Rachel Bearinger recounts a swoon-worthy night at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre with singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham.
Madison Cunningham already had some fans in the audience at the Palace Theater on Friday night, despite being the opener for the more established folk artists Iron & Wine and Calexico.
“I love you, Madison!” a young woman yelled from the left side of the audience. “I love you more!” responded another from the right. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Cunningham jokingly chanted from the stage.
The artist also appeared to steal the hearts of those who were perhaps not as familiar with her music. With vocal gymnastics reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, nimble and precise guitar playing, and songwriting influenced by greats Paul Simon and Jeff Buckley, she cast a musical spell under which concert-goers fell without hesitation.
It would be a crime not to mention the rhythm section supporting the artist at center stage. Drummer Kyle Crane (who also acted as the drum double in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash) possessed a great deal of sensitivity, with a keen sense for when to hold back and when to take more control of the ensemble’s dynamic direction. Daniel Rhine’s bass lines offered a rhythmically solid foundation, and Calexico keyboardist Rob Berger joined the trio to contribute ethereal tones to the first few tunes.
During the show, the audience rocked back and forth at the climax of the hard-groover “Trouble Finds Me,” didn’t mind the frequent time signature shifts in “Pin It Down,” and laughed along with the Californian’s observations of Minnesota’s weather in February (the temperature was in the mid-teens).
The penultimate number, “Something To Believe In,” was especially appropriate for a concert that took place on Valentine’s Day. The line, “If you need something to believe in, you can believe in my love,” was crooned over a dissonant harmony that paired especially well with a lyric that could have been plucked right out of the Great American Songbook.
Cunningham closed her set with “All At Once” after her collaborators left her alone on stage with only her Fender Jazzmaster. It’s a feat to make a song sound complete with just voice and guitar, but Cunningham succeeded through musical expression that was both dynamic and brave. Following this song, she deservedly received her loudest applause of the evening.
If you’re in the mood to take a Madison Cunningham deep-dive, I recommend her Grammy-nominated debut album Who Are You Now, her YouTube channel of performance videos that are works of art in their own right, or her collaborations with Chris Thile and the rest of the team at the public radio program Live From Here from American Public Media.
Note: I ran into Madison by chance in the lower level of the Palace after being utterly blown away by her set, and had to restrain myself from gushing too much about how much I loved her music. She was lovely in person.
“Beauty Into Clichés”
“Dry As Sand”
“Trouble Found Me”
“Pin It Down”
“I Close My Eyes”
“L.A. (Looking Alive)”
“Something To Believe In”
“All At Once”
Rachel Bearinger is a singer-songwriter based in Minneapolis. She is also a digital producer for Performance Today from American Public Media.