Toronto, Canada - The Horseshoe Tavern just screams music. The dark bar is home to one of the most legendary venues in Toronto. In the long narrow establishment, you will find a bar within the front half. A red felt pool table sits towards the back corner, a group of guests playing the mathematical game of angles and skill. A neon Labatt 50 sign casts a glow on an old Triumph motorcycle that sits proudly displayed on a raised platform. It's like something you would see on the TV behind the bar that is currently playing an old black and white movie.
The chatter of patrons and clanging pool balls fills the air, despite the music playing over the speakers. We also hear the soundcheck in the back half of 370 Queen Street West, barely hidden from view by the drawn red curtain. Back there is where the magic happens. As I sit here, it's near impossible for me to believe the great musicians that have passed through these doors over the decades. Bands like The Rolling Stones, The Police, The Talking Heads, and Canadian legends like Stompin' Tom Connors and 54-40 whom I had the honor of photographing in December of 2022 as part of the Horseshoe's 75th Anniversary.
A newer Canadian band making headways, and considered one of the best live Canadian acts on the circuit today is a band from Northern Ontario's city of Thunder Bay. The band is called The Honest Heart Collective, and on March 23, 2023, they graced us with their presence at this legendary venue.
Formed by brothers Ryan and Nic MacDonald in 2013, The Honest Heart Collective released their first album, Liar's Club in 2015. The band released Grief Rights in 2018 as their second full length, and most recently they release the third album More Harm in 2021. March 23, 2023 was not the first time the band has hit the Horseshoe stage either, as they even have a live album to their credit, 2019's Live At The Horseshoe.
The first act on this evening was Toronto's Pop-Punk quartet There There. Despite their tardy start (the band's guitarist Joe was MIA for a couple minutes), There There brought energy to start the show, right from the opening riffs. It was an extra special evening for the band's drummer Austin as it was later revealed to the crowd that it was his birthday. The whole venue then burst into "Happy Birthday" for the drummer. The whole crowd was engaged with the band and action on the stage through the whole set as the bassist/lead singer let the crowd know at the end of their set, that it was the best show they've ever played. A nice honor for a band worthy to be heard more from.
Second up was a 7 piece punk, folk, rock band called Orson Wilds. What immediately caught my eye was a rarity I am uncertain I have ever seen before. The band contains a lefty guitarist/vocalist and a left bassist. Crazy, right? With the ensemble containing guitars, brass instruments, saxophones, keyboards and drums, the sound that emanated from the stage was so cohesive, full and rich. With 2 additional vocalists adding harmonies to the lead singer, this band had such a great sound, which was very reminiscent to me of the Dave Matthews Band. While the band's set was short from a number of tracks sense, the last song to close out their set was a fantastic 15 minute jam. This band had great energy, sandwiched between the opening act and the headliners. A perfect primer!!
The Honest Heart Collective didn't waste any time in getting the crowd riled up with their opening track "If You Wanna Leave", a song that brings me back to the 1990s when I started listening to a lot of alternative rock music.
Lead singer/guitarist Ryan MacDonald let's the music do the talking early in the set as the band plows on through 4 songs before his first real address of the crowd. The frontman let's the crowd know that the next song is a new single, and is now in the Top 40 on the radio. It's the band's first "hit single" entitled "Suffocate". The music is driving and the crowd is singing along to the lyrics.
The musicians then go directly into the next song "I've Got You" and Ryan has a huge smile on his face. He's clearly loving the gig thus far and having a great time. It's infectious for the crowd. At the song's breakdown, the crowd sings the chorus, giving back tot he band, exactly what they are receiving. At the end of the track, and keeping with the theme of minimal chatter, MacDonald yells into the mic "Let's keep this rolling shall we?", and they go right into the next song.
We get a bit of a break from the heat when the band plays their much calmer, mellower "More Harm". As is typical for tracks like this, the cell phone flashlights come out. Of course this wasn't always the way. Back in ancient times, before cell phones were ever a thing, we used to light cigarette lighters during soft tracks like this. And believe it or not, there was at least one old school fan here, as I saw the lighter spark up from my current position towards the back of the venue. Aside from the show on the stage, these little moments bring a smile to my face.
A band's interaction with the crowd is a key element to bringing that closeness between the fans and their heroes. But it doesn't have to be 90 minutes of chatter. The Honest Heart Collective stormed through their set. When the music is pounding, straight to the point, and the crowd is banging, you certainly don't want any interruptions. While it's a completely different genre, I think of the thrash metal giants Slayer at times like this. They just don't fuck around with banter. It's all about the music at the end of the day, and that's what should be showcased. It's what the Collective continues to do during their set at the Horseshoe.
Of course, we still need some interaction. Towards the end of their set, MacDonald thanks the crowd very much for coming out year after year, but needs one small favour, and that's for their voices once again. The fans are happy to provide the accompaniment for "North American Dream", just as they have all night.
I try to crab a quick cell phone shot of the setlist ahead of each show. This helps an old brain keep things in line for the written review. As The Honest Heart Collective closed out their set, and departed the stage, I knew that was their last song. Sometimes, there just isn't an encore, as a lot of band's don't waste their time with the formalities, and just play their set. The crowd wasn't having it though, as they started their chant "ONE MORE SONG". There's actually a long break here and the band seemingly is not coming back. The fans raise the level of their want, and the band finally reappears. The lead singer explains to the crowd that there actually isn't an encore song planned on their setlist (which there wasn't), but they offer up a song, dedicated to the MacDonald brothers' father who is happily present at the event, manning the band's merch table. The band screams into The Beatles track "Helter Skelter" (also amazingly covered by Motley Crue).
It's a completely great ending to a great, hard, driving set. And the end to a great evening of music!
If You Wanna Leave
I've Got You
More Harm (Reprise)
North American Dream
When Her & I Began
I Heard You're Worried About Me
The Honest Heart Collective Online: