Mandy Moore at the Majestic? Yes, that happened. It was actually the first show to grace the Majestic Theatre when buddies Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie opened the venue five years ago. That was before they learned a few things about the Madison music scene.
“It’s much sharper than people give it credit for,” Gerding says. “Nobody here is going to be impressed because somebody is on a magazine cover. No offense to Mandy Moore.”
Fast forward five years, and Majestic co-owners Gerding and Leslie have arranged an eclectic line-up of artists for the venue’s anniversary weekend September 28 and 29, including one show free to the public featuring Midwest darlings The Hold Steady.
“More than anything it’s sort of a big giant thank you to Madison because if it weren’t for the people buying tickets for the past five years, we wouldn’t be here,” Leslie says.
Looking over the poster advertising the anniversary shows, billed as “five years, four events, three venues, two nights, one city,” there seems to be something for everyone.
Atop the poster is a quad of tough guys in black, The Hold Steady, who will headline the free show out on King Street September 28 (gates at 5 p.m.) with their gritty rock tales of youthful debauchery. Below them are some notably chiller flannel-clad dudes matching their name, Greensky Bluegrass, who will also play on Friday, September 28, at 10:30 p.m. at the Majestic.
Cracking a joke down the line is Hannibal Buress, who will perform at the Barrymore Theatre Saturday, September 29, at 8 p.m. And at the bottom of the poster, a wistful indie group on a sand dune stares through the camera into your soul—the Dirty Projectors, who will weave their harmonic melodies for a late-night show at the Majestic on Saturday at 11 p.m.
“We’ve grown as a company and a venue, and we’ve tried to expand the offerings that we bring,” Gerding says. “These artists really encompass everything that we’ve worked for.”
The Hold Steady makes a fitting headliner for the anniversary. Like the owners of the Majestic, the Brooklyn-based band has Midwest roots and a national appetite, with frontman Craig Finn hailing from Minneapolis and lead guitarist Tad Kubler from Janesville.
“In Minnesota and Wisconsin, there’s some amount of ownership with us,” Finn says. “We identify with the Midwest, and I think people appreciate that, and I think people feel like we’re singing to them—which we are.”
Gerding and Leslie, who both grew up in the Midwest but had uprooted to Los Angeles, chose Madison as the destination for their music venue dreams largely because they found the perfect space in the Majestic Theatre, where the history drips from the opera boxes to the ornate décor. The building is Madison’s oldest operating theater, opened in 1906 as a vaudeville house.
“There’s something special about seeing a show in a place that’s been there for 106 years,” Gerding says. “We knew it held a special place in a lot of people’s hearts.”
As the second largest city in a state known mostly for cows and cheeseheads, Madison doesn’t innately have a huge draw for touring bands. But Gerding and Leslie are trying to put it on the map, giving credit to Madison’s forward-thinking taste and enthusiasm.
So committed they are to this endeavor, that even when they can’t get a big act to come to the Majestic, they still do what they can to get them to play in Madison.
“For some of the bigger shows, it’s us going to them and saying, this is a city you need to play in, and then figuring out the right venue for them,” Leslie says.
With five years down, Gerding and Leslie say they’re only getting started.
“When we moved here we wanted to fill a void and move a music scene forward,” Leslie says, “and I think that largely defines what we want to be doing in the coming years—and increasing the way that Madison is thought about on a national level.”
Majestic Theatre, 115 King Street, 255-0901, majesticmadison.com
Rory Linnane is an editorial intern for Madison Magazine.
Photo by Sarah Smiley.