When it comes to bringing concerts to town, Madison is happening. With our booming student population and proximity to Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee, we're able to attract big-name performers and under-the-radar talents alike, a rare feat for a city of 235,000 people.
The fall's concert lineup is a prime example of this phenomenon, with household names and up-and-coming acts poised to make our stages glow with energy and excitement. Here are a few highlights.
School of Seven Bells
Majestic Theatre, Sept. 18, 9 pm
Some call School of Seven Bells the modern-day incarnation of Cocteau Twins, but there's more to this dream pop trio founded by former Secret Machines guitarist Ben Curtis. Their clever use of shoegaze tropes - noisy guitars and lots of effects-pedal action, with the angelic vocals of twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Dreheza floating above the chaos - gives their shows emotion and an ethereal ambiance that's truly magical. Also playing: Active Child.
The Gaslight Anthem
Majestic Theatre, Sept. 19, 7:30 pm
The New Jersey folk-punks' sophomore album, The '59 Sound, a unique blend of 1950s-inspired rock, Springsteen-esque vocals and Social D-style swagger, won top honors from eMusic in 2008. Their new release, American Slang, takes more of its cues from the 1970s, especially Eric Clapton's short-lived blues-rock band Derek & the Dominoes, and should translate at least as well as '59 has onstage. With the Menzingers and Fake Problems.
Built to Spill
High Noon Saloon, Sept. 21, 8:30 pm
Before there was Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, Built to Spill began laying the groundwork for indie rock's "Northwest sound" at the band's Boise, Idaho, headquarters. At the same time, without realizing it, Built to Spill built a bridge between Neil Young's epic guitar jams and the fractured, lo-fi gems of Sebadoh and Pavement. Relive these breakthroughs via live renditions of '90s classics such as "Twin Falls" and "Velvet Waltz," and get acquainted with newer material from 2009's There Is No Enemy. With Revolt Revolt.
Orpheum Theatre, Sept. 28, 7:30 pm
The celebrated indie-rock band's fifth studio album, High Violet, explores bleak themes with extraordinary vividness, reminding the masses that being in a band - even one as popular as the National - doesn't erase the most human of hangups: feelings of inadequacy, social awkwardness and anxiety about growing old. The band takes you on a guided tour of troubles with songs like the cathartic, hook-driven "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and the spookily sincere "Afraid of Everyone." Expect the National to kick the intensity up a notch onstage. With Owen Pallett.
Majestic Theatre, Sept. 28, 8:30 pm
This Southern-fried alt-country band features not one, not two, but three guitar players, all of whom could front a mean Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band. The group has ample creative powers, as evidenced by the 2001 release Southern Rock Opera, which earned No Depression's "Band of the Year" award. The group's latest offering, The Big To-Do, honors Tom Petty while commenting on the sad state of the American economy. With Henry Clay People.
High Noon Saloon, Sept. 29, 8:30 pm
The Portland, Ore., sextet aren't content to settle into one musical genre, rambling from folk to alt-country to experimental rock, sometimes within a single song. Their critically lauded 2008 release, Furr, found them in Americana mode, while their 2010 release, Destroyer of the Void, is a more eclectic affair steeped in '70s-inspired folk rock, prog and psych-pop. With Pearly Gate Music.
Orpheum Theatre, Oct. 1, 8 pm
There are several big hip-hop shows to choose from this fall, from the Sept. 8 Atmosphere concert at the Orpheum to Overture Center's Sept. 18 blowout featuring Tech N9ne, E-40, Krizz Kaliko, Kutt Calhoun, Big Scoob, Jay Rock and Glasses Malone. However, it's tattooed 23-year-old Wiz Khalifa who may leave the deepest impression - and get you to pay a lot more attention to his Pittsburgh stomping grounds. After scoring a radio hit in 2008 with his techno-leaning single "Say Yeah," he killed it at the CMJ Music Marathon in 2009 and at South By Southwest in 2010, blending crooning with rapping in a Mos Def-meets-Kid Cudi kind of way. With Yelawolf.
Barrymore Theatre, Oct. 8, 8 pm
This five-person side project of indie-pop supergroup Broken Social Scene is built upon admiration for the Smiths and Syd Barrett, and a sound that's evolved from electronic pop to elegant rock over the last decade. Stars' 2010 album, The Five Ghosts, continues this trajectory with 11 tracks that are dreamy, catchy and just a tad too edgy to be called twee. With Wild Nothing.
Wisconsin Union Theater, Oct. 8, 8:30 pm
Baez's stately, vibrato-driven singing is one of the most recognizable in the world of popular music and, for many who feel connected to the social movements of the 1960s, one of the most inspiring. But her dedication to social justice didn't end then. Lately, she's turned her attention to the plight of peaceful protesters in Iran, recording a version of "We Shall Overcome" that features Persian lyrics. Come to this show to reconnect with your countercultural impulse or simply to enjoy "Diamonds & Rust," "There But for Fortune" or her cover of Steve Earle's "Jerusalem."
The Walkmen, Japandroids
Barrymore Theatre, Oct. 14, 8 pm
With a dark, nervous sound that conjured memories - or fantasies - of the New York City scene that spawned Blondie, Television and Talking Heads in the mid-to-late '70s, the Walkmen's 2002 album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, led many critics to brand them the new face of urban cool. However, it's the pop rocks of Canadian duo Japandroids that are likely to make this show an explosive one. Also playing: Miniature Tigers.
Overture Center's Capitol Theater, Oct. 15, 8 pm
The members of the fun-loving pop-rock band graduated from college about 15 years ago, but they're focusing on the university crowd more than ever these days. They visit campuses across the nation to show students how the music business can decrease its carbon footprint, from using biodiesel-fueled buses to peddling eco-friendly merch. First and foremost on their agenda, however, is promoting their sixth studio album, Easy Wonderful, which is scheduled to drop a week and a half before this show.
High Noon Saloon, Oct. 16, 9:30 pm
When delving deep into the recesses of punk, jazz and prog in the late '70s, brothers Rob and John Wright discovered the prototype of math rock. It didn't fully take shape until several years later, when Steve Albini's career as a sound engineer - and his noisy, angular band Shellac - took off. Meanwhile, NoMeansNo added an extra guitarist and expanded its sound to include metal and funk influences, exploring an abundance of odd time signatures and insanely complex rhythms. The results are bizarre, mesmerizing and utterly jaw-dropping when witnessed in the flesh. With Ford Pier.
Orpheum Theatre, Oct. 19, 8:30 pm
Deadmau5 has pushed dance music away from record-deck DJing and toward a style of performance that's more like jazz: live, experimental and assembled on the spot. It's his instruments that differentiate him from the average jazz cat: Instead of riffing on a bass or sax, he creates original beats, melody swatches and other sound effects that are spliced together onstage using a variety of technological gadgets and software programs. The results range from IDM and chiptunes to progressive house and exciting, as-yet-unnamed brands of party jams.
Overture Center's Capitol Theater, Oct. 31, 8 pm
The nine-piece ensemble from the melting pot of New York City makes crazy collages out of punk, dub and gypsy music, like the Balkan cousins of Manu Chao or a very caffeinated version of Beirut. Their major-label debut, Trans-Continental Hustle, which premiered in April, features a baker's dozen of high-octane, minor-key salsas, polkas and tangos that are bound to turn the Capitol Theater into a cacophony of celebration this Halloween.
Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 3, 7:30 pm
Over the past few years, hipsters have been retrieving accordions from thrift stores and grandparents' basements, using them to add a retro, old-world sound to their indie-pop bands. The next instrument in line for a revival is the ukulele, which is no longer confined to old Hawaiian records or Magnetic Fields ballads. If you're the slightest bit curious about the instrument, Shimabukuro is your man. Taking the ukulele out of the realm of cheesy comedy shows and grade-school music classes, he performs virtuosic versions of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and more. The act has won him pop-star status in Japan, and it just might catch on stateside if he tours as aggressively here as he did there.
The Reverend Horton Heat
Majestic Theatre, Nov. 5, 8 pm
The potentate of psychobilly returns, along with some killer sidekicks (Split Lip Rayfield and the Legendary Shack Shakers), to rock the house with fiery melodies, pseudo-sermons, odes to booze and red meat, and all sorts of other high jinks.
Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano
Overture Center's Capitol Theater, Nov. 11, 7:30 pm
This Grammy-winning mariachi band was featured on Linda Ronstadt's album Canciones de Mi Padre in 1987, but it's been a major force in Latin American music for more than 40 years, bringing this style of music into the public eye in North America and around the world. And though he's pushing 80, bandleader Natividad "Nati" Cano drives the musicians to perform with the energy and verve of a group half their age - and with a technical prowess that definitely deserves an audience.