Madison is in for a turbulent fall, musically speaking. And that's not necessarily a problem.
Don't get me wrong: Peaceful times aren't bad for the arts. Madison residents create plenty of good music while grinding away at graduate degrees and retiling their bathrooms. But the next few months will make local musicians discover how resourceful and tenacious they are. Change is on the horizon.
Homelessness is one source of turbulence. One important venue, the Project Lodge, will leave its East Johnson Street home in late September. It hasn't yet secured a new space. Meanwhile, hip-hop artists are feeling embattled as an old story plays out anew: A few idiots start fights at hip-hop events, then local venues step away from the genre en masse. But these challenges shouldn't spell disaster. The leaders of the Project Lodge and the hip-hop community are seeking new places to host shows and new ways to pique people's interest in local music.
Diversity is also shaking up the local music community. As engaging acts such as PHOX, Count This Penny and Anna Vogelzang raise hopes that Madison music will draw national attention - much as Pale Young Gentlemen did a few years back - avant-garde miscreants like the Second Family Band school everyone in the productivity-and-collaboration department. A small, scattered group of artists is making electronic music more of a force, without forming a cohesive scene for this genre. Beloved local clubs such as the Frequency have been booking fewer concerts as more shows pop up at unconventional venues such as the Dragonfly Lounge in Bellini's basement and the Shitty Barn in Spring Green.
This summer's attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker could have jump-started local music with politically charged outrage. But after a loss at the polls, the petitions and protest songs seemed futile.
Then there's the tragedy. A few of the local scene's elders, such as legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield, have been ill. Some of the musicians I know best have made their art flourish despite harrowing personal struggles. And every year, many talented people move away.
Don't let this stuff bum you out. Situations like these have never been easy, and we're sitting on lots of talent that will help us pull through. This year's difficulties could make us think a little differently. Perhaps we'll get better at assembling our assets and making the most of them. If we know what's good for us, we'll become more proactive, more organized and less provincial in our approach to making music and nurturing local acts. A time of great setbacks is the best time to do great things.
Here are 25 shows to help you discover what local musicians have to offer - and experience the thrilling turbulence of fall 2012.
Anyone doubting Madison's ability to nurture musical eccentrics should catch a Trin Tran show (Sept. 8, Mickey's Tavern). Here, one-man act Steve Coombs juggles synths, guitar, drums and vocals and tempers strong hooks with jagged, Devo-inspired rhythms. His newer songs feature richer synth sounds and a more melodic focus, but this weekend's show will celebrate the release of Dark Radar, a collection of harsher-sounding rarities from about 10 years ago. Its songs were compiled by Bay Area rocker Ty Segall, who made the album the first release from his new label, GOD?. Trin Tran will also open for Segall and Thee Oh Sees Sept. 29 at the High Noon Saloon.
Mickey's is a good spot to look for seasoned local-music adventurers. TarDozer-SFB (Sept. 15) includes members of Tar Babies, Killdozer and Appliances-SFB - three bands that helped make punk and noise-rock vital forces in the '80s and '90s. This explosive group came together last month for a sold-out, reservations-required performance that was part of the Wisconsin Historical Museum's Smart Sounds, Alt Music, Mad Scenes exhibition. Bill and Ed Feeny of Appliances, Bucky Pope of Tar Babies and Dan Hobson of Killdozer have recruited one newcomer, singer Chris Vance, who Hobson claims can replicate the three groups' assorted shrieks, sneers and grunts.
There's even more corrosive music below the scene's surface. When Milwaukee experimental-electronic group Boy Dirt Car comes to town, Dan Woodman's Lens and Clay Kolbinger's Maths Balance Volumes will show what Madison offers the underworld of drone and abstract gear-hacking (Sept. 29, Dragonfly Lounge). Both Woodman and Kolbinger have participated in the Second Family Band, a group of outsider musicians that sometimes stages improvised jams.
Not everyone in Madison cares for dissonant guitar chords and unholy effects-pedal couplings. Luckily, Aaron Scholz's musical obsessions are more welcoming. In September, he'll man Mickey's Tuesday-night slot, which tends to feature acoustic singer-songwriters. In addition to performing his own mild-mannered originals, Scholz will play covers by artists such as the Kinks, Cheap Trick and Love. He'll also share the stage with guests such as Kyle Motor of the Motorz (Sept. 11) and Nick Brown of country outfit Brown Derby (Sept. 18). These shows are likely to range from folk to dressed-down power-pop and garage-rock.
Without new sources of musical intrigue, you might get trapped in a conversation with some geezer yammering about the scene being "cyclical." Though Youngblood Brass Band (Oct. 18, High Noon Saloon) formed in the late '90s, its too-infrequent shows always showcase something fresh. Before launching a European tour, the group will fill the High Noon with its audacious mix of New Orleans jazz and hip-hop. Chants and Madden will provide support. The former combines Jordan Cohen's formidable drumming skills with choppy yet soulful electronics, and the latter has impressed Diplo's Mad Decent label by remixing artists such as New Orleans R&B artist Frank Ocean and mystic locals Kinit Her.
Some of the strongest contributions from younger local musicians are of the electronic variety. Though Beau Devereaux doesn't flaunt as many sonic intricacies as Chants, Mysteries from the Palomino Skyliner, a new album by his solo project Samantha Glass (Oct. 6, Dragonfly Lounge), deserves at least a few listens. Once you've grown accustomed to the mellowness of his synth and drum machines, tunes like "Seasonal Seduction" creep up and surprise you with sturdy, patiently built hooks.
Sometimes local bills entertain with their odd combinations of musicians. For example, take the High Noon's Sept. 8 show featuring Blueheels and Control. Blueheels' new album, Weather Machine, sounds more like anxious rock than the congenial alt-country they've made in the past, but it's not as lurching and enigmatic as Control's post-punk fragments.
Some local acts are teaming up to cross-pollinate different musical genres. Rapper Rob Dz will perform spoken-word over the jazz of New Breed Quartet as part of the Madison Music Collective's eclectic fall season (Dec. 2, Brink Lounge). Expect to hear plenty of improvisation from both Dz and New Breed, whose Tuesday jams at the Cardinal Bar boast prickly solos by bassist Nick Moran and tunes that range from Thelonious Monk classics to a jazzed-up version of "On, Wisconsin."
Beyond this, you won't find many local hip-hop artists on Madison clubs' calendars, thanks to a tiny number of people who've started fights and brought guns to concerts. Chilly attitudes have emerged among bookers and venue owners, but local hip-hop artists haven't been frozen out entirely. The Madison Hip-Hop Awards will return with performers such as Tefman, J Diamondzz and the Boys and Girls Club Dance Crew (Nov. 10, Barrymore Theatre). This show will raise money for the Boys and Girls Club and Urban Community Arts Network. UW-Madison's Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives will host rapper MC Lyte, who'll perform with students from the First Wave program (Oct. 8, Pyle Center).
Easy points of entry
Finding a favorite local band might seem to involve hanging around sparsely populated clubs until the wee hours of the morning. That's one way to do it, but not the only way. Try sampling the goods in the daylight during the annual Willy Street Fair (Sept. 15-16). Multiple stages will showcase Madison acts, national touring artists such as Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, and performers from the Madison World Music Festival. On Sept. 15, an electronic stage will feature DJs and electronic acts such as Mike Carlson and Tinhead. The following day, the WORT Underground Stage will offer one of the best lineups: shape-shifting conceptual hip-hop act Stink Tank (1:10 p.m.) followed by spirited punk revivalists Bes Monde (2:20 p.m.). Many local standbys will perform as well, including witty folk duo Lou and Peter Berryman (Sept. 16, Folk Stage, noon) and Reptile Palace Orchestra, which reinterprets Balkan folk with fiddles, electric cello and often-funky rhythms (Sept. 16, Main Stage, 2:30 p.m.).
Certain artists' names come up often in discussions about local music. Finding out why can be fun and instructive. Even if you don't like PHOX's theatrical pop or Anna Vogelzang's somewhat severe folk, you won't come away bruised. After all, PHOX singer Monica Martin calls out "Friendship!" as the band's song "Shrinking Violets" twinkles to a close. Form an opinion about both acts when they open for Pearl and the Beard (Sept. 21, Majestic Theatre).
If there's a Madison band that embraces everyone, it's Hometown Sweethearts (Sept. 14, High Noon Saloon). Though the Sweethearts became a local institution by playing covers, this show will celebrate Human Volcano, their first-ever album of original songs. Frontman Nate Palan says the band drew inspiration from the Cars and Depeche Mode and fattened up their sound with "lots of synths." Other shows (Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, Crystal Corner Bar) will probably dig into their deep list of covers, which includes everything from classic-rock hits to the WKRP in Cincinnati theme song.
That said, few Madison musicians are quite as likable as Josh Harty (Sept. 12, High Noon Saloon). In addition to giving folk songs a pleasantly rugged edge, he's an extremely skilled guitarist and an all-around gentleman. After next week's show, he'll tour Europe and embark on a series of two-month residencies across the U.S.
On the night that everyone's supposed to be weird - Halloween - Madison bands shine. This year's Halloween weekend will feature loads of one-night-only tribute acts. Expect a few flops and a few impressively on-target performances. The High Noon's two nights of revelry (Oct. 26-27) will boast a total of 10 such acts, the most intriguing being Whitney Mann masquerading as Gillian Welch and members of Little Red Wolf honoring Hole. More tributes will take place at Mickey's. Here you can catch homages to Nick Cave, MC5, the Stooges, Love and Rockets, and Pink Floyd (Oct. 26-27).
A change of scene
Escaping from bars and clubs can be the best way to remedy show fatigue. Many Madison bands trek to Spring Green's Shitty Barn, which is more charming and rustic than shitty. Tag along to hear the rich cello and stirring folk-rock rhythms of Pioneer (Oct. 3) or some bizarre, twisted tunes by Cribshitter (Oct. 20). Cribshitter is quite competent at country-pop, silly dubstep and much in between. The catch? They wear animal masks and sing about things like vintage station wagons and genitalia.
For those who can't flee Madison, the organizers of Broom Street Sessions create musical retreats within city limits. They bring acoustic acts - and a few electric ones - to Broom Street Theater's black-box stage on Willy Street. Bookings so far include Count This Penny, whose shiny, bluegrass-tinged folk has appeared on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion (Sept. 16), and Eric Caldera's solo act Oedipus Tex, which pairs the eclecticism of an indie rocker with the subdued torment of a singer-songwriter (Dec. 2). Despite all the turbulence, these two acts are becoming steady favorites for many local concertgoers.