My wife stays home to watch football, while I trek out to the High Noon Saloon to catch the Antlers, followed by Low. The Antlers are from Brooklyn, and I have never heard them until I catch the last few songs of their set. It's not often a band wins me over with a live show-I usually need to sit down listen to an album a couple of times before I know if I like them. But even before they've finished, I feel pretty confident that I'd pay money to see the Antlers again. The trio is hauntingly catchy, generating waves of sound that wash over you. Frontman Peter Silberman's voice is pitch-perfect, and Michael Lerner's drumming is fierce and military-crisp. While picking up his equipment after the set, Silberman chats with an audience member and just seems very genuine and friendly, as do his bandmates. It's that kind of relaxed, cool vibe that differentiates the festival from similar events like New York's annual CMJ showcase.
Low are equally laid-back, in the manner of scene veterans without anything to prove anymore, and amiably intense in a way maybe only Minnesotans can be. Alan Sparhawk stumbles on some lyrics and self-deprecatingly calls the song to a halt. He restarts and moments later sings the line "But you knew every word"-prompting someone in the crowd to cry out good-naturedly, "Apparently not!"
I split from the High Noon before Low finishes to catch a little of the Reverence showcase at the Inferno. Ctrl, from Austin, Texas, hits the stage, even though they are scheduled for two and a half hours later. My one issue with concerts in general is that it drives me nuts that you never know for sure what time someone is going to play. Here, I think, is an actual, practical use for Twitter: Venue management could tweet 30 or 20 minutes before a band is about to go on. (And maybe they are doing that! I don't know, because my phone is too old for the Internet.)
Everyone at the Inferno is wearing black, but the mood is upbeat. My favorite thing ever about goth and metal crowds is that despite all the pain that comes from spiders eating their souls, the people at these shows are so friendly, waving merrily and hugging each other and dancing randomly. Ctrl are a good example, one moment singing about bitter poison and joking with the audience the next. I stay for about 20 minutes, and then I have to rush home to retrieve my better half.
Picking up my wife and parking takes awhile, but just getting into our seats in Overture Hall takes almost as long. Everything at that venue is so regimented-and I understand, it has to be; you literally can't access your seat through any old entrance-and even though the staff are always so friendly and helpful, at both rock shows I've been to there now, I've felt a bit inappropriate, as if all of us in the audience were invaders from a dismayingly lowbrow world.
We get the last three songs of Pale Young Gentlemen's set. It's my first experience with them, and they put on a strong performance; but I'm struck by how, if someone asked me who they sounded like, I'd probably say, "Kind of like Andrew Bird."
Festival headline Bird himself enters solo to wild applause around 9:20 p.m., plays one song, and for the next is joined onstage by three bandmates. It's done very neatly, very gracefully.
In fact, everything he does is so elegant it's almost a bit much, weirdly. The music sounds lovely, and the backdrop is minimal-lots of amps and some giant gramophone horns-and my wife, who occasionally used to rub elbows with some of the world's best-known classical musicians, is wowed by his violin prowess. At the same time, though, as a gentleman at the Stage Door puts it later, Bird's music is very "detached." He's smart and funny when he addresses the crowd, and clearly some kind of odd genius-but I'm not sure much of his catalog moves the heart.
I cut out before Bird finishes to see BLK JKS at the Stage Door-the South African world-rock quartet has been getting a lot of buzz lately.
And they are pretty striking. My wife joins me a few minutes into their set, which is loud enough that we break out the earplugs, even though we're at the back of the hall, and, nodding along to the polyrhythms, she says, "I could see being really into these guys if I were in college."
Me too. But we are not in college anymore, and in fact, I have a 5K to run in the morning, and I am exhausted, so around 11, we break for the car. That said, despite our oldness, we spend the walk to the parking garage discussing how just nice it is that Madison has a festival like this, and our hopes that it keeps on happening every year. How often do you get to see just one band in a day that you like? Getting to see this many is a rare and worthwhile treat.