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Concert Review: Madison Cunningham’s Spellbinding Red Rocks Performance

Opening for Hozier on the North American leg of his “Unreal Unearth” tour, Madison Cunningham’s set was resonant and powerful


When me and my friend (KCSU’S own DJ Webz) arrived at Red Rocks for the opening night of Hozier’s two-night stint in Colorado, we were greeted by a distant, ethereal voice echoing over the jutting rocks, over the throngs of other loud concertgoers.

We joked about a siren song luring us to our seats, but in effect that’s what it was, or who it was—Madison Cunningham.

Cunningham is Hozier’s opener for the North American leg of his tour, a Californian artist who picked up a guitar for the first time at seven. Though she got her start with Christian music, she’s moved on from that phase now, her music centered around bluesy folk-rock about herself and experiences. Her most recent release, “Revealer,” was released in September of 2022, subsequently winning the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album that year. In a Paste interview, Cunningham explained that, though she’s grateful for the award, “I don’t make music for that; that was a beautiful bonus to a record that I was proud of. It’s important to move on from it as quickly as you can and not trap yourself into making music to get it again.”

Cunningham’s grounded perspective and raw passion for what she does shines through in the music itself, particularly clear on “Revealer.” In an interview with Tidal, Cunningham describes the conceptual direction of “Revealer” as neither positive nor negative, but “unveiling truth.” As Cunningham puts it: “These songs are me going, ‘Alright, fuck it. I’m not going to hide the truth, no matter how ugly.’”

No matter how ugly the truth, the songs that come out of it are breathtaking, complex and idiosyncratic—Cunningham defies form at every turn, building crunchy, unique guitar riffs that layer over each other, her vocals just as complex when you follow their unexpected ups-and-downs. Particularly well-received tracks from “Revealer” feature lyrics that only Cunningham could have written: on “Hospital,” she sings “I am an antenna / a feeding tube and a hard drive / entertaining myself to death / to maintain some sort of life” and on “Life According to Rachael” she sings “thought I would always find you there / sitting in your TV chair / while time is in a bar having a laugh somewhere.”

These songs were even more powerful live, particularly “Life According to Raechel,” which is an ode to Cunningham’s late grandmother. The subtlety of her emotional expression lent a sense of grace to every word sung, pulling you up onstage with her without overdoing it in the delivery. On bluesier tracks like “Pin It Down,” Cunningham got looser, throwing her entire body into every lick on her electric guitar. Her backing band supported her through it, weaving in and out of each other’s ways as each song unfolded.

I’ve since learned that the siren act we heard upon arriving is something Cunningham does at most of her shows, showing off the truly impressive power of her voice and her natural ability to make it spiral up and around, making it hard to focus on anything but her. This effect was especially powerful at a place like Red Rocks, where the way that sound travels through the venue’s rocky valleys makes for an especially resonant effect.

I was already a casual fan of Cunningham, but going into her set I initially felt the need to compare her to other artists; stage presence like Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell, ethereality like Weyes Blood and Jeff Buckley, punchy, clever songwriting like Fiona Apple and Bob Dylan. Despite these comparisons, other artists fell to the wayside as it rapidly became obvious that Cunningham is an artist who defies comparison, and I was too focused on the singularity of her voice and lyricism to consider much else over the course of her set.

My favorite tracks Cunningham performed live were “Broken Harvest” and “In From Japan,” the latter of which ended her set. Both were meditative and slow in their build, highlighting the power of her vocals—bright, full-bodied, and at times even celestial. Cunningham’s lyrical complexity slowly built itself up alongside the complexity of the music, her vocals layering and repeating along the swells and dips of the violin-led backing. “In From Japan” was a fitting end to her set, a set that was short and sweet but enrapturing all the way through.

Cunningham primed the audience perfectly for Hozier’s performance, which was as soul-shattering as you can imagine, but what made it even better was when he brought Cunningham back onstage for the last song of the night, “Work Song.”

Already an unbelievably gorgeous song to listen to live, the combination of Cunningham and Hozier’s vocals coming together in such a beautiful, echoing blend was enough to make me never want to listen to anything ever again. Together they embodied the soul of “Work Song,” and the idea that, even after death, you’ll crawl home to your lover.

I’ll definitely be following Cunningham’s career much more closely after such a lovely performance, and I’m excited to see what she releases next after her most recent October 13th single “Subtitles.” Shout-out to Madison Cunningham and Hozier for an incredible show!