If you’re a music fan in Toronto, chances are you have some fond memories seeing a band you love at the Horseshoe Tavern. The legendary venue’s storied history stretches back to 1947 when local entrepreneur Jack Starr purchased the building at 368-370 Queen Street West with the goal of opening up a restaurant-tavern that doubled as a music venue. The Horseshoe Tavern officially opened its doors on December 9th, 1947. Seventy years later, the ‘Shoe remains one of Canada’s most important and cherished venues.
The Horseshoe building itself is even older. Erected in 1861, it originally housed a blacksmith shop before it became a shoe shop, and then a fancy goods store. When Starr converted the commercial building to a restaurant-tavern, he capitalized on Ontario’s new liquor laws and was one of the first to serve alcohol in the area. In the 1950s Starr renovated the kitchen to build a stage for bands to perform, and started booking country acts. Big name stars like Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson all took the stage at the Horseshoe during its early days, as well as a struggling new-comer from the Maritimes who called himself Stompin’ Tom Connors. Jack Starr hired Connors to perform for $150 a week, and it was at the Horseshoe where he became a Canadian music legend.
In the 1970s, the Horseshoe began one of its first major transformations. Country music was falling out of favour as younger rock ‘n’ roll artists were taking over. As Jack Starr was retiring in 1976, promoters Gary Cormier and Gary Topp signed on to steer the Horseshoe in a new direction. They focused on rock, punk and new wave artists, bringing in the Police, the Talking Heads, MC-5, and the Ramones, to name a few. This era of the Horseshoe famously ended during a going-away party that the police tried to shut down, but instead set off a riot. The night was captured in Colin Brunton’s documentary film “The Last Pogo.”
In 1983, Jack Starr came out of retirement and enlisted the help of Michael Macrae, Dan Akroyd and Richard Crook to help run the club. In the spring of 1983, Starr hired a man called Ken Sprackman to drive his car from Florida to Toronto. Sprackman was more than just a driver though, he happened to have a successful history in business including opening a Mr. Sub franchise in Vancouver, a Howard Johnson’s in Oshawa, and had recently saved a failing Toronto night club called Hotel Isabella. Sprackman was interested in the Horseshoe, and he became a partner within months of meeting Starr. Sprackman changed the layout of the venue to how it is today, with a bar in the front and the venue in the back. Their artist bookings at this time included Blue Rodeo, Prairie Oyster, The Bopcats, and Handsome Ned, and the venue redefined itself with its mix of roots, country, blues and punk music. Over the next few years, many up and coming Canadian bands got their start at the Horseshoe including The Watchmen, Pursuit of Happiness, Amanda Marshall, The Skydiggers, and of course, the Tragically Hip.
During the late ’90s, the venue teamed up with Indie88’s own Dave Bookman and began its famous no-cover Nu Music Night, allowing young emerging bands more opportunities to perform. Tons of bands who went on to become massive stars benefited from this program, including Ryan Adams, Eels, Spoon, Son Volt, Joel Plaskett, Matt Mays, and the Strokes. The following years at the ‘Shoe featured the Pixie’s Frank Black doing a five night stand, five shows by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, plus shows by iconic indie acts like Death Cab For Cutie, Neutral Milk Hotel, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, the Constantines, Franz Ferdinand, The National, The Shins, and The Decemberists.
The Horseshoe is still as relevant as ever, and right now they’re celebrating their 70th anniversary with a special concert series that runs until the end of the year. Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs, Lowest of the Low, Skydiggers, Julian Taylor Band, Jim Cuddy, the Constantines, Rheostatics and the Tea Party are all taking the legendary stage over the next month before The Sadies celebrate new years eve at the Horseshoe (as is tradition.)