When I, a formerly famous music critic who has lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, relocated to Madison this past autumn, I expected that the city would be home to a lot of grizzled old farts with gray ponytails who've been grinding away at the same country blues licks since 1969. I expected some alt-country, a few polka bands in lederhosen made in China and, given the university, a million "indie" (that is, unsigned) guitar bands in T-shirts. How delighted I was to discover that Madison is able to tick a vast array of musical boxes.
I've seen and heard jazz from Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy (as played by Harmonious Wail and the Gadjo Players) to free (Hanah Jon Taylor) to big band (the Madison Jazz Orchestra). The Dang-Its, Brown Derby and Madison County all offer middle-of-the-road country, while A Catapult Western offers gloomy art-country. JoAnne Powers is as good a street musician as I've heard anywhere, John Masino a credible candidate for guitar heroism. In Blake Thomas, Madison even has a blossoming bard of the barstools. DLO produces estimable hip-hop, and there's rock of countless kinds, from the quirky retro pop punk of the Shabelles and sleeping in the aviary (lowercasing theirs) to the intricately arranged thrash metal of Ottoman Empire, whose ensemble playing stands toe-to-toe with that of any band of any genre in sight.
Butchered Bitch (one can't make this stuff up) offer grindcore/death metal, while Dragdown purveys nu metal. The lead singer of the industrial/goth Mute Grey sings in keys few other musicians in Wisconsin even know to exist. Red Moon Rising's Overt Lexvold is seemingly a little one-man maelstrom of Nine Inch Nails- and Marilyn Manson-style alienation and bile. The Projection People evoke a slightly less miserable Pink Floyd. As expected, there are indeed scads of smartass guitar bands, including Awesome Car Funmaker and the Selfish Gene.
How about Grateful Dead-inspired hippies to whose extended noodling vegan earth-mothers with unshaven legs are commonly seen writhing ecstatically? Madison has a slew, including Baghdad Scuba Review, Run Side Down and Good Time Camper Band, whose MySpace page warns, "If u don't chew Big Red then fuck you," and thus is susceptible to accusations of hostile vibes, man. Smart rootsy fare? Getaway Drivers and Burr Settles & the Pine Box Orchestra. Contemporary classic (that is, music being made now that sounds like the stuff 45-year-olds with a little madness left in their souls listen to on the drive to work)? Clear Blue Betty and Motor Primitives.
Judging from the bands I've seen so far, the local music scene doesn't have much sex appeal. But Madison is hardly unique in that regard. From Perth to Glasgow, young pop musicians who wouldn't think twice about eating musicians' spaghetti (boiled noodles with ketchup pilfered in tiny packets from takeout-joint condiment counters) to afford an amplifier that will make them sound about a tenth of an iota better wouldn't dream of spending a few bucks on something snazzy to wear on stage.
Forty-four years after the Rolling Stones ambled mismatched onto The Hollywood Palace - young Mr. Jagger in the sweatshirt he appeared to have slept in - pop musicians continue to regard physical self-effacement as evidence of their single-minded devotion to the music, rather than a woeful lack of imagination. Musicians who, if an interviewer asked who they think they sound like, would go all Good Time Camper on his ass, reflexively snarling, "Hey, we sound like ourselves, dude," are quite happy to present themselves identically sloppily. Toeing the sartorial line painted nearly two decades ago, when grunge sent MTV's narcissistic coiffure bands packing, is somehow seen as the height of alt-indie cool.
In Madison, as everywhere else, pop music is the one art in which the young feel comfortable only with their contemporaries. A 22-year-old wouldn't feel the slightest hesitation about catching the latest flick by Quentin Tarantino, who's nearly 45, or even Clint Eastwood, 103. They enjoy fiction written before their parents' birth, and the work of painters who died decades, if not centuries, before their grandparents. Once having reached a certain age, though, lots of musicians who continue to sound terrific are guided gently but implacably into the shadows.
Chrissie Hynde has probably dropped more talent between the cushions of her sofa than 500 Avril Lavignes would be able to muster between them, but must now be kept for the balance of her career away from impressionable young consumers, lest the sight of her crow's-feet and jowls stunt their growth or something.
With eyes closed, no reasonable person would dispute that Richard Thompson, among a great many I could name, is a guitarist and songwriter of luminous brilliance. But the pert of breast, narrow of waist, and unfurrowed of forehead will have no part of him because he's bald and about to turn 60. Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse have made careers of sounding like black women with 45 hard years under their belts, but if they actually were 45, they'd never have gotten record deals.
Ageism is epidemic. There probably isn't another singer in Dane County who can do what Maggie Delaney-Potthoff does in the introduction of Harmonious Wail's "Song for Henri," but she's over 40, so her jaw-dropping virtuosity is of little interest to younger listeners. Likewise, you won't encounter a local instrumentalist more likely to amaze and delight than Rick Nass, the Dang-Its' pedal steel player, but the guy's got gray hair, and maybe teenage kids of his own; eww, gross!
Of course, Harmonious Wail and the Dang-Its have only themselves to blame for playing older persons' music, which is to say non-rock. He said ironically. As the great Nik Cohn once observed, every generation demands its own pop music, which must be just a bit more lurid and extravagant than that of the generation preceding it. So how to explain that the pert of breast, narrow of waist, and unfurrowed of forehead are mostly embracing bands that sound exactly like those their parents loved?
Thirty years after Joe Strummer & Co.'s emergence, the United Kingdom is absolutely teeming with sneering little knockoffs of the Clash. In Madison, the Box Social sound exactly like a hundred power pop groups from 1979, Fedora like a thousand groups of undergraduates whose newfound love of John Lee Hooker (or at least of English groups who loved John Lee Hooker) brought them together during The Great Blues Scare of 1968. Dragdown could just as easily have recorded the tracks on its MySpace page in 1971 as in the 21st century, albeit not nearly so cheaply. Mid-'70s Deadheads would have felt right at home with Madison's hippie jam bands.
It can happen here
There are several tried-'n'-true routes to rock stardom beyond novelty and the already-ruled-out sexual charisma, of course: revelatory virtuosity (think Eddie Van Halen), or a front person whose implacable sense of entitlement (think Steven Tyler or Bono) somehow transcends obnoxiousness, or an irresistibly skewed approach (think Talking Heads).
The Madison acts I've seen have none of the above, try as Pale Young Gentlemen might to fill the last bill, but the good news is that blind luck is by far the most important part of the package. In a world in which there's no justice, a culture in which Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are movie stars and the dreadful John Grisham is very much more popular than Scott Turow, whose legal fiction is vastly superior on every level, who can say for sure that some local act won't return to its dressing room in the Annex or the Klinic some frigid February night to find stardom waiting where the club was supposed to have laid out warm Sprite and crackers? If fortune could smile on k.d. lang (lowercasing hers, or sleeping in the aviary's) from Consort, Alberta, Canada, why could it not, closer to home, have smirked at Kristy Larson, whose aching, heartbreaking "Blue" is the most indelible track I've heard by a Madison artist? It can happen here!
In my many decades writing about (and making) music, I have learned humility, or at least to embrace the view that there are only two types of music - music you like and music you don't. If Clear Blue Betty, for instance, somehow tickles your musical G-spot, I don't disdain, but indeed envy you, as you have one more source of pleasure in your life than I. To each his onus!
And now, my friends, to the venues, actual and cyber, of this frigid municipality, there to assess a random sampling of its native music.
Pale Young Gentlemen on MySpace:If sleeping in the aviary are Madison's They Might Be Giants, this lot is its Rufus Wainwright meets Arcade Fire. Michael Reisenauer has Chris Martin's engaging vocal gawkiness, and wit, and imagination - and needs to be very much less intent on projecting the latter two to the cheap seats. The band play the quirky card a bit too relentlessly for my taste, but after 20 minutes of the bland competence of Clear Blue Betty, say, I'd probably beg for them. (And then, 15 minutes later, feeling as though gorged on chocolate gateau, probably implore CBB to have me back.)
Mad Cabaret at the King Club: A smidgen of the show's fervently obnoxious MC Pierce Bottoms goes a very long way, and the light reflected off the King's mirror ball seems designed to induce transitory blindness every 15 seconds, but in her ratty platinum beehive wig, scandalously short skirt, inattentively buttoned blouse, and fetish-friendly boots, the artist presently (and not very drolly) known as Ivana Getchacockov exudes more sexual charisma over the course of "To Sir With Love" than the rest of Madison's bands put together probably did throughout November. (Disclosure: Yes, I'm in love.) One of Madison's countless competent but charisma-less T-shirts-and-guitars bands should buy some Converse high-tops in whimsical colors and realign around her - quick! - with an eye to her emerging as a modern Midwestern Debbie Harry.
Madison Jazz Orchestra at the Harmony Bar: They outnumber their audience by plenty, but that's no excuse for their T-shirts and running shoes. Rand Moore's drumming is passionate and fiery, but over the course of the evening, only Rob Shepherd's alto solo on "My Foolish Heart" acknowledges the idea that the notes you don't play are as important as the ones you do. One soloist after another bludgeons us with his chops, his (there are no more women present than persons of color) great dexterity. Musical director Don Deal's T-shirt proclaims "Your favorite band sucks." The MJO is my favorite Madison band.
Gomeroke at the High Noon Saloon: Musical populism! You couldn't blame a talented musician who has endured the indignity of having to play Peter Frampton's hits in bars for growing bitter by the time his hair either thins or his belly expands. But the four ancient Gomers have found a beneficent use for the millions of chord sequences they've had to memorize over the course of their collective couple of centuries (I'm guessing, and hyperbolizing) of experience: karaoke, but with live rather than prerecorded backing. A skinny white guy whose name we fail to catch turns in an electrifying version of the Doors' "Break On Through," singing faultlessly, twitching with Springsteenian passion; better this, I think, than a whole festival of snide T-shirt indie-alt-rock.
The small, bespectacled Allen (like attendees of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Gomeroke's succession of temporary frontpersons is identified only by given names) croons "You'll Never Find Another" in a way that might have inspired Lou Rawls himself to jump up on a chair and hold his cigarette lighter aloft.
Fedora at Murphy's Tavern: The rhythm section's a shambles, and guitarist Eric Ziegler isn't the jaw-dropper this genre prefers. But their choice of covers - "The Wind Cries Mary," Robbie Robertson's "The Weight" and Elvis' "Hound Dog," here with the lyrics Big Mama Thornton apparently intended - demonstrates a heartening respect for some key antecedents. Alec White has a voice that, at least on record, will remind older listeners of the great Paul Rodgers (of Free) and, T-shirt notwithstanding, more sexual charisma than any other male I've encountered on the Madison scene.
Blueheels at a warehouse on South Park Street: Around 60 young hobos have apparently broken into an unheated warehouse in the deep south (side). It turns out they're not hobos at all, though, but guests at a birthday party, invitations to which apparently said Dress to forage in dumpsters afterward! at the bottom. They can't seem to afford anything other than rags, but most of them can afford cigarettes; the frigid air is thick with carcinogenic fumes when Blueheels finally start playing. And within around four bars, it's springtime.
Robby Schiller's stop-'em-in-their-tracks dentist-drill voice suggests that the Dust Bowl extended much farther north than originally understood - into Neenah - and is the most distinctive I've heard in Madison. At first, you might well suppose he's kidding, that nobody's really that twangy. He's not kidding, and you soon realize that his voice is perfect for original songs that recall the Band's in seeming unearthed, rather than newly composed.
The drummer and bass player listen to one another, and attentively, and the group is capable of spine-tingling dynamics, as in "Stupid Little Smile." I can't think of anyone this side of Keith Richards who derives more palpable pleasure from being on stage with an electric guitar (in this case a comically tiny Gibson) than Justin Bricco; joyfulness like this can't be faked.
Blueheels sound to me like the American heartland, or at least what I hope the heartland will prove to be. If, within 18 months, these boys aren't headlining international concert tours, there's no justice in the world.
Full disclosure: In exchange for some suggestions on how to improve his band's branding, I'm hoping to get Bricco to play on my in-the-works solo album, Anthems of Self-Loathing.
John Mendels(s)ohn has written about music for The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Creem, Playboy, Mojo and other publications. His 2004 book about the Pixies, Gigantic, is the most reviled rock biography in the history of Amazon, with 2003's Waiting for Kate Bush a close second, and The Kinks Kronikles, from way back, not even in the running, though it made Ray Davies very unhappy. He is a former Close Personal Friend of David Bowie, once conversed with Jimi Hendrix, and met Walt Disney as a small child. That is, he was a small child, Walt Disney a grown man.