It's the week after Labor Day, the new school year's in full swing, and a heap of new Madison residents are learning how to navigate the city.
Sure, if you're new in town, it's easy enough to grab a map to learn how to bike from Jenifer Street to Linden Drive. But odds are, you've come here hoping to learn more about Madison than how to get from point A to point B. You might even be curious about the kind of things that shape Madison's personality and define its culture.
Our local music scene is one of them. It's a creative force that thrives 365 days a year. And every year, at about the time the new school year starts, Madison music kicks into high gear with more shows.
(Not that it's a sleepy scene in between semesters.)
Even on a Monday night, you can find live shows at more than a dozen venues in and around town. On a Saturday, you might pick from more than 50 musical events.
In Madison, there's a band for every genre. You won't have to look far to find everything from Irish rock to heavy metal. And for every type of live music you venture out to experience, you get to meet a different side of the city.
So if you want to experience Madison to the fullest, go hear live local music this fall. Where to begin? Isthmus can help. We've compiled this guide to 11 shows that are already on the calendar, September through November, and that feature Madison bands and songwriters.
By Thanksgiving, you might even know the difference between the Gomers and the Kissers.
Nick Whetro and Jentri Colello
Mother Fool's Coffeehouse, Sept. 9
This fall could be the most important phase of Nick Whetro's musical career. That's because his band, Icarus Himself, is due to release the much anticipated follow-up to its 2009 album, Coffins.
Increasingly, Icarus Himself has been getting press on national indie blogs like Cokemachineglow.com. With gorgeously forlorn songs like "Digging Holes," off 2010's Mexico EP, it's easy to see why.
Whetro formed Icarus Himself with Karl Christenson as a spin-off to their other band, National Beekeepers Society, in 2007. They added drummer Brad Kolberg last year.
At this Mother Fool's show, Whetro will perform with another one of Madison's best songwriters, Jentri Colello. Colello's Land of Vandals band recently released a four-song EP that's slow and restrained, showcasing Colello's soulful singing.
On "Sing Us Offshore," the Vandals add organ to give the song a gently psychedelic edge. At its best, Colello's music is impressionistic and deeply atmospheric.
The Playground of Sound
Harmony Bar, Sept. 17
Madison's proximity to Chicago means that blues has a place in our neighborhoods.
Fortunately for the Playground of Sound, Madison is also close to Kenosha. That's where Joel Pingitore was living when he decided to join the local band in 2009.
Bassist Frank Queram, drummer Joel Brantmeier and vocalist Brad Reichert round out the quartet.
The Playground's blue-collar sound is driven by Reichert's gritty singing style and Pingitore's powerful guitar riffs. On "The Cards Fell" the band shows off its heavy mix of blues and hard rock.
Pingitore says he's been hooked on the blues ever since he heard his dad's Stevie Ray Vaughan albums as a kid. He says he's drawn to the genre because it allows you to express anything.
Playground of Sound frequently crosses the state line to play in Illinois. In Madison, the blues-drenched Harmony Bar is one of the band's most frequent stops.
Daniel and the Lion
High Noon Saloon, Sept. 23
Madison boasts a tight community of musicians who collaborate on folk-rock and Americana music projects. Two of those musicians are Jimmy Linville and Daniel Pingrey, the guitarist and pianist who make up Daniel and the Lion.
On their latest CD, Sweet Teeth, they were supported by Blueheels drummer Adam Cargin, Cameron McGill & What Army guitarist Daniel McMahon, and Rusted Heart bassist Miles Nielsen.
If you like roots-rock music that feels connected to the land, Daniel and the Lion is for you. Linville and Pingrey grew up in Baraboo, and their layered sound is as lush as a prairie in July. They even wrote a poignant tribute to their hometown that could easily be a southern Wisconsin theme song.
Their songs thrive on the different approaches each brings to composition. Pingrey studied music performance at UW-Madison. Linville grew up with three siblings in a trailer and spent time on his own learning guitar.
The Barley Brothers
Malt House Tavern, Sept. 26
When Jeff Burkhart is wearing a pressed, collared shirt, a necktie and a guitar strapped across his shoulder, he looks the part of old-time country. It doesn't hurt having Colin Bazsali standing on one side of him, clad in a tie and vest, mandolin in his hands. Brian O'Donnell's fiddle helps rewind the band to a musical time when bluegrass, country blues and Cajun were new American sounds.
The Barley Brothers are one of Burkhart's two bands. He also fronts the Dirty Shirts. Each project gives Burkhart a different outlet for his songwriting styles. The Barley Brothers are grounded in an old-time sound. The Dirty Shirts lean toward modern honky-tonk.
The Barley Brothers play a mix of traditional and original songs. Last winter at the Capitol protests, they performed some of the classic songs of resistance, including "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."
Unless those protests break out again, you'll have to travel to the Malt House on East Washington Avenue to hear them play on the fourth Monday of every month.
The Frequency, Sept. 30
Here's one of the best things about the era when records no longer sell a lot of copies: Songwriters aren't being pressured to follow the same tried-and-true formulas. Madison's Anna Vogelzang makes the kind of songs that thrive in this brave new world. They're high on diverse instrumentation, original melodies and unusual lyrics.
On her new CD, Canary in a Coal Mine, she adds fiddle, clarinet, accordion and cello, among others. On "Die Trying," the strings have a melancholy sound as Vogelzang expresses anguish and self-doubt. "What if this is not my best?" she wonders.
Vogelzang came to Madison via Chicago in 2008, and she won the Madison Songwriters Guild Song Showdown competition in 2009. The competition features monthly shows and monthly winners who face off in an end-of-year battle.
Her new CD features noteworthy guest appearances, including Franz Nicolay, formerly of the Hold Steady.
Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Band
Cardinal Bar, Oct. 2
Cuba? New York? Miami? Those are the places you might think of when you think of Latin jazz. But thanks to Tony Castañeda, Madison music fans can hear saxophone, guitar, bass, keyboard and timbales all crash against each other in a fit of tropical energy and emotion.
Castañeda has been performing in Madison for more than 30 years. This past June at the Isthmus Jazz Festival, he was named Isthmus Jazz Personality of the Year.
Castañeda's Latin Jazz Band plays songs by Tito Puente and other greats of the genre on Sunday nights, beginning at 8 p.m., at the Cardinal Bar. And that's not all he does. For years, he has hosted the Thursday edition of The 8 O'Clock Buzz on WORT, 89.9 FM. He's a community activist, too, approaching his causes with as much passion as his music.
The People Brothers Band
High Noon Saloon, Oct. 8
The economy might be tepid. Unions have fallen on hard times. The rich are making more and working folks are making less. But the People Brothers Band proves that the people haven't lost their groove.
This eight-piece band was founded by rhythm guitarist Tim Lochner and drummer Greg Schmitt. It's anchored in the soulful vocals of Teresa Marie. The People's diverse instrumentation includes saxophone and keyboard, alongside guitars, bass and drums. The band plays everything from rock to soul, funk to reggae, folk to blues.
More than a lot of Madison bands, the People know how to get their audience dancing. Their stage energy is infectious, and their strong rhythms make listeners want to move. That has turned them into a successful regional draw, especially at summer festivals.
Brink Lounge, Oct. 21
The cultural boundaries of Madison music spread far. From klezmer to Celtic to Balkan funk, local musicians frequently march to a world beat.
Take Harmonious Wail. For almost 25 years, they've been sharing their own brand of gypsy swing in Madison clubs. On recent albums, Harmonious Wail have revealed their stylistic dexterity. Resist Temptation found them covering rock standards by Tom Waits, the Velvet Underground and Steely Dan. The same album featured musical influences of the East on "Lung Shan Temple Chant."
Grounded in the ukulele, mandolin and guitar of Sims Delaney-Potthoff and the loungy, jazzy vocals of his wife, Maggie, Harmonious Wail make some of the most reflective and gorgeous folk-influenced music in Madison. "Lagavullin Bay" is a sonic nature escape that relies on uilleann pipes to forge a timeless mood.
This year, Sims and Maggie added an old friend and a new friend to their lineup, guitarist Mark Kreitzer and upright bassist Jeff Weiss. Weiss is a recent UW-Madison music grad who studied under legendary musician Richard Davis.
Crystal Corner Bar, Oct. 29
This metal band would not exist today if guitarist Brad Van hadn't assembled a vintage arcade. In the process of collecting classic videogames, Van met drummer Tony Brungraber. When bassist Nate Bush also started hanging out at Van's arcade, the three musicians collaborated to form Droids Attack.
The trio distinguish themselves from other metal bands by venturing beyond sludge and screamo. Droids Attack's music might be heavy, but the instrumentation is built on accessible riffs. "The Crisis in the City (It's Increasing)," a track off their most recent album, Must Destroy, is what nervous energy sounds like.
Madison has a history of highly listenable hard rock. Back in the 1990s, local producer Butch Vig mastered the feat on Killdozer albums before he went on to record tracks for Nirvana's landmark Nevermind album.
Droids Attack carry on the tradition. They've got a mascot, too - a metallic metal robot named Robo known to mingle with the audience at shows.
Madison Hip Hop Awards Show
Barrymore Theater, Nov. 12
The live hip-hop scene in Madison remains sparse. That could be due to past police incidents associated with hip-hop shows and the perceived risk among some clubs that they are putting their liquor license at risk by booking the genre. One Middleton club, Scatz, voluntarily relinquished its license last March after a shooting incident connected with a hip-hop show.
That's too bad, because Madison is fortunate to have creative musicians making meaningful art in the hip-hop genre. This fall, one of the best ways to discover the hip-hop scene will be the Madison Hip Hop Awards Show at the Barrymore on Nov. 12.
The show's musical roster, still being put together, includes local acts like recent Verona Area High School graduates Kyle & Keem. Last year's lineup included Madison favorite Star Persons, an infectiously entertaining group that makes the kind of dance-friendly rap-pop the kids like. More information will be posted to madisonhiphopawards.com as it becomes available.
Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 19
Like Hank Williams Sr., Blake Thomas has wrestled with alcohol and troubled relationships. Williams and Thomas have something else in common. Those struggles became the framework for making great country music songs.
Thomas told all about being down and out on his 2008 album, Flatlands. "Please Cash This Check" recalls a time when Thomas had to plead with a clerk to cash a check without the usual wait time. Thomas needed his car fixed, and the check was the only money he had.
Originally from Minnesota, Thomas spent time in Chicago, Milwaukee and Boston before settling in Madison. Since coming here, he's established himself as one of the city's best songwriters.
Earlier this year, Thomas released The Window and the Light. This album was supported by a close community of roots musicians who live in Madison, including Justin Bricco, Jeremiah Nelson, Mary Gaines and Chris Wagoner.
Songs like "Fire and Bones" and "Keeping Score" display Thomas' strong singing. In them, a fine storyteller weaves tales about navigating life's great conflicts, relying on music to make sense of it all.