Speaking of the Glass Nickel, you may be surprised to learn that the basement at the Atwood Avenue location is one of Madison's best under-the-radar places to hear live music -- the Bat Cave, you might call it, to the 'Nickel Pizza mansion.
My friend Melissa and I decided to get there early for a pizza the night the Treats were playing an acoustic set. Our booth was surrounded by old people, families and a kid holding a balloon bouquet. Not exactly rock-show material. I started to think that by "trendy music outpost" my sources actually meant "perfect place for a honky-tonk jukebox."
But Madison is Madison, after all, and there is nothing typical about this town. The best shows I've heard have been at coffeeshops, parks and a synagogue, for Pete's sake, so why is it odd that my new favorite venue looks just like my friend Andy's basement in high school? I'm serious -- right down to the wood paneling and tchotchkes hanging on the wall. Of course, Andy didn't have the 30 bottles of liquor lined up on his back wall, and he didn't yet have the wherewithal to make me the stiff drink I craved. I had a bad case of claustrophobia that can only come from having 40 sturdy Midwesterners in a room the size of my freshman dorm.
The best part about hearing music at Glass Nickel isn't the comfortable seating (there is none), the sound quality (DIY), or even the easy-access pizza upstairs. Rather, it's the intimacy that comes with such a primitive setup. The musicians are more fun from a few feet away, and the close proximity gives ample opportunities to heckle -- which, besides a halfhearted attempt at the viola, is my one true musical gift.
It turns out the balloon gang had it about right -- it was a family affair at the 'Nickel, with Treats member Don Isham offering a sheet cake to brother and bandmate Andy in honor of the latter's turning 29, while their parents sang "Happy Birthday" from the audience. Don played the drums in his stocking feet, Andy bantered in a Southern accent, and they called up an old friend from the audience to play the harmonica for a few songs.
In a way it reminded me of the parties I'd attend at Chuck E. Cheese as a kid. I felt cozy and safe, like I had always known and loved everyone in the room, even the guy who stuck his armpit in my face. The pizza and cake were just the same, but instead of treat bags there was beer. Lots and lots of beer. And the crowd was way better than my snap-braceleted friends of yore -- that east-side mix of cool and quirky without the pretension of other urban twentysomethings. Mama and Daddy make sure of that.