Another season, another club closes. This time it's Club Majestic that's moved off the club calendar, and its loss will be felt. Without it, the Barrymore Theatre and the Orpheum's narrow Stage Door Theater will see more action, which is good for those rooms but not exactly a sign of robust growth in the live-music scene.
Even so, the spring season looks to be stronger than last year. Particularly for indie rock. Denison Witmer, Cold War Kids, Aloha, Apples in stereo, regular Madison visitors the Decemberists, TV on the Radio, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists are already on club schedules, and more indie-rock bookings are in the offing.
On the downside, hip-hop isn't well represented. The city may have a new hip-hop-friendly radio station in 106.7 Jamz, but so far that good news hasn't translated into any local live dates for commercial R&B or hip-hop artists. And that's a shame. Here's hoping an appearance by silver-tongued Chicago underground MC Qwel (who visits the Memorial Union Rathskeller on March 9) isn't the only show hip-hop fans have to look forward to for the next couple months.
In terms of variety, the season looks pretty good. A pair of older reggae acts, one of the Middle East's true masters of the oud, a few topnotch improvisers, the usual steady trickle of singer-songwriters, a smattering of jam bands and some twangier types will all make their way north before May. But other than an appearance by bluesy singer-guitarist/Jessica Simpson squeeze John Mayer at the Alliant Energy Center on Feb. 14, big gigs at the biggest venues are in short supply. So for those whose tastes run to Gnarls Barkley, Of Montreal or the Pussycat Dolls, I've got two words for you: Road trip!
Don't feel much like hitting the interstate? Here are a few choice local dates that should help you save some gas money.
Feb. 10, Barrymore Theatre
One of the most recognizable names in U.K. reggae, Birmingham's Steel Pulse found wider fame in the mid-'70s playing Rock Against Racism shows with punk acts. Since then, they've ping-ponged from conscious roots reggae to highly produced commercial sounds and back again. Three core members still front the band, and you can bet they'll take a stab at timeless social justice grooves like 'Ku Klux Klan' and the deceptively buoyant 'Taxi Driver.'
Feb. 13, Barrymore Theatre
Blue October's Foiled flashes back to the halcyon days of New Order and a dozen other '80s and '90s synth-rock acts. The thick, arty production on the brooding post-relationship kiss-off track 'Hate Me' charmed radio, but the veteran Houston band's road to mainstream respectability got a bigger boost when they were tapped to open for the Rolling Stones last year. Expect quieter, atmospheric moments mixed with deafening aural thunder.
Feb. 15-18, Madison Center for Creative and Cultural Arts
The art of the improvisers moves front and center at this talent-rich festival. Among the highlights are appearances by Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell, bass great Richard Davis, keyboardist Joan Wildman and Miles Davis/McCoy Tyner alum Sonny Fortune.
Feb. 20, High Noon Saloon
Mark Linkous' Sparklehorse hasn't toured in the U.S. for half a decade, and in that time his surreal brand of woozy, indie-brushed folk-rock has become a kind of Rosetta Stone for brainy basement bands with a taste for quirky production, hooky pop melodies and lyrics that don't make a whole lotta sense. This is a major event, no matter how many folks show up.
Simon Shaheen and Qantara
Feb. 25, Overture Center
Shaheen is well grounded in both Middle Eastern and Western musical traditions. He's a master of the lute-like oud and the violin, and his group Qantara includes some astounding players. During his years in New York, he's collaborated with big-eared producer Bill Laswell, arranged Arabic string parts for Sting and generally served as one of the Middle East's most potent musical ambassadors. His live concerts are truly life-changing affairs.
The Apples in stereo
Feb. 26, High Noon Saloon
Now operating with support from elfin actor Elijah Wood's Simian label, the arch poppers continue to bounce and keen with abandon on their 2007 release New Magnetic Wonder. Even at this late date, the Apples in stereo may be too Flaming Lips loopy for folks with their feet planted squarely on terra firma. But they're sure to leave the many neo-psychedelians among us reaching for the paisley-print horizon.
Feb. 28, High Noon Saloon
The Philadelphia singer-songwriter seems poised to attract much of the same audience that's turned musical mates like Sufjan Stevens and My Morning Jacket into cult favorites. His simple folk-leaning tunes can be sensitive and ethereal, but they're also refreshingly human. Unlike some of his more hermetic brethren, he produces work that's very much of this world.
March 4, Barrymore Theatre
There are really two Pete Yorns: the romantic guitar strummer whose achy-breaky yearning touches the tousle-haired bohemian in us all and the more ambitious club-rocker who conjures offstream songsmiths like Paul Westerberg and Ryan Adams. Which one will show up for this show? Coldplay analog Aqualung (a.k.a. Matt Hales) should offer up a strong opening set.
Cold War Kids/Tokyo Police Club
March 8, The Annex
Who's gotten more hype? Cold War Kids for their mix-and-match pastiche of Jeff Buckley-inspired sweetness, Jack White-style garage blues and regular ol' indie precociousness; or Toyko Police Club for their raw, postpunk-revival-meets-the Strokes approach to guitar confectionary? Both promise to be rousing live, especially in a small, warm room like the Annex.
TV on the Radio
March 16, Orpheum Theatre
The soul/art-rock cross-pollinators transcended the indie scene that first embraced them with last year's Return to Cookie Mountain, which dominated best-of lists across the country. Will their elegiac crooners, peppy pop-rockers and weirdo funk experiments work as well in concert as they did in the studio? My guess is yes. Get your tickets early.
March 28, The Annex
That's Chris Daughtry, as in the Southern dude from American Idol with the shaved head who sounded like the guy from Nickelback and probably could have joined Creed but instead opted to climb the ladder of success on his own terms. Anyhow, here's a chance to get a good close-up of his glistening pate and quavering uvula.
JJ Grey & Mofro/Backyard Tire Fire
April 19, High Noon Saloon
The headliner's artfully greased-up version of Suthin' blues, soul and country is plenty entertaining, but alt-country types are apt to get more out of Backyard Tire Fire's sensible, well-played Midwestern twang-rock, which mirrors old-school Wilco without ripping it off.
Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
April 26, UW Union South's Club 770
How many folks could possibly get into a wordy, politically left-of-center pop-rock band led by a committed vegetable-muncher whose unswerving fealty to Elvis Costello and Paul Weller becomes embarrassing at points? Well, as it turns out, a lot of 'em. Leo's music is definitely an acquired taste (sorry, kids, there's only one Weller), but his peppy stage manner is worth the price of admission.