not unlike something written by Fiona Apple. Cunningham’s intricate guitar work was obvious during ‘Pin It Down’, that she and her band executed with rare technical precision, but it was not the only moment the crowd swooned at her guitar prowess.
If she played plenty of songs off her debut album, ‘Who Are You Now,’ she also treated the crowd with a few new ones: ‘All I’ve Ever Know’ revolved around a dynamic guitar loop, and ‘Anywhere’ had an exotic tempo, almost sounding like a cut from a Cuban music-inspired album she had written on the side. Meanwhile, ‘Hospital’ had some of the most joyful hooks of the night with Beatles-que guitars despite being written during the pandemic.
Each song was unfolding a ravishing sonic landscape, from the dreamy and melancholic lines of ‘Broken Harvest,’ to the Tom Petty-esque hook of ‘Song in My Head.’ The crowd was cheering after each of her little musical tales, filled with sharply detailed observations, but the emotion reached some genuine intensity during the truly poignant ‘Rachel,’ a song she wrote after her grandmother’s passing. ‘This is a sort of a letter to her,’ she simply explained. From the contemplative moments of ‘Like You Do’ to the sweet playfulness of ‘L.A. (Looking Alive),’ to the cathartic and cinematic magic of ‘Something to Believe In,’ her range was impressive and it was truly difficult to believe she was only 24. She ended her set with ‘I Close My Eyes,’ which even reminded me of Rufus Wainwright’s romantic spell.
For an hour and a half, Madison Cunningham captivated the room with her lovely vocals, humble presence, dynamic experimentation, and unique approach to the electric guitar. Her music is something special, it is the work of someone in complete control of the depth of her songwriting and musical identity.
Last Boat to Freedom
Beauty Into Cliches
Trouble Found Me
Dry As Sand
Pin It Down
All I’ve Ever Know
Song in My Head
Like You Do
L.A. (Looking Alive)
In From Japan
Something To Believe In
I Close My Eyes
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