Tune in to Madison’s music scene
Enjoy the many sounds of the city
As soon as Tony Castañeda’s palms hit the congas, as soon as his bandmates join in with trumpet, bass and keyboard, the energy inside the Cardinal shifts. Friends stop chatting about the workweek, grab their drinks and hurry to seats inside the wood-walled downtown bar. Toes begin tapping and heads start bobbing as full, rhythmic sound expands across the packed room. Soon, a silver-haired woman can hold back no longer; she swivels her hips, her arms slowly rising above her head to meet the beat. The music is infectious, the crowd eager and it feels so good to be part of it. This is only 5:30 on a Friday evening in one corner of Madison. At the same moment over on the Capitol Square, the Currach is cranking out Irish music at Brocach, and in an hour, blues, jazz and Cajun tunes will heat up Louisianne’s, Liliana’s and the Bayou.
If I wanted to spend the whole night listening to live music, I could continue on to hear the Madison Classical Guitar Society showcase at Lakeside Street Coffee House or pianist Richard Shaten at the Fountain, country musician Frank James at the VFW on Cottage Grove Road or the Mad City Jug Band at the Wil-Mar Center. I could catch bluegrass at the Brink Lounge, Americana at the Up North Pub, progressive rock at Mr. Robert’s or Brazilian beats at the Alchemy Cafe. Soul at the Knuckle Down Saloon, jazz at Tempest or electro-pop at the Frequency. Or maybe I’d rather jam out at the People Fest Pre-Party at the High Noon Saloon, or catch a DJ spinning at Segredo, Mickey’s, the Tip Top Tavern or Merchant. These are just a few of the live music options tonight.
And that’s the thing about music in Madison: Find yourself in the right place, with the right people and the right music, and magic happens.
Let’s get the comparisons out of the way. When we talk about Madison as a city for music, we’re not saying we’re a Nashville or an Austin, a Seattle or a New Orleans. We’re not renowned as a hotbed for a particular genre, we don’t expect live music along with every restaurant meal and we don’t boast blocks upon blocks of clubs with music blasting into the street every night. And that’s okay.
Because what we offer is an eclectic collection of homegrown musical talents whose respective sounds reverberate from concert venues and festivals all across the city–giving music lovers the chance to find what they love or discover something new.
We’ve got big venues that bring in big touring acts, and smaller clubs and bars that showcase local musicians. The Madison Area Music Awards and Madison Hip-Hop Awards spotlight the best performers and create buzz about the local scene, while programs like Launchpad, an alternative band competition for high school students, ensure a pipeline for emerging talent. Festivals fill the summer, as does the ever-growing number of outdoor concerts.
We have places like the Madison Music Foundry, where bands can rehearse and record, and groups like the Madison Folk Music Society, Madison Blues Society and the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium that help build awareness and opportunities for their genres. We’ve helped nourish bands like PHOX, who’s bursting onto the national stage, and support such long-running acts as the Gomers and Harmonious Wail, who’ve both jammed around Madison for a good thirty years. Indie folk rock has a steady following, but a fan can also connect with passionate pockets of jazz, classical, punk and hip-hop. All these elements combine to create a scene packed with potential for audiences to make musical discoveries.
It’s hard to find someone more tuned in to local music than Rick Tvedt, who founded the Madison Area Music Association in 2003 and covers many of the hundred-plus recordings put out annually by the city’s hundreds of bands on his Local Sounds website. And so it means something that he is pleased with what he’s been seeing lately.
“Madison just continues to astound with the level and diversity of the talent, with several acts currently capable of breaking out. Things tend to swing in pendulum-like waves, and we are definitely on an uptick,” he says. “The trick now is to develop in an industry sense so that artists don’t feel they need to relocate to break into the next level.”
Whether you’re a fan or a musician, Madison offers options, but you need to know where to find them.
“You have to sift through and make your way, but there’s the chance to do that,” says folk-indie-soul singer and violinist Ida Jo, who moved to Madison in 2005 to study violin peformance at the University of Wisconsin and has stayed on to pursue her music. “For me, it’s finding the right people and the right venues. My music isn’t great at bars late at night. That’s not really where I thrive.”
Instead, she looks to more intimate settings, like Crescendo Espresso Bar + Music Cafe on Monroe Street or Art in the Barn out in rural Oregon, with occasional bigger shows at places like the High Noon Saloon.
“The opportunities are limitless if a musician is willing to invest the time and has a little talent,” says Beth Kille, a rock, country and blues musician who started performing in 2000 and now helps teach others through Girls Rock Camp and Ladies Rock Camp. “It’s not an easy game, though. You’ve got to be constantly creating opportunities for yourself if you want to make a living as a performing musician, but I think the Madison community can be very supportive if you’ve taken the time to engage them in meaningful ways. There are certainly a ton of great venues and plenty of festivals to play once you get your foot in the door.”
Jimmy Voegeli, head of the Jimmys, a popular blues band that’s been playing locally and regionally for seven years, has found regular gigs, like at Tofflers Pub in New Glarus, and festivals to be a nice mix.
“We have the luxury of even though the blues genre is a small one, it’s a mighty one,” he says. Fans are loyal, and when they hear something they like, they look to buy entire albums and other merchandise. “They want it all, and I dig that,” he adds.
An eclectic approach to offering music is also an economic reality for venues trying to make it in a tough business, says Steve Sperling, general manager of the Barrymore Theatre. The eighty-five-year-old theater–with a green dome, purple marquee and down-to-earth vibe that fits its Atwood Avenue location–brings in nationally touring musicians and comedians, plus hosts some local events.
“You have to be all things to all people in order to survive,” he says. “Each night is a completely different audience. If you limit what you do, you limit who’s coming to see you.”
Since re-opening King Street’s century-old Majestic Theatre in 2007, co-owners Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie have picked from different genres when booking shows to appeal to as many fans as possible. These days, popular touring rock, punk and indie bands headline several nights a week, making the Majestic a staple among local concert-goers. “We’re a reflection of what the music scene wants,” Gerding says.
The eighty-eight-year-old Orpheum Theatre on State Street has also worked to diversify its offerings, showcasing major rock bands and comedians a few times a month. General manager Perry Blanchard believes there are more opportunities today to see big bands from elsewhere play in Madison, but fewer chances to catch local musicians.
“We’re lucky enough to live in a city that supports all music,” he says. “For bars and small clubs, it’s expensive and risky to bring in local acts that may not have a draw. God bless the ones that do, but it’s a risk for them.”
Darwin Sampson, who’s been in bands “forever,” opened the Frequency just off the Capitol Square in 2008 with the intention of offering Madison musicians opportunities to play–and the small club has since earned a reputation as being a solid spot both to perform and hear music. “Initially, I just wanted a place with quality sound where locals could play,” he says, adding that now he books both local and touring acts.
When Brad Czachor started working at the Harmony Bar & Grill in 1999, the place was known for blues. Since buying the Atwood Avenue watering hole in 2013, he’s expanded the approach to music, adding in rock, reggae, bluegrass and more and doubling the number of nights he books bands, most of them local.
“I want to have the band in here that years from now people go, ‘They played the Harmony,'” he says.
Cathy Dethmers specializes in those kind of chance discoveries. At the High Noon Saloon, the revered East Washington Avenue venue she opened in 2004, she hosts everything from punk to pop, folk to metal–much of it by local musicians–almost daily.
Even though the Internet’s changed things–concert-goers often check out bands online beforehand instead of taking the chance on seeing a new one in person–Dethmers still makes booking decisions hoping for “those magical moments” when an unknown band floors the audience with its talent. “I love having my hand in that,” she says.
Big venues, big impact
Can you imagine quirky-cool Atwood Avenue without the Barrymore or hip King Street without the Majestic? State Street certainly wouldn’t be the same without the historic Orpheum or the newer Overture Center, which features some national music acts, plus local bands in its MadCity Sessions series.
“Venues are engines for driving economic development of neighborhoods,” says Sperling, who add that they anchor smaller venues and businesses, particularly restaurants, bars and retailers.
East Washington Avenue is poised to become another such hub, but the details have yet to be solidified. Last June, Madison’s Frank Productions, a nationally ranked concert promoter, proposed a two-thousand-seat entertainment venue on the 1000 block of the street that’s been the focus of redevelopment the past few years, but plans were scrapped after city planners and neighbors spoke out in opposition.
Charlie Goldstone, president of Frank Productions Concerts, says his company is exploring different blocks of East Washington and other areas of the city for a new site. “We are still interested in developing a music venue in Madison, although not at the previously proposed location,” he says.
Elizabeth Brink, co-owner of the Brink Lounge, the nine-year-old club known for consistent rock and jazz concerts that sits with the High Noon and the Brass Ring on East Wash, says this trio has long been drawing music fans. “The whole building is an entertainment center,” she says.
While some club owners aren’t sure the city needs another major venue, Brink sees more development as a means of enhancing the music profile of the corridor and the city as a whole. “There’s great potential to be a great music district,” she says.
Take it outside
Another way music in Madison is growing is in summer concerts and festivals. From classical events like the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square to Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park–now in their thirtieth and fourteenth years,
respectively–to popular neighborhood festivals, such as La Fête de Marquette and Atwoodfest, and the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Madison World Music Festival, Madisonians love to mix live music with food, art, fresh air and community.
But newcomers are finding eager audiences, too. Inspired by an event that started in Paris that has since spread to more than seven hundred cities, Make Music Madison is now in its third year. Held annually on the summer solstice–this year it’s June 21–it turns the entire city into a concert venue.
More than four hundred musicians perform in unconventional spaces–in parks and storefronts, on sidewalks and street corners.
“This is as good as it gets for community building,” says managing director Katherine Davey. “It really is all about creating events where everyone can participate.”
Also focused on community is Central Park Sessions. Created last year to celebrate the new near-east-side park, it has grown into a series running July through September and highlighting three to six performers in each themed session. “It was so embraced last year,” says organizer Bob Queen, who also coordinates the Marquette Waterfront Festival and La Fête de Marquette.
And in just four years, Live on King Street, the free music series held on six nights from June to September in front of the Majestic Theatre, has become a summer must.
Seeing such enthusiastic reaction to the first concert inspired Gerding and Leslie to continue the series. “We said this has to be a tradition, part of the fabric of what makes Madison special in the summer.”
And it’s another way to continue making the city a place where musical magic can occur–for artists and fans alike.
“The more live music that’s happening in Madison, the better,” Gerding says.
Sizing Up: Local music venue capacities
The Frequency: 126
Cardinal Bar: 160
Wisconsin Union Theater’s Fredric March Play Circle: 186
Harmony Bar: 195
Brink Lounge nightclub: 200
Brink Lounge main lounge: 300
High Noon Saloon: 400
Majestic Theatre: 600
Capitol Theater at Overture Center: 1,200
Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall: 1,165
Orpheum Theatre: 2,000
Overture Hall at Overture Center: 2,251
Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall: 5,000
Alliant Energy Center Coliseum: 10,230
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