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Deck the halls with boughs of Badger red and white! Autumn in Madison has returned, and throngs of disoriented university underclassmen are joining grizzled locals on the evening entertainment circuit.
From time-tested institutions to upstarts, the city offers a veritable smorgasbord of delicious destinations that cater to night owls. There's enough happening in the city's twilight hours to satisfy just about every taste.
Students, take note: Options for the 18-and-up crowd have never been better. Several of the area's best venues for hearing live rock, hip-hop and such - or just dancing - now hold licenses to host those in the non-drinking crowd. If your tastes run to blues and jazz, both scenes have carved out a solid niche for themselves here and are ever growing and changing. And for those interested in slightly unconventional spaces and styles, Madison has choices.
It's worth noting that there are very few specialized music clubs in town - Madison is simply too small to support venues solely devoted to single genres. Still, certain places are more specialized than others. Here's a look at the city's nightlife choices, whether you're in the mood to dance, listen to music or just relax with friends.
Students welcome (old people too)
Few venues scrawl Xs on the hands of under-21 patrons anymore, but for music or dance lovers who haven't quite reached the legal age to imbibe, the stigma remains.
Madison hasn't always been the friendliest place for minors seeking entertainment, though the UW Memorial Union (800 Langdon St.) remains one of the best music spots for them in town, with venues including the Rathskeller and Wisconsin Union Theater. And all ages are welcome at large concert venues like Overture Center (201 State St.), the Alliant Energy Center's Coliseum (1919 Alliant Energy Center Way), the Barrymore Theatre (2090 Atwood Ave.) and the Orpheum Theatre (216 State St.).
As for nightclubs, changes in licensing rules, and an increased willingness by club owners and city officials to accommodate young people, are changing the scene for the better.
Newly licensed to welcome the 18-and-up crowd (to selected shows) is the Frequency (121 W. Main St.). Located just off the Capitol Square, at the end of a row of drinking-age establishments, the Frequency offers a full week's lineup of excellent local and touring musical artists. The club hosts acts ranging from the rowdy, sweaty rock of Tel Aviv-based trio Monotonix to local funk legend Clyde Stubblefield's regular Funky Mondays gig.
You can also catch variety events like the Dan Potacke Show (free, every other Monday, at 6:30 p.m.). Stalwart punk rockers the Queers will be at the Frequency Dec. 10, with whichever lucky/persistent area band wins the opening slot. Or enjoy Band Bingo Nights, evenings of local (and, occasionally, touring) acts that are ever changing and always free.
The Frequency's unique arrangement for live music has won over fans among musicians and patrons alike. The bar is separate from the back room, where the stage is, so barflies or the merely curious can enter the venue without paying a cover. Once inside, they can listen for a while, then decide whether to continue into the back room for the music (and pay the cover).
Down closer to Camp Randall, the Annex (1205 Regent St.) has been a fixture on the music scene for years. Eighteen-and-up shows also are permitted there. Known for its grungier aesthetic, the club tends to host louder, edgier musical fare. You never know which up-and-coming act you catch there turns out to be the next big thing. The White Stripes, for instance, once played as an opening band for Sleater Kinney at the Annex, just months before breaking into the mainstream.
Upcoming shows include the Toadies on Sept. 22, the Beatles meets Metallica mash-up Beatallica on Sept. 24, and infectious indie dance-rockers the Thermals on Oct. 2.
Another option for young clubgoers is the Majestic Theatre (115 King St.), a gorgeously refurbished vaudeville-era room that hosts everything from rock and electronica to blowout performance art and burlesque acts. Most Majestic shows are for all ages. Hip-hop heads can get excited about the F. Stokes concert there on Oct. 15.
Voted by Isthmus readers as Madison's favorite gay bar in 2010, Plan B (924 Williamson St.) is just a short bus or bike ride from downtown to the city's near east side. While restricted for the under-21 crew most of the time, the club opens its doors to anyone of voting age every Thursday for the event called POPular. The slickly appointed dance club is welcoming to all and brings in both great regular DJs and serious touring acts as well.
South of the Beltline, the gay bar Club 5 (5 Applegate Court) likewise welcomes the 18-and-up crowd on Friday nights. Gay venues the Shamrock Bar (117 W. Main St.) and Woof's (114 King St.) are for adults only, though. Some things are worth waiting for.
The High Noon Saloon (701 E. Washington Ave.), a well-appointed, Western-themed venue down the main thoroughfare from the Capitol, hosts a huge range of musical acts and parties. Not all, but some shows there are open to those 18 and up - including the Built to Spill gig on Sept. 21 and the electro-dance coalition Dirty Disco Kidz on Oct. 2. The amenities at the spacious club make it an especially choice destination: a large outdoor patio for enjoying weather or a forbidden cigarette, pool tables, pinball machines and pizza delivered by Glass Nickel.
Jazz, blues, more
Madison doesn't have nearby Chicago's reputation as a hotbed of blues and jazz - but don't let that fool you. There are plenty of accomplished, dedicated artists keeping the music alive and well here. You just have to know where to look.
To be clear, the rest of this article isn't strictly devoted to 18-and-up venues, so phone ahead if you're unsure.
Lately the Inn on the Park (22 S. Carroll St.) has been earning itself a place on the calendars of serious jazz aficionados. You don't need to be a hotel guest to enjoy the music, either. The Best Western franchise recently restarted a weekly series of concerts that bring in both local and out-of-town performers. Every Friday night in the ground floor Signature Lounge, enjoy a free show by the likes of Gerri DiMaggio and World Beat, Caravan Gypsy Swing, and the Tom Gullion Quartet. This winter, keep an eye out for larger, themed events in an upstairs space.
One club is dedicated more than most to music with swing. The Ivory Room (116 W. Mifflin) is an honest-to-goodness piano bar, where the regular musicians take requests and a rotating cast of established players, along with a star-studded ceiling, add an extra layer of ambiance to your cocktail experience. Fans of America's Got Talent may want to check out events here on Sept. 22 and 26, when season three's runner up Eli Mattson stops by for special performances.
A bit further afield is Liliana's Restaurant (2951 Triverton Pike, Fitchburg), a Cajun-themed eatery that brings in a variety of jazz, blues and Cajun-flavored tunesmiths to liven up the menu. You don't even have to stay up late to enjoy all of it: guitarist Cliff Frederiksen brings his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards to brunch every other Sunday. Every other Friday night, Rand Moore, owner of Drums n' Moore, showcases his jazz quintet of accomplished Madison-area musicians. Almost every night of the week provides a good home to a local act, even the Verona High School Jazz Ensembles.
You can also hear jazz some nights, and dance most nights, at the Cardinal Bar (418 E. Wilson St.). Jazz, folk and other quieter sounds are featured at the Brink Lounge (701 E. Washington Ave.). The south side's R Place on Park (1821 S. Park St.) hosts jazz and R&B. And Samba Brazilian Grill (240 W. Gilman St.) is an excellent spot for both jazz and meat on skewers.
As for blues joints, the north side's Locker Room Sports Bar (1810 Roth St.) holds weekly Chicago Blues Tuesday shows, and Murphy's Tavern (3737 E. Washington Ave.) has Thursday-night events. Regional blues artists visit the Harmony Bar (2201 Atwood Ave.), along with acts in the roots and alt-country genres, among others. And at the Crystal Corner (1302 Williamson St.), blues events show up on a largely rock-oriented calendar.
For the adventurous palate
In Madison, seeking out envelope-pushing venues and events can be a satisfying proposition. There are restaurants, coffee shops and even the odd private home that do double duty as showcases for both local and traveling troubadours. All you have to do is settle in for a drink or nosh and kick back to enjoy the tunes.
The cozy caffeine-and-studying destination Mother Fool's Coffeehouse (1101 Williamson St.) transforms into an intimate music venue every weekend. It has been known to bring in unconventional acts - experimental jazz, electro-poetry - along with a steady rotation of folk and its variations. Cover charges almost never exceed five or six bucks, and you are assured excellent sight lines wherever you snag a seat. Just be sure to arrive early if there's likely to be a crowd, as space is definitely limited. Other bonuses of attending events at Mother Fool's are the excellent espresso drinks and the fully vegan bakery.
Further down the road, in the Schenk's Corners area, Alchemy Cafe (1980 Atwood Ave.) serves up a schedule of diverse music offerings along with a menu of locavore-focused pub food. The stage is cramped, to say the least, but the artists more than make do, whether they're DJs or musicians performing genres as varied as dub, funk, folk, bluegrass or jam rock. Sit down with a tall, cold microbrew and enjoy, for example, Hip Hop Industry Night (last Monday of every month), featuring DJs, breakdancers, slam poets and whoever else shows up. Or check out bluegrass wonders the Oak Street Ramblers (Oct. 2 and Nov. 6). Even better? The shows are always free.
Strip away the distraction of a bar - or really, the distraction of anything you'd find in a traditional space - and add a dedication to variety, and you've got Project Lodge (817 E. Johnson St.). Located in a former storefront, the Lodge is a nice room. Rotating art shows are on the walls, and bands and other performers frequent the small stage. Events have a friendly, house-party sort of feel, and it's always BYOB.
The folks who run the place go to a lot of trouble to bring in some tasty acts. You can check out live music, poetry readings, film screenings coupled with music (as when, last year, Sufjan Stevens brought his short The BQE to accompany string group Osso's musical interpretations), and even storytelling coupled with music. On Sept. 30, try out the Friction Brothers, described as "the only dry-ice/cello/percussion trio in the visible world."
If you've got an appetite for getting really underground, look no further than Kiki's House of Righteous Music - literally the home of area music buff/critic Kiki Schueler. House shows have made a serious comeback in recent years as a way for touring musicians to get back in touch with their audiences, and for brave music fans to discover new songsmiths in intimate settings. Interested parties should Google the hostess to inquire about specific performances.
You'll feel right at home at Kiki's House of Righteous Music. And you'll feel right at home in Madison's thriving nightlife scene.