Expansive guitar instrumentals from Marisa Anderson, an intimate set from Black Thumb, Line Breaks, the Wisconsin Film Festival, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, John McCracken, and David Wolinsky
Sponsor message: The weekly Tone Madison calendar is made possible with support from Union Cab of Madison, a worker-owned cooperative providing safe and professional taxi services.
THURSDAY APRIL 5
The Wisconsin Film Festival, presented by UW-Madison, has seen a lot of transitions in leadership and its mix of venues over the years, but the fest's 20th annual edition still finds it centered on a rich and potentially overwhelming mix of nearly 150 films. They range from the approachable (Morgan Neville's new Mr. Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor, whose two screenings have of course joined the WFF tradition of near-immediate advance ticket sell-outs) to the astoundingly meta (Johann Lurf's ★, which stitches together footage of stars, and only footage of stars, from more than 550 other movies; advance tickets are still available as of this writing). In between, the festival curators have delivered a balance of fictional documentaries and features, experiments and solid genre films, the homegrown and the far-flung. We at Tone Madison have been digging through the schedule the past few weeks and have some preview coverage to help you out, including: A first look noting a few big standout films, a survey of animated features and shorts, and a streaming guide to earlier work by filmmakers featured at this year's fest. —Scott Gordon
Vundabar's third full-length album, Smell Smoke, has the Boston-based outfit stretching their paradoxically precise and energetic garage-rock into more melancholy areas of inspiration. The music is laced with irony and intense hook-based riffage, with expert guitar work by Brandon Hagen supported by a clever rhythm section in drummer Drew McDonald.
With the release of Vundabar's second album, Gawk, there was a sense of a plateau in the band's career. While the album was solid, with tighter recording and less extraneous material than their first effort, 2013's Antics, it still didn't bring the band appeal outside of tight-knit indie circles. But Smell Smoke has given the band a larger platform, and deservedly so. While the pop elements of Vundabar's music were once somewhat stifled by lo-fi recordings, the new album has glossy, refined singles, and "Tar Tongue" proves the band can also sustain a reserved and catchy ballad.
The few missteps on the album are clunkers only because they sound like rehashes of other post-punk heavy-hitters. The worst offender is "No People To Person," a rather blatant Parquet Courts rip-off. But at least it's a good rip-off, and surrounded by some of the band's finest work yet. Vundabar live shows are always a treat, as Hagen brings a hilarious, self-aware energy to his confident command of the stage. And maybe he'll do that thing where he puts his mouth over the microphone like he always does. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Lucy Dacus' powerful and versatile voice drips with a wisdom and thoughtfulness characteristic of someone who has seen it all. On her latest album, Historian, the Richmond, Virginia artist is already brooding on her past, rearranging characters and perspectives until she can forge some sense of a comprehensible personal narrative. The album's opener, "Night Shift" ruminates on a meeting with a former lover. The romance of the past smacks into the hard wall of the present reality, as Dacus croons, "What was the plan? Absolve your guilt and shake hands?" In construction it's a characteristic Dacus tune, starting softly with her voice leaning on low notes weaving over simple guitar chords, until the track builds into a headbanging jam with Dacus' voice leaping into the upper registers. With tender Purchase, New York rockers Adult Mom and soulful indie-pop purveyors And The Kids providing opening support, the lineup should provide for a cathartic evening of emotionally vulnerable music. —Reid Kurkerewicz
FRIDAY APRIL 6
Portland-based guitarist Marisa Anderson's warm, often solo-electric performances unpack a wealth of material from across American and British folk-music traditions, and her original material gently but deftly pushes that lexicon in new directions. Whether she's exploring the bleak thrills of the traditional Scottish ballad "The House Carpenter" (which she combines with Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" in a revelatory, episodic performance on her 2015 split with Tashi Dorji) or conjuring shimmery desert vistas on 2016's album Into The Light, Anderson uses her fingerpicked style to immerse the listener in conversational melody and sparse but solid bass lines and chords. Without ever over-playing, Anderson coaxes full and complex pictures from her instrument.
During live shows, Anderson often stops to discuss the history and context of the traditional material she plays, with an approachable style that's the perfect complement to her playing. Her next album, Cloud Corner, is due out in June on Thrill Jockey Records. The title track captures the kind of rugged, resourceful execution that makes Anderson stand out. Here, she'll be opening for Chicago psych-folk artist Circuit Des Yeux. Madison-based guitarist and experimenter Erik Kramer will also be on the bill; his debut album, A House, Floating In The Middle Of A Lake, was among our top 20 Madison records of 2017. —Scott Gordon
Percussionist Andrew Baldwin, who recently completed his master's degree in percussion performance at UW-Madison, has played and written music in settings ranging from conversational jazz groups to Brazilian maracatu ensembles to spare classical compositions. In this performance at the locally and regionally focused InDIGenous jazz series, Baldwin will focus on his original compositions. He recorded a few of those at a 2016 recital in Madison. One high point, "That Bug's Got A Nasty Bite," a 10-minute workout built around playful yet tense melodic theme and Baldwin's own deft balance of brisk rhythm and syncopated friction. Baldwin plays here with tenor saxophonist Rachel Heuer, trumpeter Paul Dietrich, pianist Sam Moffet, and bassist Isaac Surprenant. —Scott Gordon
The annual Line Breaks Festival showcases the creative work of students in UW-Madison's First Wave program, a multidisciplinary program that has hip-hop at its core and embraces elements of music, dance, theater, literature, and spoken-word performance. While First Wave has gone through some administrative turmoil over the past year, the artists who've gone through the program continue to make an impact nationally and in Madison, from 2012 graduate Danez Smith's well-deserved ascent in the poetry world to a steady ferment of distinctive young musicians.
This year's Line Breaks moves from the festival's longtime venue, the Overture Center, to the Play Circle at the Memorial Union. On Friday, comedian Kenneth Dizon and spoken-word poet Mariam Coker will each present solo shows, both of which should offer an intriguing window into how First Wavers bring together strands from disparate modes of expression and performance. The festival's music showcase, on Saturday night (9 p.m.), is probably the easiest point of entry for people unfamiliar with First Wave and the artists connected to it. It features performances from artists including Obasi Davis (an MC and Oakland native who's been putting out a steady run of sold music under the name Basi), Hiwot Adilow (a gifted poet/singer/rapper who's developed a solo set of achingly beautiful R&B songs), singer-songwriter Tehan Ketema, and rapper Chetta Hill.
The festival wraps up on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m.) with a screening of the documentary The Louisville Lip: MC Muhammad Ali, produced by First Wave student Mackenzie Berry and edited by Berry and fellow First Waver Nia Scott. The film looks at how the politically outspoken boxer influenced hip-hop, both in its verbal stylings and in its heavily masculine gender dynamics. It offers something of a corrective to the latter by specifically emphasizing the contributions of female hip-hop artists. Berry interviewed artists including veteran Queens rapper Roxanne Shanté, Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, and Kurtis Blow; and critics and scholars including Jeff Chang and Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley. I've seen just the trailer but Louisville Lip looks like a deeply researched documentary, and it comes at a moment when people could use a bit more perspective on athletes using their platforms to advance social-justice causes. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Berry, Scott, and Roxanne Shanté. —Scott Gordon
MONDAY APRIL 9
Marie/Lepanto is a new-ish collaboration between Will Johnson, best known for leading the Texas band Centro-Matic, and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, of Mississippi band Water Liars. Both singer-songwriters' previous work tends to build on a nuanced, emotionally conflicted blend of the rugged and the tender, balancing lots of open and contemplative space with lots of warmly overdriven guitar. The first Marie/Lepanto album, this year's Tenkiller, finds Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster's styles bleeding together pretty easily, with the two writing together, playing all the instruments, and sharing lead-vocal duties. There's still plenty of room for their individual stamps—you could easily convince a Centro-Matic fan (me included) that the bittersweet, propulsive "Inverness" is a Centro-Matic song, and Johnson's husky baritone croon contrasts nicely with Kinkel-Schuster's higher, more yearning vocals. Both artists have explored more sparse territory in their solo work, and that too makes for some natural affinity, especially on the album's bleak title track. The duo play this Madison show at Kiki's House Of Righteous Music, a cozy basement venue operated by local music superfan Kiki Schueler. —Scott Gordon
TUESDAY APRIL 10
Will Wiesenfeld, better known as Baths, is an electronic artist who works with a slew of unconventional sounds. His songs, leaning toward ambient territory, are often layered with smooth chords, bright synths, and anything from pencils clicking, cassette tapes being rewound, and a variety of strange vocal samples. Baths' latest album, last year's Romaplasm, moves the project's sound into something eerily close to electro-pop, which isn't necessarily bad. Tracks like "Yeoman" and "Extrasolar" feature a wealth of vocals in comparison to Wiesenfeld's past albums (including his solid 2010 debut Cerulean), and among the blips and scratchy chords, bright notes and harmonies come through. Opening the show at Montreal dream-pop experimenters No Joy and Sasami Ashworth, a film-score composer, electronic artist, and former member of Cherry Glazerr with a solo album coming out later this year. —John McCracken
Appleton-based musician Colin Wilde has built up a catalog of romantic, displaced psych-pop under the name Black Thumb, in addition to playing drums in the wonderful proto-rock outfit Dusk. Black Thumb's latest album, 2016's It Is Well With My Soul, features a variety of collaborative and solo-production approaches, from the gauzy synths and drum-machine snares of "All Fall Down" to the tender organ-centered instrumental "And Now I Only See You In My Dreams" to the bright jangle-pop jolt of opener "Show Me The Way." Wilde has a knack for crafting sharp and bittersweet vocal melodies and bringing together disparate (and ever-shifting) instrumentation with an immersive warmth. At this installment of Mickey's Dystopian Future Singer Songwriter Series, organized by Matt Joyce of The Midwest Beat, Wilde and multi-instrumentalist Ridley Tankersley will perform a drone-y duo set of Black Thumb material, including some songs from It Is Well and some new material, some of it instrumental. —Scott Gordon
WEDNESDAY APRIL 11
Both Built To Spill and the Afghan Whigs were scooped up in the 1990s' alt-rock gold rush and were gems in a music-industry reality that no longer exists. Because both bands were prescient, they rode the wave, and have harnessed the whitecaps to find that as time has gone on, we're starting to catch up to them both again.
Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs predicted the rise of bands like Portugal. The Man with a fusion of R&B and fuzz, an odd sound that catapulted them to a level of success frustrating for any garage band to fathom. (They broke up amicably in 2001 simply because they lived too far apart.) Inevitably, they reunited in 2011 (with a new line-up) and are now touring behind 2017's In Spades. The years have been kind to frontman Greg Dulli and his new crew, as the new album is a melodic and fuzzed-out sequence of songs that just clicks as it ups the intensity on heady, uncomfortable, and beautiful compositions about the delusions of romantic ideals.
Boise, Idaho's Built to Spill's journey since 1992 has had a similar revolving door, but as frontman Doug Martsch has always claimed from early on, he was always to be the only permanent member. Unconventional, sure, but given how much Marstch's guitar playing has evolved it's almost weird how consistently rewarding the shifting group has been to listen to across nearly 30 (!) years and eight albums. The new members who drift in undoubtedly have a stabilizing effect, although Martsch has said in interviews that the older he gets, the more directionless he feels in his music. This doesn't telegraph at all, and the ride from 1997's vast Perfect From Now On to 2015's Untethered Moon has been a swooning, slow-core, noisy pop thrill. Here's hoping they play something new as their journey, thankfully, continues. —David Wolinsky