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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Mad Toast Live keeps it clean
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Credit:Christopher Guess

The stories songs tell may hook us, but the stories of how and why they're made can be even more fascinating.

Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines have learned that. Playing in groups like Harmonious Wail, the Common Faces, the Moon Gypsies, the Bob Westfall Band and the Stellanovas over the past two and a half decades, they've picked up enough stories to write a book, perhaps a whole series.

But, being sonically inclined, they didn't opt for the printed word. They give these kinds of stories a voice in a live performance and talk-show series called Mad Toast Live.

Since last May, Wagoner and Gaines have invited local musicians - as well as regional and national acts - to take the stage at the Brink Lounge every Tuesday night. Each featured musician performs a live set while Wagoner and Gaines play accompaniment on fiddle, cello, mandolin, slide guitar and an array of other instruments. The two also play emcee, coaxing stories from the performers' musical experiences and personal histories through off-the-cuff Q&A sessions.

"We're hoping that even people who are fans of the artists see a different side of them - a fun side, one they're not necessarily going to get at a normal live show," says Wagoner.

At a recent performance with jazz vocalist Esther Knutson, the couple's interview led to a side-splitting riff. It all began with a question about pets. After explaining how her whole family hates cats, Knutson shared memories of her efforts to domesticate a diving beetle.

"My dad and I put it in the fish tank. When we woke up the next morning, there was this one lone, waving fin," she recalled with feigned horror. All the fish were gone, and the beetle's belly was full. "It would spear and liquefy and suck."

"Cats don't do that, do they?" quipped Knutson's guitar-playing sidekick, Doug Brown, and the crowd went wild as Gaines responded with a snippet of "Taps" on her cello.

While the laughter and music have been going strong since last spring, the show recently added a twist to its format. Starting in January, each show has been recorded as a podcast, released for free each Monday and Thursday on iTunes and madtoastlive.com.

The podcast idea came about when Wagoner and Gaines were hanging around with Andy LaValley, who was producing an Irving Allen album the couple were working on and who mans the soundboards at Mad Toast Live.

"There was this wonderful dialogue between the musicians that were part of the project, so this little germ got started in my head," LaValley says.

This seed blossomed into a business plan for a podcast, a phenomenon Wagoner and Gaines had heard of but didn't have the technological know-how to pull off until LaValley came along.

Wagoner, Gaines and LaValley agreed that showcasing and chronicling local artists would help put Madison's music scene on the map and let people across the country hear what's unique about musicians' personal stories.

LaValley stepped into the role of sound engineer, making sure the stage setup and recording equipment were suitable for making a broadcast-quality recording. He also took to editing and mixing the recordings after the shows. The whole experience has been pretty liberating, he reports. "Instead of going by the rules of a media outlet like a radio station, we get to make our own rules as we go along," he says.

However, the Mad Toast team quickly discovered that they did have to follow some guidelines if they wanted their podcast to reach the masses via iTunes.

Broadcasting the show to the world requires that the songs performed don't violate any copyright laws. Materials that are fair game include songs composed by the featured artists themselves, anything considered traditional music, and songs written before 1922, which are now in the public domain.

In addition, the podcast requirements for iTunes prohibit potty-mouth language and certain risqué subject matter, so training audience members how to behave during a taping is part of the venture. Though they may not realize it, they're as much a part of the show as the performers.

For instance, when Jeff Burkhart of the local honky-tonk band the Dirty Shirts took the stage earlier this month, tales of how Madison-area bands choose their names ("days of drinking beer behind the [Memorial] Union," according to Wagoner) morphed into an audience-participation game about country music's favorite subjects.

While they can't prevent someone from shouting out "loose women," they can try to lead the discussion in a different direction, the hosts say.

In this case, after the crowd yelled out "murder," the hosts knew it was time to move the show along because "taboo" topics like sex and swearing were the next logical steps.

This sense of intuition didn't develop overnight, Wagoner and Gaines recall. In fact, the learning curve has been a bit steep and slippery.

"A couple of weeks ago we had the Dang-Its, and we got into some interesting conversations about band names. We kind of went into the dirty zone," says Gaines. "It barely squeaked by iTunes - they don't allow even one swear word - but we definitely learned from it."

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