Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and sweet-voiced, Madison Cunningham isn’t a Marvel character but the music world is discovering her superpower: The Southern California singer-songwriter can rip a song to shreds in concert with her bare hands and collection of guitars.
Evidence of such a skill was detected recently in American cities like Boulder, Colorado, where the introspective, innovative, and instrumentally progressive folk-pop-rocker gave a 90-minute headlining performance at the Fox Theater on 23 September. The fingerpicking player, who can nail intricate notes and make unusual sounds, focused on adventurous tunes from Revealer, her breathtaking new album that was released two weeks earlier (Verve Forecast).
Backed by an exceptional three-man band that included Philip Krohnengold (keys, vocals, and guitar), Kyle Crane (drums), and Garret Lang (bass), the Los Angeles-based 25-year-old stormed into one of the first days of fall on a hot streak. Basically, all was revealed.
The past few months have been filled with praiseworthy notices from such journalistic heavyweights as The New York Times (“a perpetual-motion weave of deftly picked guitar lines in a brisk 7/4 meter”), and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert (“our audacious guide, steering us toward exploration with the shrewd parts she played on three different guitars”). Then, Cunningham shined during a 20 September performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! while kicking off an autumn headlining tour of the US, with Bendigo Fletcher as the opening act.
“We’re sure having fun. We are three days into a four-week tour and we’re already exhausted,” Cunningham, sounding more human than super-heroic, glibly shared around the halfway point of her 19-song set. “I don’t know what to do about that. Just keep playing music. Follow the sound of the light, as they say.”
While seemingly staying cool, calm, and collected, the dressed-in-black Cunningham was like a lightning bolt of energy while she and the band hit their stride with three thrashing Revealer numbers — “Collider Particles”, “Your Hate Can Power a Train”, and “In From Japan”. Ten of the album’s 11 cuts made the set list.
“That’s rock ’n’ roll, baby,” Cunningham casually stated amid wild cheers and applause after that 12 minutes of mayhem preceding a two-song solo solitude session. “I’m gonna give the band a quick break. … I’m contractually obliged to give them a lunch break.” Sure, that’s hard work, especially for a versatile musician who capably experiments with alternate tunings and utilizes dissonance and distortion, conjuring images of Joni Mitchell and St. Vincent within the course of an album or live show.
While the influences are numerous, Cunningham has called herself a “late bloomer” in terms of eventually discovering a few personal superheroes, despite wanting to feel connected musically since she was around four or five years old, according to an interview with PopMatters in 2019.
“Most of my early memories are of my dad playing his Taylor acoustic guitar in our living room,” she told writer Brice Ezell. “My sisters and I would dance around the living room while he played. … I wanted to be the one affecting people with music. I don’t think my thoughts were that developed, of course. But I know that I wanted to sing and to get my hands on a guitar, from a very young age. I remember trying to get my dad to give me his guitar so I could figure out what he was doing. I always wanted to be like him in that way.”
As one of five daughters whose father was a church pastor, a young, homeschooled Cunningham was raised on Christian (or worship) music. Learning to play guitar at age seven, she self-released her first album — 2014’s Authenticity — when she was 17 — in that vein under the guidance of Tyler Chester. He went on to produce her official full-length debut (2019’s Who Are You Now) and was part of the Revealer production team that included Mike Elizondo (Lake Street Dive, Twenty One Pilots, Gary Clark Jr., Fiona Apple, and many more) and Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket).
Cunningham, who was also that age when she made her professional singing debut at House of Blues Disney, heard a Beatles record (Abbey Road) for the first time on the day she graduated from high school in Costa Mesa, California. Through some friends, she was drawn to singer-songwriter icons like Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Buckley around that time.
So it’s only natural that timeless artists like them creep into her songs (or set lists) today, whether they include the sweet Joni-like vocals on the jazzy “Anywhere” or the Beatle-ish instrumental break during “Hospital”, two of her three opening songs from Revealer at the Fox show. The latter tune’s chorus also has a “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”-era Elton John vibe, though his name doesn’t seem to get mentioned among her influences.
Yet there are many surprises dipping into Cunningham’s mixed bag of music for the first time. The bubbling bass-like intro to “Trouble Found Me” (from Who Are You Now), the seemingly summery cheeriness to “Sunshine Over the Counter” (darkened by lines like “I’m the middlе child of fear and democracy”), and the lovely but bittersweet remembrance of her late grandmother in “Life According to Raechel” (“Were your eyes green? Were they blue? / What was it that I forgot to ask you?”) all figure into spending one marvelous night with Madi.
Then some pleasant turns off the set list road map add to the excitement. After concluding a wild guitar skirmish on “Death by Suspicion” (which somehow missed landing on the album), Cunningham acknowledges a pounding “dubstep party going on” next door. Undeterred, she cheerfully leads the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to a guy in the crowd named Buck.
A few songs later, when an invitation to perform at an audience member’s wedding is extended, she says, “I’ll have to think about that. How much?” With laughter spreading among the concertgoers in a near-capacity venue, Cunningham reveals, “I used to be a wedding singer. … That was a fun time.” Told the ceremony will be in Italy, the suddenly engrossed entertainer perks up, exclaiming: “OK! (Crowd laughs) Let’s talk, let’s talk!”
That chat session would have to wait, though. When the band returned, it was back to business for the final 30 minutes that featured: 2021’s dreamlike single “Broken Harvest”, concluding with Cunningham’s powerfully extended vocal release that could be interpreted as a cry for help or plea for hope; the jazzy rocker “Our Rebellion” (popularized by its “brisk 7/4 meter” mention in The New York Times); and Revealer‘s exquisite “Who Are You Now”, the second attempt at a song with the same name. (Oddly enough, the since-scrapped original did not get finished in time to be the title cut on her 2019 Grammy-nominated album, she disclosed.)
More songs from that previous record held up the back end quite nicely, like the funky “Pin It Down” and a trippy “Common Language”, her slow-building snapshot about differing souls that explodes into a swirl of psychedelia. That one predictably left the crowd screaming for an encore.
Yet the last tune wasn’t delivered until Cunningham and Co. took a couple of minutes to return to the stage. “I do feel the love. Thank you everybody. This is the best,” she exclaimed, before admitting between pants, “Man, I’m out of breath. I just ran up those stairs [backstage]. And what’s so embarrassing, it was such a short staircase. I climbed a rock today. It was great. Yeah, it’s still embarrassing.”
It’s all good, though, especially for mere mortals. Just chalk it up to an altitude and attitude adjustment. Leaving no stone unturned and settling down from a night of shock rock and awe mixed with a display of guitar virtuosity, Cunningham eased into “Song in My Head”. Sounding comfy and congenial enough (until hearing lines like “All that education won’t help us now / Attending funerals and watching friends break their vows”), the mid-tempo number gave her — along with a jam-packed room of lovestruck fans — a chance to exhale while heading toward another fantastic finish.
She’s established herself the past few years by opening for wide-ranging artists from Andrew Bird to Harry Styles. Now the stylistically smooth performer who seems to handle her complex playing with ease (and plenty of practice), just might leave a few foreigners breathless when her tour heads across the pond beginning in late November.
After all, who wouldn’t feel glad about spending some time in Madi’s mad, mad world?
Madison Cunningham Set List
At Fox Theater in Boulder, 23 September 2022
1. “Intro Song”
2. “All I’ve Ever Known”
5. “Trouble Found Me”
6. “Death by Suspicion”
7. “Sunshine Over the Counter”
8. “L.A. (Looking Alive)”
9. “Collider Particles”
10. “Your Hate Can Power a Train”
11. “In From Japan”
12. “Inventing the Wheel”
13. “Life According to Raechel”
14. “Broken Harvest”
15. “Who Are You Now”
16. “Pin It Down”
17. “Our Rebellion”
18. “Common Language”
“Song in My Head”