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Birds of Bellwoods in concert at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.

Morgan Hotston

The first show Birds of Bellwoods played at the Horseshoe Tavern in the mid-2010s was to three people. For the following concert, there were seven attendees. After that, the crowd went back down to two. But then, for their fourth appearance, the Toronto alt-rock quartet sold out the historic hometown venue.

“It’s a fun little journey we’ve had,” says singer Stevie Joffe. “There’s a weird kind of poetic beauty coming back for our first show after a year and a half, and playing to the kind of capacity we had when we were just starting out.”

Birds of Bellwoods will play the Horseshoe on July 23 – the venue’s first show with an in-person audience since COVID-19 caused the shutdown of live music in Canada in early 2020. The audience will be capped at 90 people – just 19 per cent of what’s usually a full house.

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“It’s pretty hard for a venue that usually does 300-450 people to book for 90, but those are the cards we have been dealt,” says Horseshoe co-owner Jeff Cohen. “We’re just going to make the best we can with what we are allowed.”

Ontario regulations for indoor bars, nightclubs or restaurants deemed by the province as “dance facilities” are permitted up to 25-per-cent capacity to a maximum of 250 people. Everyone at the Horseshoe will be seated cabaret-style at tables placed six feet apart, with the front tables separated from the stage by nine feet.

It’s a far cry from the stuffed quarters of the general-admission shows of the past. Everyone from Stompin’ Tom Connors to the Rolling Stones have played the boozy room on the Queen Street West strip. The Tragically Hip not only performed at the Horseshoe, but immortalized the venue in their song Bobcaygeon: “That night in Toronto, with its checkerboard floors ...”

The upcoming shows (in addition to Birds of Bellwoods, Toronto’s Julian Taylor Band will play July 24, with opener Skye Wallace, and Hamilton, Ont., singer Terra Lightfoot appears Aug. 14) will also be watchable online, as part of the Horseshoe’s ticketed Hootenanny Livestream Series.

To commemorate the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern’s reopening, some of the artists playing its first few return concerts spoke with The Globe and Mail about their memorable moments at the venue.

Singer-guitarist Terra Lightfoot, on her transcendent guitar-solo moment: “I remember selling the place out. For a young Hamilton gal, I didn’t think it was possible to sell out any venue, let alone the Horseshoe Tavern. I’d started experimenting playing a little lead guitar. At some point during this show, I went into a guitar solo. I’m totally inside the music. When I snapped out of it, I realized I was on my knees. I looked at my keyboard player, and I’m thinking, “How am I going to get up? What am I supposed to do?’ I didn’t know. But I maintain that it was the energy in the walls and in the room that made me go into that trance.”

Singer-songwriter Julian Taylor, on his birthday gig with his former band Staggered Crossing: “I turned 19 on the Horseshoe Tavern stage. It was our first gig – that was in 1997. I saw the Strokes there for their first Toronto show. I remember being on stage with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings for a tribute to Rick Danko, when he passed away. If you’re part of the Canadian music fabric, you’ve played there. The sound technicians are great. The bar staff has been there forever. It’s like Cheers meets CBGB’s.”

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Stevie Joffe, lead singer of Birds of Bellwoods, on the venue’s sanitation: “I’m worried that they’ve washed those checkerboard floors. I don’t know if it’s going to have the same vibe. [laughs] You’ve had decades of beers on that floor. Some of the greatest musicians who ever graced Canadian stages have gotten sloppy drunk in that place and left memories in horrible little corners. I’ll be sad if it smells too clean in there.”

Singer-songwriter Skye Wallace, on pre-pandemic times: “The last show I saw there was the band Helmet. It was a classic sold-out Horseshoe show. It was before the pandemic had hit. It was safe. Everybody was crammed in together, watching this band. The music was visceral. Everybody was connected in an intense way. It was special – maybe we didn’t know how special.”

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