Opening night at the two-day Forward Music Festival on Friday was not without a few glitches. But I have to applaud the organizers of this event for pulling off such a large undertaking in a city that to bands and promoters can feel small and unwelcome to change. A multi-venue event like this must take an incredible amount of work, unselfishly put in out of a love for music and a desire to see Madison assert itself on the national music stage.
I recently moved out of Madison. Coming back for the festival, I realize that the same things that make me miss this place -- the small communities and the ten minute bike rides anywhere in the city -- can be limiting for local bands trying to garner attention among college students or break out. With its focus on bands with Midwestern roots and connections, the fest gives local groups a unique opportunity to play alongside bigger national acts.
Friday night was a nice mix of this big and small. It felt appropriately homegrown, without a hint of the corporate odor that makes so many other festivals seem unexceptional, not to mention overpriced. Plus, the weather gods couldn't have provided us with a nicer evening to venue hop around downtown.
I showed up at the Majestic at 5:30 p.m. As I tried to track down my press pass, I talked to a confused, but good-natured young man working the box office. He tried to sell me a one-day wristband, justifying himself: "I don't know what's going on. I'm only a volunteer." Happy to be talking to a sweet kid instead of getting patted down by a big, sweaty security guard, I appreciated the DIY nature of the festival.
After walking three blocks to the Frequency for an early set by Dietrich Gosser, I encountered a bit more confusion. The singer-songwriter had not shown up, apparently due to a mix-up with the schedule. I wondered if it was indicative of things to come, but decided to embrace the quirks. I simply waited for Vid Libert's solid set, watching the sparse crowd of four fans slowly grow over the course of the show.
The early birds weren't completely absent from the festival. At 6:45, the Majestic was much fuller for Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü fame. I found some standing room near the merch table and marveled at the tough looking crowd getting into the show.
By 8:00 p.m. at Café Montmartre, everything was running smoothly for the set of another local band, Crane Your Swan Neck. A relaxed crowd of a few dozen people sipped drinks and geared up for the night to come.
The decent sized audience at Montmartre illustrated one of the strengths of the wristband ticketing system: Those who primarily purchased the wristband to see the headliners had no excuse not to discover local bands beforehand. On the other hand, I did talk to a few people more interested in seeing local bands than headliners, who weren't willing to cough up the $25-$40 for a wristband, as opposed to the usual $5-$10 cover.
I headed next to the Orpheum for Neko Case's highly anticipated headlining set. After dealing with a camera glitch -- not even the press was allowed to bring cameras into the show -- I arrived to a full house. I admit that I have never gotten into Neko Case, but she and her band were a perfect choice as an early headliner at the airy main stage of the Orpheum. The laid back, appreciative crowd seemed to enjoy everything about the show, especially the dog resting on stage.
On Saturday morning Jamie Hanson, one of the primary organizers of the festival, felt understandably exhausted but very pleased. He was surprised that there weren't more problems, considering the sheer number of bands playing. He attributes the success to the help of the community: "I think all the scheduling went well, and it was a credit to all the help we got from the volunteers and the staff at all the venues," he said. "Everyone was great to work with and made everything run smoothly."
The Forward Music Festival truly does feel like a community-run event, in the best possible way, and Friday night provided a nice starting point for the future. Let's just hope the organizers aren't too burned out to put this festival together again next year. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes -- sorry, I couldn't resist.