The regular gigs Madison musicians play on weeknights serve many important functions. They allow singer-songwriters to try out new material, and they allow jazz players to hone their skills as individuals and as ensembles. They give musicians of all stripes a low-pressure environment for collaboration. And just as importantly, they help reconcile the music community to Madisonians' ever-powerful love of creature comforts. That's especially true of a few relatively new weeknight music events at the Fountain and the Mason Lounge.
If you see a lot of music in Madison, you get used to seeing guitarist Louka Patenaude play a bit of everything - jazz with Ben Sidran and the New Breed, reggae with Natty Nation, country with the Fingers. It's appropriate that his Monday residency at the Fountain's back bar, the "Optimistic Sessions," gives him a loose format in which to experiment with songwriting, guitar improvisation and guest performers. In addition to playing two sets of his own, Patenaude usually invites someone else up to play a short halftime set.
During the main sets, it's nice to sink into one of the bar's U-shaped booths and watch Patenaude rip through rapid acoustic solos on country originals and covers, including Elvis Costello's existential drinking song "The Big Light."
Halftime offers that most elusive thing: singer-songwriters who don't wear out their emotional welcome. One recent night, I was pleasantly surprised by a solo set from Fingers member Luke Sather, whose soft, mournful vocals and unassuming presence reminded me a bit of Damien Jurado and Neil Young. Another frequent guest, Ben Cameron, mixes weird covers like Radiohead's "There There" with the angrily swinging originals he writes for his project William Z. Villain.
Park Street's shoebox-sized Mason Lounge deserves a house band as flavorful and unpredictable as its craft-beer tap list. The Five Points Jazz Collective has been working toward that goal since it began playing a Tuesday-night gig at the Mason two years ago.
"Before, we tended more toward the traditional songbook, the standards, and bop and jazz," bassist Stephen Ellestad says. "In the past year, we've added a lot more postmodern funk and jazz, and a little bit of free jazz as well."
The band's Tuesday-night sets skip from loose funk to impressively snappy renditions of tunes like Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." This can mean some mood swings, but it's worth giving Five Points time to warm up and explore their range. It helps that drummer Michael Sherry and keyboard player Trey Grimm set disciplined grooves, giving guitarist Charlie Painter and trombone player Kyle Rightley a lot of room to improvise. Rightley deserves extra points for being a good sport: He's usually stationed right next to the men's room door, and often has to quickly swing the slide of his trombone out of the way to let patrons in.
Scott and Mike's Hammond Organ Night, once a fixture at the Avenue Bar, resurfaced last year with a few scattered gigs. Drummer Scott Beardsley and organ player Mike Cammilleri have found a more stable home at the Fountain, playing every Wednesday from 8 to 11 p.m. The skilled duo sometimes augment their playfully swinging mix of jazz selections with guitarist Vince Jesse and sax player Eric Koppa.
...and soon, Sundays
In one more step toward being a new musical hub, the Fountain will debut an in-house big band on Sunday, Feb. 24. "The concept is to come together on the fourth Sunday of every month and read big-band charts," says Fountain booker Darren Sterud, who will also be playing trombone in the band. "The key word being 'read.' With everyone being so busy, the band really doesn't have much time to rehearse, much like the big bands in New York in the '50s and '60s."
The 19-strong lineup will include pianist Dave Stoler and horn players from acts including Mama Digdown's Brass Band, Youngblood Brass Band and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.