Year-end lists tend to be nice and trim, while local music is messy: provincial yet sprawling, repetitive yet ever-changing, frustrating yet exciting. To provide some perspective, I'll discuss a few factors that altered Madison's music community in 2012, and what these changes mean for the future.
Changes at local concert venues - from the most ornate old theater to the scrappiest little DIY space - touched almost everyone this year. After struggling with structural decay and feuding management, the Orpheum Theatre landed in foreclosure. As great as the Orpheum is, it's brought us some horrors in recent years, such as a shoddy, awkwardly high concert stage and dead-of-winter movie screenings with the heat turned off. I'm thankful that the competent, Madison-based concert promoter Frank Productions is at least temporarily taking over. Frank will reopen the venue with a New Year's Eve show featuring local rock band Hometown Sweethearts and DJs VON, Mad Major Melvin and Wyatt Agard, and has booked some big-name acts for 2013, including Passion Pit and Yonder Mountain String Band. But it remains to be seen if the company will tackle the costly, long-term renovations the Orpheum deserves.
The uncertainty hasn't spared small venues, either. The all-ages Project Lodge left its East Johnson Street space this fall and has yet to find a new location. The tiny Dragonfly Lounge became a surprisingly important venue for local and regional bands, thanks to a few musicians' dogged booking efforts, which will continue with the Lost City Winter Series.
Darwin Sampson, owner of the small downtown club the Frequency, recently announced a business partnership with Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie of the Majestic Theatre, who have funded a sound-system upgrade and will assume a greater role in booking. The Majestic has already started booking and promoting shows at small local venues such as Redamte Coffee House, the Loft at the Goodman Community Center, and East Main Street's Anglophile-themed joint, the Rigby. It's not clear how much they'll shift the Frequency's offerings away from local bands and toward more lucrative touring acts.
Sampson recently told me that Madison musicians may have too many opportunities to perform, and that shows booked too close together can dilute the draw of these acts. Often, he says, a local band will play for free at a place like Mickey's Tavern just a week or two before a Frequency show, making it harder to bring in cover charges and alcohol sales that, ultimately, keep live music afloat. Still, I sense that local bands are frustrated with traditional venues. As the year went on, I noticed more and more shows at houses, the bike shop Revolution Cycles and the new art space Bright Red Studios. A recording studio, Audio for the Arts, also brought in a small but dedicated following as it hosted the Surrounded By Reality experimental-jazz series.
Whether I was attending a show at the Dragonfly, Mickey's or someone's apartment, I found it hard to overlook the productivity of Madison's avant-garde musicians. One of the acts I saw most frequently was Spiral Joy Band, who use fiddles, harmonium and sometimes even gongs to summon drone-based pieces of exhausting length. During a residency at the Dragonfly before two members moved away from Madison, free-jazz trio Glacier collaborated live with all sorts of musicians, from sax and flute improviser Hanah Jon Taylor to tabla player Todd Hammes. At State Street's Dobra Tea, I kicked off my shoes and sat on a pillow to watch Madison throat-singer DB Pedersen and the avant-classical Watercourse Quartet perform an improvisational one-off.
Madisonians should also take heart in the music community's entrepreneurial spirit. While everyone and their mother have started a record label, the folks behind Madison's Brave Mysteries, Kind Turkey and Mine All Mine labels behaved like true go-getters, recruiting artists from our city and beyond. Madison's Ankur Malhotra helped launch Amarrass Records, a label centering on traditional Indian musicians, and trekked into the deserts of Rajahstan to record them. Even the Madison Mallards delved into live music in August, successfully launching the Pondamonium festival, which featured the Flaming Lips and Garbage.
As always, a strange, mismatched bunch of people steered Madison music in 2012. That can make things unpredictable, but it might also be our town's greatest musical asset.