Madison nightlife changes when autumn comes. Life gets better for concert promoters, who can finally book touring acts reluctant to perform here in the warmer months, when college students have left for, presumably, diligent volunteer work in their hometowns. Business also picks up for downtown bars, whose young customers worked up a tremendous thirst when they were off doing all that volunteer work.
But the biggest change is that nightlife comes inside, because ' in case you're new to town, and no one has told you this inconvenient truth ' it gets cold as the dickens out there. So as the leaves change, Madisonians put on the clothes they shed one afternoon last spring and enter some nightspot, any nightspot. (Although, thanks to the smoking ban, the shivering crowds outside most clubs have created a year-round outdoor nightlife that is reminiscent of South Beach, but with parkas.)
Which nightspot to choose? We can't promise an exhaustive list, so if we leave out your favorite joint, it's not because we hate. Here are some highlights of the local scene, whatever your inclination.
Times change, and entertainment trends come and go. But even as we take up fads like roller disco and beer pong, and just as quickly dispense with them, one institution endures: rock, the vital popular music that is mostly made with guitars and drums, but that in its local incarnations also sometimes emits from theremins and tiny Casio keyboards.
The first stop on any rock lover's tour of the city ought to be the Klinic Bar (520 S. Park St.), the unassuming south-side tavern that books a healthy mix of local and regional acts. For a second stop, try Club 770, the cafeteria in UW Union South (227 N. Randall Ave.) that, on weekend nights during the school year, is an all-ages music venue. Programmed by the students of the Wisconsin Union Directorate, Club 770 boasts, year after year, the most interesting rock calendar in town. You can learn a lot from those kids.
After that, things get complicated on the rock-club front. Madison is such a small city, you see, that clubs devoted to any one kind of music ' rock, jazz, blues ' often struggle to survive, or else give up and diversify their schedules. One rock hotspot was Journey Music, the Regent Street java den that, until it was abruptly shuttered a few weeks ago, invited all-ages crowds to take in an ambitious slate of punk and emo acts. Journey Music officials are frantically trying to move upcoming shows to, among other places, Club 770 and the Lussier Teen Center (827 E. Washington Ave.). The local scene also took a hit earlier this summer with the closing of the Slipper Club, the downtown bar that hosted rock shows, as well as provocative cabarets and burlesques.
Happily, many options remain. Perhaps foremost among them is the spacious High Noon Saloon (701 E. Washington Ave.). Owner Cathy Dethmers is a Madison legend with a tale of woe to tell: Her old club, O'Cayz Corral, burned several years ago, and plans for a replacement came and went like Spinal Tap drummers until she settled on her new digs. The High Noon hosts shows by local and national acts in a healthy variety of genres, including country and hip-hop, but rock is a mainstay ' thanks, presumably, to the fact that Dethmers herself is a locally renowned rocker.
Of comparable size is the Annex (1206 Regent St.), near the UW campus. Its starkly black interior betokens the fact that it often hosts harder fare.
Downtown, the King Club (114 King St.) began life as a jazz club some years back, but now has shows in the genres of rock, hip-hop and funk, among others. Just around the corner, the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company (123 E. Doty St.) holds rock shows, as well as performances by DJs.
Elsewhere in clubland, the Crystal Corner (1302 Williamson St.) has scaled back its musical offerings, but acts still play there. Further east, roots acts are the bill of fare at the Harmony Bar (2201 Atwood Ave.). And on the outskirts of town, you can hear live music at the Club Tavern (1915 Branch St., Middleton), Babe's Grill (5614 Schroeder Rd.) and the Badger Bowl (506 E. Badger Rd.), where you can knock down ten pins, then commence to rocking.
But what if your ideal rock show is bigger, even, than a bowling alley? Near the Beltline, the Alliant Energy Center (1919 Alliant Energy Center Way) puts on arena shows in two giant venues (as well as the odd horse show), and the UW's Kohl Center (601 W. Dayton St.) has hosted the likes of the Eagles and Bob Dylan.
Madison does not boast an extensive network of discotheques, but it has a lovely new spot for cutting rugs in Palace Latin Club (1401 University Ave.), which debuted earlier this year in the mid-campus space vacated by Luther's Blues. The roomy interior sees regular appearances by DJs and bands, and each Saturday there are lessons in salsa dancing.
Another prime spot for dancing is the Club Majestic (115 King St.), a lavishly renovated downtown cinema that, in its current incarnation as a nightclub, has regrettably become the latest local battleground over hip-hop music ' which, detractors say, causes violence (wasn't the same once said about the music of Judas Priest?). The Majestic's owners have put the place up for sale, so look, possibly, for a change of format.
Other dance spots include the Cardinal Bar (418 E. Wilson St.) and the electronica redoubt the Inferno (1718 Commercial Ave.). Polka rules at the Essen Haus (514 E. Wilson St.) and country at the Bean (5264 Verona Rd.)
Of course, anywhere there is a DJ, hoofing is likely to break out. You also can hear local turntable wizards spin their stuff at Natt Spil (211 King St.), Frida Mexican Grill (117 State St.), Peking Palace (736 N. Midvale Blvd.), Jolly Bob's (1210 Williamson St.) and just about anywhere else. The DJ shtick is marvelously portable.
But what if you wish neither to rock nor to boogie? Some entertainment is best enjoyed in mild contemplation. I am thinking particularly of jazz, which has a spiffy new local outlet in the Brink Lounge (701 E. Washington Ave.). The club's sleek music room ' it has Art Deco fixtures and a dramatic spiral staircase ' hosts weekend performances by local jazz stalwarts, as well as blues and folk. Adjoining the music room is a bar area that is almost discomfitingly vast.
The city's purest jazz room remains the Concourse Hotel Bar (1 W. Dayton St.), with noted jazz locals on weekends and a jam on Wednesdays. Another lovely spot for jazz is the lobby of the downtown Hilton (9 E. Wilson St.), where the music is so sophisticated and the decor so retro that you keep expecting Irene Dunne to make an appearance. Jazz is a mainstay at Madison Center for Creative and Cultural Arts (306 W. Dayton St.), which also hosts dance, world-music and spoken-word events.
Jazz is on tap at Restaurant Magnus (120 E. Wilson St.), Kimia Lounge (14 W. Mifflin St.), Otto's (6405 Mineral Point Rd.) and Maduro (117 E. Main St.), the downtown cigar bar that, in spite of the smoking ban, is still a cigar bar, thanks to the special dispensation of the Madison Common Council. And look for jazz and other refined fare at Cafe Montmartre (127 E. Mifflin St.).
If acoustic music is more your thing, the east side's Weary Traveler (1201 Williamson St.) is an excellent place to hear singer-songwriters and the like, as is the Irish pub Brocach (7 W. Main St.), on the Capitol Square. Singer-songwriters are a staple, too, of Mother Fool's Coffeehouse (1101 Williamson St.), the quirky Willy Street venue that also books far more adventuresome fare.
keep it gay
Spend any time in the Madison chat room on Gay.com, and inevitably you'll see this earnest query: "I'm visiting Madison soon. What are the good gay bars?" The jaded regulars have their response down pat: Club 5 (5 Applegate Ct.), Shamrock Bar (117 W. Main St.), Ray's Bar (2526 E. Washington Ave.).
Which is not to say that these three are the good gay bars, as such. No, these three are the only gay bars. By way of comparison: Green Bay, our neighbor to the north, has six gay bars, but its population is half of Madison's.
What's up with that? Madison is known as a gay mecca, and rightly so. Our representative in Congress is that body's only out lesbian. Gay folks live openly and happily here.
Maybe some of them just don't like gay bars.
As for those nightspots: Multipurpose, cavernous Club 5 is a regional destination that offers dancing, drag shows and opportunities to wear leather. Shamrock and Ray's, meanwhile, are neighborhoody.
As an entertainment option, live comedy peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, if yocks are your bag, you've got options.
Madison is just up the pike from Chicago, the birthplace of improvisational comedy; fittingly, improv troupes thrive here. Two worthy ones are Atlas Improv Company, which performs at Electric Earth Cafe (546 W. Washington Ave.), and Spin Cycle Improv Troupe, which makes its home at the Harmony Bar.
If you prefer stand-up, the Comedy Club (119 State St.), a holdout from the form's heyday, features regional and national acts. But for shtick that's strictly local, check out the Wisconsin Stand-up Comedy Project, or WiSUC, which is pronounced "we suck," but they don't suck. At WiSUC events, which take place at various nightclubs, a rotating cast of jesters perform short sets.
For some Madisonians, though, an evening of live music or dancing is just too structured. They would prefer simply to relax with friends ' to "party," a verb you hear all over town, from college campuses to AODA counseling sessions.
And Madison boasts lots of places to party, among them the 343 establishments that hold liquor licenses ' watering holes chic (Opus Lounge, 116 King St.) and shabby (Caribou Tavern, 703 E. Johnson St.), collegiate (Kollege Klub, 529 N. Lake St.) and animal-themed (Le Tigre Lounge, 1328 S. Midvale Blvd.). Some taps even have wireless Internet access, which means that Madison bars could soon, like Madison coffee shops, fill up with solitary nerds hypnotized by their laptops.
So party on, Madisonians. I'm talking especially to you, UW students. The Princeton Review just declared the University of Texas the nation's number-one party school, in the survey the UW topped last year, which means you Badgers have got some catching up to do.