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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Is Madison's Freakfest too tame?
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The concert lineup is dominated by touring acts.
The concert lineup is dominated by touring acts.
Credit:David Michael Miller

Ah, fall. The trees are alight with the fire of autumnal color, there's a decided chill in the air, Hoofers are pulling their boats out of the water by the Memorial Union Terrace, and good Madisonians everywhere are scrambling to come up with that perfect Halloween costume.

Time was city officials and area police would be using this time to go over their best riot-squelching plans. Downtown businesses would be bracing for the descent of vandals from near and far, and the news media would be dusting off their usual stories speculating on the levels of debauchery and debasement that might be reached by State Street partiers.

Students arriving in Madison in the last few years would probably have a difficult time imagining what things were like on State Street for Halloweens past, though. It's been three years now since our fair city made the first concerted attempt to leave its reputation for riots, looting and mayhem in the musty annals of history.

It was in 2006 that the city, fed up at last, teamed up with Frank Productions to transform the unruly State Street Halloween celebrations into something organized, controlled and profitable: Freakfest. The results have been notable. No more broken store windows, no more impromptu bonfires, and arrests in recent years have been mostly for underage drinking instead of violent rampages. Gone are the days when Sports Illustrated recommended Madison as a road-trip destination for droogs looking for Halloween high jinks.

It'd be hard to argue that the results of the change in planning and organization haven't been positive for the city. Madison residents didn't exactly love seeing innocuous, locally run shops like Paul's Book Store end up with smashed windows, and the people who tell you they enjoy getting stuck in the middle of a lung-crushing mob of people are either dirty liars or kinkier than you thought.

Still, some argue that Freakfest has turned into a disappointing, watered-down imitation of Madison's rich history of fright-night capering. Those with apartments on State Street are often left wondering how to have guests over when it costs money to enter the neighborhood. And the headlining bands brought in to play the event? Bring up last year's choice of O.A.R. and this year's pick of Third Eye Blind and you're likely to get quite the disapproving earful from some.

In past years, Frank Productions did a reasonably good job of bringing in favorite local bands to play the second stage at Freakfest, and this year locals the Nod are making an appearance, along with bluegrassers Sweet Grass and former Madisonians Locksley. But the lineup is dominated by touring acts, including Cage the Elephant, Push Play, Hot Chelle Rae and Priscella Renea.

Late-'90s alt-rockers Third Eye Blind are promoting a new album, Ursa Major, so it's too soon to write them off as has-beens, but it's a curious choice nonetheless. Will they have that much draw with today's college crowd, who, after all, were in grade school when their last radio hits were getting airplay?

Halloween on State Street has always been more about parading around in your craziest and/or sexiest costume and getting drunk, though, so maybe the bands occupying the stages at any given moment don't really matter. Talk with people who've braved the cold and the crowds in recent years and in the event's heyday, and you'll hear that the most important element was the gathering's impromptu nature (that and the chance to ogle the skimpiest and zaniest outfits). No organizers, no tickets, no particular point other than to see and be seen.

It may not be possible to go back to those less predictable times. With the advent of the Internet and the ability to spread information more quickly and more widely than ever before, it became impossible to keep Madison's yearly tradition secret for long. People came from far and wide to partake in the shenanigans, and the law of averages worked its inevitable magic, bringing in those bad apples who decided to turn State Street into their own personal primal-scream therapy session.

But Halloween celebrations can't be entirely contained in a town that loves the occasion as much as Madison. Freakfest is just one night, after all, and the ragtag costume parade on State Street tends to trickle out into multiple evenings. One can't help but wonder if some of that earlier mayhem will eventually follow. The desire to strut your Sexy Noun outfit can be powerful stuff. The need to chant obscenities, drink to stupor, and light things on fire is as old as that poster of John Belushi wearing the T-shirt that simply reads "College."

Like the very roots of the holiday itself, this is primal stuff.

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