One of my favorite things about Madison is that you can catch promising acts headed to Minneapolis and Chicago at small venues where it's easy to see the stage and hear every word of the performance. In 2012, these acts included the Head & the Heart, Blind Pilot and Heartless Bastards.
I have one disclaimer for my top-five list of concerts from this past year of show-going: Although I appreciate all sorts of musical genres, I tend to spend my nights out enjoying alternative rock, indie and folk music. I like a song I can sing along to, and intimate shows tend to trump arena concerts, so that'll be evident in my picks.
The Lumineers at the Frequency
Sometimes you have the golden opportunity to catch a very young band on the brink of a growth spurt. You just know that the next time this beloved group of yours rolls through town, they'll be tons of other people's favorite band, too. They'll also be performing at a larger venue. This is the story of a humble little folk band called the Lumineers.
Back in April, the Lumineers performed a sold-out show at the Frequency, which has a capacity of 99. It was a rowdy, sweaty show that was packed to the rafters. If people could've stood on the ceiling, they would've, just to soak up the energy and folk-pop love. The Lumineers have since become a Top 40, Grammy-nominated group, and their most recent Wisconsin tour stop was a sold-out performance at a much bigger venue: Milwaukee's Riverside Theater, which holds 2,500 people.
Shovels & Rope at the High Noon Saloon
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, a.k.a. country-tinged rockers Shovels & Rope, aren't the only married couple making music together. They're just doing it better than most. I saw them when they stopped at the High Noon Saloon in November to support their latest album, O' Be Joyful. Their live performance was as rowdy and enthusiastic as the recording, bringing to life the love-hate battles of many relationships. Though Hearst and Trent are just a two-piece, they've got the energy and enthusiasm of a much larger group, and some stellar songs, such as "Birmingham" and "Lay Low."
fun. at the Majestic Theatre
The owners of the Majestic Theatre booked fun. for an April show just before one of the group's songs landed on Glee. That national exposure catapulted the trio to fame. It's no surprise: Their theatrical, Queen-inspired music seems tailor-made for the show-choir scene, which has seen a major resurgence over the past few years. Plus, lead singer Nate Ruess proved the sincerity of his teen-anthem lyrics with an affecting and genuine performance.
FRZN Fest at the High Noon Saloon
Last January, local concert promoter True Endeavors built a limited but impressive lineup for this new mini-fest. For less than the price of a pair of skinny jeans, Madison fans enjoyed two nights of performances by rising indie artists, including Chairlift, Class Actress, S. Carey and Peter Wolf Crier.
The standout performance, far and away, was by Poliça. This Minneapolis-based band entranced me with double drum kits, a catchy blend of R&B and electronica, and lead singer Channy Leaneagh's mesmerizing vocals. I left wanting more. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long; Poliça returned to the High Noon in May for another stunning performance.
Field Report at Shitty Barn
Though it's technically not in Madison, Shitty Barn hosted a number of notable concerts in 2012, including a particularly spectacular performance by indie-folk project Field Report.
If I could recommend one person to catch next year, it would be this band's lead singer, Chris Porterfield. He's one of the most engaging live performers I've ever seen. His raw, growling vocals cause chills as they crescendo during songs like "Taking Alcatraz," a track from Field Report's self-titled debut album.
A storm was brewing at that late-spring show, but the rain held off while fans grilled brats and burgers. Then, when the music started inside the barn, lightning flashed as the storm passed overhead. There couldn't have been a better complement to Porterfield's dynamic, dramatic and emotional performance.