The Midwest Beat's appearance last Friday night at the High Noon Saloon could easily have had all the excitement of a wake. The vinyl version of their exceptional, '60s-tinged self-titled EP had been held up at the pressing plant, which meant that what had been scheduled as a record-release bash was now just another ordinary Madison gig. And as singer-bassist Logan Kayne noted during an interview on the High Noon's breezy patio earlier in the day, ordinary Madison gigs have often disappointed the three-year-old Madison-Milwaukee band.
"Yeah, Milwaukee is really kind," he said. "Madison really isn't."
Frankly, the crowd was a little thin on Friday, and in that sense Kayne's assessment of the capital city was warranted. But something was in the air as he, drummer Christopher Capelle and singer-guitarists Matt Joyce and Ryan Adams rocketed into the ironic, Big Star-esque guitar pop of "Girl Gone West." Capelle's drumming was more anxious than it is on the record version, Joyce's voice was more urgent, and Kayne's own playing had a kind of pert desperation to it. The foursome were getting off on the close-grouped clump of 20 or so fans that had massed near the edge of the stage, and the cavernous High Noon was quickly transformed into an antic sock hop.
So what if the hipsters hadn't turned out in droves? During "Girl Gone West," the syncopated "J Man's Blues" and most of the rest of their short set, the Midwest Beat confirmed what a handful of local scenesters already believe: That they may be the best pure pop band in Wisconsin.
Not a pop band in the sense of contemporary pop-punk or power pop, mind you. Part of the reason the Midwest Beat have had trouble connecting with Madison audiences is that they live in a chronologically distant world where precise song structures, jangling guitars and tight vocal harmonies ruled the day. Big Star, the Byrds, the Kinks and the Zombies are their regular touchstones, bands whose own careers were at their peak a decade or more before the foursome's members were born. Unless audiences show up harboring a similar jones for Alex Chilton et al. - or younger fellow travelers like the considerably messier Black Lips - it can take a few songs before the deftness of their guitar pop and restrained pyschedelia becomes apparent. But once their music hits you, you're apt to become a proselytizer for the cause.
Thanks to the niche-oriented Dusty Medical label, Joyce says the vinyl EP ought to reach lots of cultish pop fans who also revel in the music of the '60s. But it's not the only arrow in the Midwest Beat's quiver. With help from another Madison pop-rock magician, Kyle Motor, they also spent time recording an album's worth of material inside the acoustically friendly confines of the Gates of Heaven synagogue. Kayne thinks it's the best thing they've ever committed to tape.
"It was recorded on analog 8-track," he said. "And it just has that warm, Big Star kind of sound."
Joyce adds that the new material also pays more attention to the foursome's psychedelic side, layering guitars, vintage organ and vocal harmonies into a bright, swirling aural maelstrom.
On the downside, its release isn't imminent. "We're getting the vinyl EP out first," said Joyce. "Then we'll do a few singles [from the Gates of Heaven sessions] after that. At least that's the plan."
Whatever they end up releasing, I know I'll be snatching it up. Because this idiosyncratic guitar band may not be the hippest thing going in Madison, but it really is one of best pop acts in the region.
Forward Music Fest
Madison has hosted homegrown music festivals before, but few of them have been as ambitious as the new Forward Music Fest, which runs Sept. 19 and 20 at venues throughout the downtown, including the Orpheum, the Majestic and the High Noon Saloon. The two-day event will focus on punk, indie-rock and dance acts with roots in the Midwest. Bob Mould, Killdozer, Neko Case, Shearwater, Dan Deacon, Detroit Cobras, Dillinger Four, Leslie & the LYs, Pale Young Gentlemen, the Blueheels and Things Fall Apart are among the acts already confirmed. A number of regional acts are from the rosters of Chicago's Bloodshot Records and local labels Science of Sound and Crustacean Records, all of which will have a strong presence at the event.
When all is said and done, more than 50 acts will be packed onto Forward Music Fest's schedule.
"Early on we wanted to keep it really small and tight," says Jesse Russell, one of five core organizers. "But it just started spreading out."
As the driving force behind local collaborative blog Dane101.com, Russell has already helped shine a light on Madison music. So has co-organizer Kyle Pfister, an independent promoter who also writes the local music blog I'm Just Saying Is All. But Forward Music Fest, which organizers plan to make an annual affair, takes that support to another level. If everything goes according to plan, Pfister thinks it could help shake local music out of the doldrums and bring national attention to the city's arts scene.
"The idea was to bring in a lot of bands that we thought would do well in Madison and show that Madison can support a festival of this kind," says Pfister. "We're showcasing the venues, the bands and the labels and are really highlighting Madison music."
While Russell and Pfister both expect a strong response from twenty- and thirty-something music fans, they also hope that the festival's many all-ages events will pique the interest of UW students.
"We did some focus groups with students," says Pfister, who sees UW undergraduates as a huge, largely untapped market for both local and touring Midwestern acts. "And many of them never went to the High Noon or other venues even when they had all-ages events. We want to get them into the scene."
Ticket prices should appeal to impecunious students. A $25 general-admission wristband will allow entry to all events. VIP badges that guarantee admission to showcases by popular headliners will also be available for an additional $10 per concert. Both go on sale June 21 at the festival's website, forwardmusicfest.com.
Although they expect large turnouts for the headline acts, organizers aren't interested in getting rich off ticket proceeds. A portion of any profits will go to the Madison Area Music Awards' charitable foundation, which brings musical instruments and music lessons to children. Any additional dollars will be used as seed money for Forward Music Fest 2009.