New and newly retooled music venues in Madison

The Sylvee opens and the Barrymore gets new seats
New and newly retooled music venues in Madison
Courtesy of Frank Productions

The Sylvee, the first venue built in Madison in many years specifically for live music performance, opens its doors this month to concertgoers. As promised, the venue on East Washington Avenue will host a wide range of musical acts – roots, indie and electronica – and that’s just within its first two weeks of operation.

The Sylvee is owned by FPC Live, a recently rebranded merger of Madison-based Frank Productions and Majestic Live, in which Live Nation (which includes Ticketmaster) has a controlling interest. Locally, FPC Live now owns the Majestic Theatre and High Noon Saloon, books the Orpheum Theater and Breese Stevens Field and occasionally brings shows to the Barrymore Theatre and Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts. Add to that Freakfest and the Live on King Street series, and FPC Live books a large share of the shows in Madison.

“Variety is key. When you’re responsible for filling that many stages, you can’t just offer one genre of music,” says FPC Live President Scott Leslie. “We’re taking anything and everything that can possibly fill a venue and we’re determining where we think the shows belong.”

Shows selected for The Sylvee, with a 2,500-person capacity but only 160 seats,  will make use of the expansive dance floor – everything from Madison-born rock band Garbage on Oct. 16 to country music singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves on Feb. 1, 2019.

“It’s a big room, but people will be amazed at how intimate it feels,” Leslie says.

A few blocks away on Atwood Avenue, the Barrymore Theatre will feel new, too. The 88-year-old theater was set to reopen Aug. 30 after $250,000 worth of renovations. The Schenk-Atwood neighborhood landmark will have all-new flooring, retouched murals and, best news of all, 750 new seats to replace those last installed in 1967.

“The seating configuration will be exactly the same,” promises Steve Sperling, general manager of the Barrymore. “We’ll be exactly the same but feel really different.”

The twinkling lights in the theater’s ceiling will remain. “No one touches the stars,” he says.
The timing of the Barrymore’s overhaul had nothing to do with the consolidation of Madison’s
entertainment landscape, Sperling says.

“It’s less about market forces than it was just time to do it,” he says. “There’s a commitment by my board and staff to maintain the Barrymore as the venerable east-side institution it is.”

Built in 1929, the Barrymore is best remembered for screening art-house and mainstream films in the 1960s and 1970s. It showed almost exclusively X-rated movies in the 1980s. But since the nonprofit Schenk-Atwood Revitalization Association bought the theater in 1992, it has hosted live performances.

That tradition continues with a quirky schedule that includes standup comedy by Kathleen Madigan (Sept. 20), Christopher Titus (Oct. 5) and Craig Ferguson (Oct. 29); indie rock band They Might Be Giants (Oct. 23) and blues group Hot Tuna (Dec. 9); the Packers-themed musical comedy Guys On Ice (Dec. 21-23, 26 and 28-30); and the Madfest Juggling Extravaganza (Jan. 19, 2019).

“Even though we’re not doing a high volume of shows, what’s coming here is really good,” Sperling says.