Local musicians hope to be part of a ‘music city’
Can you hear us now?
A dream of singer Liz Fleig’s is TO squint past the bright stage lights of the Majestic Theatre and see raucous fans, packed from floor to balcony, who’ve come to hear her Madison band, Late Harvest. She and guitarist Travis Ziegler have done the acoustic duo thing, playing cafes and modest events around town. But they’ve filled out their sound with drummer Aidan Murphy and bass player Nathan Holmes (both of whom they found through Craigslist), and they’re eager to play their music in front of larger audiences.
This four-piece ensemble of white-collar professionals–only Ziegler makes a living in music by giving guitar lessons and deejaying weddings through his business, Sound Mindset Productions–is grateful for Madison’s smaller venues, such as The Frequency, just off Capitol Square, and Funk’s Pub in Fitchburg, where the band has been invited back time and again. But like many other local musicians, they want the chance to shine under spotlights flooding bigger stages.
It is not an unreasonable ambition to want to command venues like the Majestic and Barrymore theatres which boast a few hundred seats each. The Majestic alone puts on more than 200 live shows a year, many featuring local musicians as opening acts or headliners.
As Madison appears poised to take a big step toward becoming a “music city” with new and improved performance spaces, there’s optimism that local talent will benefit by opportunities to gain greater exposure.
On a bracingly cold Thursday night in early February, Late Harvest is the opening act for a night of all local music at The Frequency. The band members’ desire to perform on a larger stage is very much alive, but tonight they make do in front of a sparse crowd. The indie rock band cranks up its original material, but heads really start to bob during its sweetly swinging rendition of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
This dark and narrow club–with a no-frills bar up front, stage at the back–is seemingly held together by the stickers that advertise the countless bands that have previously played there. The Frequency’s capacity is only 175 people, but the place feels downright roomy when only 35 people turn out and pay the $7 cover.
It’s not easy to kick off a showcase of local acts playing vastly different kinds of music. Yet Late Harvest adequately sets the tone for the bands that follow: high school punk rockers Distant Cuzins and hip-hop artist Keon Andre.
The low turnout is no indication of a lack of enthusiasm for local music or the depth of the talent in Madison. On the contrary, clubs like The Frequency, High Noon Saloon and scores of other bars and cafes have long served artists looking to earn the right to play bigger stages in town–and stages in even bigger towns.
Momentum is building for Madison to become a destination for music–coalescing around East Washington Avenue, where Frank Productions is selling out concerts at the revitalized Breese Stevens Field and plans to open a new 2,500-seat music club, The Sylvee, in late 2018. That means smaller venues will become more crucial to homegrown artists getting heard.
While Charlie Goldstone, president of Frank Productions, doesn’t expect local bands to headline shows at Breese Stevens Field or The Sylvee, “They may be support acts,” he says. “Nurturing the local scene is best done by High Noon [also on East Washington] and the Majestic” a few blocks away on King Street.
In mid-February, Frank Productions announced it was buying the High Noon Saloon (a block from the future site of The Sylvee) from Cathy Dethmers who opened it in 2004. Fred Frank, co-owner of Frank Productions, which books shows at the High Noon Saloon, said, “We are excited to continue operating the High Noon as Cathy has built it.” Completion of the sale was expected in May.
Shortly before the High Noon Saloon purchase was announced, Goldstone said, “We’re at a turning point. Right now the audiences are exceeding capacity and demand is up in the city. It’s evident in every venue improvement project. We want more shows and need good strong venues at all levels.”
Rick Tvedt, who has spent decades reporting on, advocating for and participating in Madison’s music scene, agrees. “The success of The Sylvee will trickle down. Any additional exposure for Madison puts it on the map and makes the local scene more relevant for those coming up,” he says.
Just last month, local jazz musician Hanah Jon Taylor opened Cafe CODA in the backroom of the Fountain at 112 State St. The well-connected saxophone and flute player hopes to bring local, regional and touring jazz acts to play at the club five to six nights a week.
The vibrancy and diversity of Madison’s music scene have not gone unnoticed nationally. As recently as 2012, the city was No. 8 on a list of the “10 Best Music Cities,” as determined by Livability.com. Two years earlier, Songkick.com calculated that Madison’s “rock shows-to-residents ratio” was the third best nationwide, and ticket prices here were the fourth least expensive.
“I don’t necessarily believe the hype,” says Karin Wolf, the arts program administrator for the city of Madison, about Madison making such lists. Yet she says it’s undeniable that the city has a lot going for it musically.
“We have passionate audiences and fans. We have music-based businesses here. We have a supportive mayor. We have what it takes to become a music city and we’re encouraging and cultivating it,” Wolf says. “I’m happy for us, but there’s so much more other cities do.”
There Must Be Music in the Water
Madison was already on the map as the longtime home of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” Clyde Stubblefield, who died on Feb. 18 from kidney disease. Rolling Stone magazine ranked Stubblefield No. 6 on its list of “the 100 greatest drummers of all time,” and his signature riff has been sampled by hundreds of hip-hop and pop artists.
Madison also counts as residents jazz artists Richard Davis and Ben Sidran, both of whom have taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since locating here in the 1970s.
The city is also well known for the unassuming brick building in the 1200 block of East Washington Avenue where Smart Studios recorded some of the most seminal alternative rock records of the 1980s and 1990s, including Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish.” The producer for those records and umpteen others, Butch Vig, also launched from here his band Garbage, which went on to achieve rock superstardom.
“Madison music exposure comes in waves. We may be on another upswing now,” says Tvedt, co-founder of the Madison Area Music Awards, online publisher of Local Sounds magazine and, before that, the newspaper Rick’s Cafe.
“Madison has to be one of the most diverse music cities of its size–despite not having a musical center,” says Tvedt. “We don’t have a Beale Street,” the music hub of Memphis, Tennessee, “and we’re not Austin by any stretch, and I don’t know that we want to be.”
Tvedt points to the Majestic, Barrymore and Orpheum as old theaters “retrofitted but not [ideally] suited for live music” scattered about the city. Other popular clubs do well “atmospherically, and the vibe is cool. But many of them are too small,” he says.
If East Washington Avenue becomes an entertainment corridor, that’s a game changer. The Sylvee, going in on the ground floor of the Cosmos project in the 800 block, will be the first venue built by Frank Productions, the Madison-based concert promotion company that books concerts here and throughout the country.
While the planned capacity of the new club will be about 2,500–marginally larger than the 2,300-seat Orpheum booked by Live Nation Productions out of California–The Sylvee will be unique in that it will have a couple hundred balcony seats, but otherwise standing room only on the floor.
At Breese Stevens Field, the old soccer stadium nearby, Frank Productions and the Majestic together brought crowds of more than 7,000 to see the Avett Brothers, Wilco, the Steve Miller Band and Cake over the last couple of years.
Efforts to secure more stops by national acts on tour could increase exposure and turnout at much smaller venues by local musicians, too, according to proponents of Madison’s music scene.
“I don’t believe it’s an either-or”–building bigger and better performance spaces or fostering up-and-coming musicians here at home, says Wolf.
“I feel attention is being paid to local development. But it’s also important to have a pipeline” for musicians to play bigger stages and get more exposure, she says. “Hopefully smaller venues will fill that (initial) need.”
Venue owners and developers, music promoters and now city officials see there is an as-yet-unsatiated appetite for live music in Madison. But their main focus is to ensure Madison has large venues to accommodate big-name artists, and being creative in how they promote acts coming to existing midsized venues.
Fortunately, Madison also has several bottom-up, musician-led development programs (the Madison Music Foundry, First Wave and Girls Rock Camp, for example), music competitions (MAMAs, Madison Hip-Hop Awards and, for youth, Rockonsin), festivals (Make Music Madison, Isthmus Jazz Festival, Freakfest and more) and supportive media (community radio stations like WORT, UW-Madison student station WSUM and periodicals like Isthmus, Maximum Ink and this magazine).
Hardships for Hometown Hip-Hop
That’s not necessarily the case among those making and promoting local hip-hop, however.
There’s general agreement among observers of Madison’s music scene that local hip-hop artists lack places to play regularly. In recent years there have been isolated incidents of violence between hip-hop showgoers that resulted in venues opting not to book other hip-hop shows for a time. Fans of local hip-hop point out that drunk and unruly fans at country or rock shows get thrown out of venues, but bookings of all future shows in those genres don’t get similarly suspended.
“Other people won’t say it, but I will: Everyone is on edge whenever there are so many black people together,” says Mark “ShaH” Evans, a local hip-hop producer and vice president of the Urban Community Arts Network.
“For a city that’s so progressive and where entertainment is so important, it’s a shame,” he says. “There’s always a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to hip-hop.”
The sporadic booking of local hip-hop shows (in contrast to well-known national hip-hop acts, which are heavily promoted and well attended) has likely contributed to a lack of cohesion and collaboration at the local level.
“Madison hip-hop artists don’t support each other. It’s very cliqueish,” says Craig Smith, who performs as Sincere Life, one of a handful of local rappers who headline local shows and open for bigger acts passing through Madison. “Local hip-hop would be more appreciated if we appreciated it more ourselves. There’s way more complaining about the scene than there is making the scene better.”
Nevertheless, some local hip-hop artists are getting a share of the spotlight. In mid-February, the High Noon Saloon put on a show of local hip-hop artists–including the young Trebino and Ra’Shaun, both of whom are gaining national attention. Madison’s teen phenom Trapo headlined the Majestic last year and has a critically acclaimed album. And Korean American rapper Ted Park, who has moved to the Brooklyn borough of New York City, has had singles dominate the popular music sharing service Spotify.
These and other emcees would have an easier time breaking out if they had more opportunities to perform live here at home, Evans says. The challenges faced by resident hip-hop artists and their fans may soon get focused attention from the city. After two-plus years of meetings on the subject, a resolution to create a Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment–bringing together artists, promoters, club owners, college students and staff from the city’s department of civil rights–was sent to the Madison City Council on Feb. 1.
Local musicians in other genres of music also struggle to be heard on their own terms.
“Original music is hard to market,” says Fleig of Late Harvest. She says club owners tend to want bands to play covers that patrons want to hear, and which keeps them happily drinking.
Fleig says she recently approached a local establishment for a gig only to be asked by the manager how much her band could guarantee in beer sales. And another said if her band would play all Fleetwood Mac covers, “he’d book us immediately.”
Shawndell Marks plays keyboards for the Gold Dust Women, an actual Fleetwood Mac cover band (“That makes me Christine McVie,” Marks says). But what keeps her busier is her acoustic trio Gin, Chocolate and Bottle Rockets and a new live band formed to play the songs on her recently released full-length solo record “Broken Dam.”
“I really appreciate the variety of projects I’ve been involved in. Madison musicians and promoters have no egos,” says Marks. “But I don’t need to play bars anymore. I’m playing my own music and seeing where that leads.”
While Marks, 40, has toured regionally in bands since she was a teenager, she has chosen to make her living as a musician in the Madison area. Others who grew up here have decided to move on.
Letting his music take him to Nashville two years ago, singer-songwriter Gabe Burdulis remains thankful for how Madison nurtured him at a young age.
A Madison West High School graduate (Class of 2014), Burdulis now tours with partner Thea Grace of Chicago. The duo, called Future Stuff, was recently on the road with Doyle Bramhall II and looking forward to opening for Los Lobos.
“I knew that if I stayed in Madison I probably could keep making a living with what I was doing, just move out of my parents’ house,” Burdulis said. “But it was too comfortable. I knew that I wanted to be in a place where I could grow more and be forced to learn outside my comfort zone.”
Before Burdulis left Madison, other local standouts, like Meghan Rose and Ted Park, moved to New York City, and Madison Malone headed to Los Angeles.
“People leaving is inevitable,” says local talent manager Joey B. Banks, who plays drums with Burdulis when he’s back in town. “They want to pursue other opportunities, test the waters elsewhere and see how good they really are.”
Wolf, the city’s leading cheerleader for the arts, says she recognizes that the best strategy for city hall may be to “stay out of the way.”
Musicians need the space, both physical and mental, to make music. “We’re not doing this,” Wolf says of the city. “It’s being done and we get to benefit. There’s just so much energy here.”
Joel Patenaude is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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