Wyatt Cenac, a Charlie Brooks benefit, Sinking Suns, Yo La Tengo, and more of the best stuff in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Chris Lay, Ben Munson, Mike Noto, and Joel Shanahan
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 5
Everything that Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show has ever touched seemingly turns to gold. Their eye for talent has given the world John Oliver, Ed Helms, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert, to name just a few. Hell, even Olivia Munn was on their payroll for a hot minute. While Wyatt Cenac has gone on record with some dicey recollections of his time on the show, there’s no doubt about his strength as a tried and true comedic talent. Cenac’s first album, Comedy Person, busting at the seams with tightly coiled jokes one after another, was one of the major highlights of 2011, and his followup, Brooklyn (recorded in... you get it...), was only available physically as a vinyl record if you doubt his indie cred. The last time Cenac brught his brainy brand of hip yet inclusive comedy through Madison, it memorably clashed with the monolithic series of sold-out Dave Chapelle shows, but this time around you have zero reason to not get down to the Comedy Club On State for one of his five shows this weekend.
While '50s rockabilly fetishism is certainly nothing new, the most exhausting aspect of the current flash-flood climate is its relentless commitment to style over substance. The members of Madison band The Tea Heads’ lineup are no strangers to style (they’d often show up to gigs in matching jean-jackets with their own band’s logo stitched into the back when they were playing as The Lonesome Savages), but back it up powerfully— vocalist-guitarist Max Elliott’s shaky, head-rattling howls don’t carry even the slightest whiff of insincerity. Since the Tea Heads dropped their sole release, a 2014 7-inch split with Zola Jesus that was packaged with an issue of the Pitchfork Review, they’ve swapped out longtime collaborator and bassist “Dead” Luke Gasper with ex-Surgeons In Heat guitarist and current Tenement touring bassist Tyler Ditter. Also, former pianist Lue Lueck has retired his hammering, Jerry Lee Lewis-channeling piano lines to pick up lead guitar duties. That release boasted the filthy and ominous garage-punk shake-up “Prowler." and we're excitedly awaiting a full-length of The Tea Heads' jangled and wailing glory.
There’s a hypothetical concept known as “The Butterfly Effect,” whereby small actions can have much larger implications down the line when you trace the chain of events they’ve triggered. While it’s hard to prove, since the initial actions can be so minute in the long view, it’s a fun thing to think about or base the plot of Ashton Kutcher films around. Varian And Putzi: A Twentieth Century Tale is an interesting documentary in that it attempts to chart the causal ripples emanating from a chance meeting between Varian Fry and Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstängel. The former rescued creatives and academics from the forces of Hitler’s Third Reich, while the latter cast his lot with Hitler and fell decidedly on the wrong side of history. The film's director, Richard Kaplan, whose Eleanor Roosevelt Story won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1966, will be on hand to discuss the film after this UW Cinematheque screening, which is sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (where Kaplan’s collected papers resides) and the University Lectures Committee.
Michael Perry is best known as Wisconsin’s best-loved memoirist and a generally awesome writer and self-deprecating funny person, but he shares his solid baritone voice and love of hearty, austere country songwriting in his band Michael Perry And The Long Beds. As you’d expect, Perry’s songs have a strong narrative element, but can also surprise you with strange and melancholy imagery, as on “Indiana,” from the band’s most recent studio album, 2010’s Tiny Pilot. Last year the band also released Bootlegged At The Big Top, recorded live at Big Top Chautauqua near Bayfield.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 6
We wrote up a preview for this three day chock-a-block of films that will stretch your definition of what an “environmental film” can be. Sure the Nelson Institute's Tales From Planet Earth fest has a two-fer of Godfrey Reggio classics, Anima Mundi and Koyaanisqatsi (with Reggio in attendance!), but also has a South African operatic retelling of Noah (from THE BIBLE) that also incorporates shadow puppets into the mix. If anyone somehow didn’t get enough Orson Welles during the UW Cinematheque’s epic run earlier this year, well you’re in luck because John Huston’s The Roots Of Heaven from 1958 will be screening. If movies aren’t your thing but you still wanna love your mother earth, you can check out the Climate Change and Religious Stewardship keynote from "climate change evangelist" Katharine Hayhoe.
The ongoing Indigenous jazz series, put on by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, puts the spotlight on local and regional jazz artists and their original compositions. Madison-based pianist Becca May Grant will be sharing a new work here called “The Light Shines,” and though we’re not quite sure what to expect from it, we do know that it’s inspired by the ongoing fight for racial equity in Madison, and that it will draw on her rich background in both jazz (which she studied at UW-Madison) and church music (she’s the arts director at Madison’s Fountain of Life Covenant Church). The performance will also incorporate spoken word. It’s anyone’s guess what those elements will sound like coming together, but it shows you exactly why Madison artists should have a platform like Indigenous.
BachFest, an annual celebration of mostly heavy and Midwestern rock bands (named for booker Jeff Bach), returns with a 2015 lineup that’s divided into two distinct bills. Friday night is a psych-themed show that features Appleton band Miserable Friend, playing here behind the charmingly warped, reverb-scraped pop of their 2015 album Thawed, Flawed And Suffering, and Madison goth-rock standbys Vanishing Kids. Saturday’s lineup its all about “sludge,” but with eight bands scheduled that means a lot of different things, from the desolate trudge of St. Louis doom trio Fister to the hardcore-inflected attack of Minneapolis band Aziza to the bleak post-rock of Madison’s Tyranny Is Tyranny.
Sinking Suns have grown into one of the better rock bands in Madison with a visceral, skeletal, yet surprisingly diverse take on post-punk. Anchored in bassist Dennis Ponozzo’s burly vocals and Scott Udee’s slippery, bend-y guitar work, Sinking Suns’ 2014 EP Songs Of Revenge took in a variety of approaches to sparse and aggressive music, from the Jesus Lizard-channeling “Drown In Black” to the racing thrill of “Fathoms Deep.” This summer they started breaking out a lot of new material in live sets, so we’re hoping they get another recording together soon.
Between Duck Soup Cinema and the occaisonal theremin improv alongside old Fritz Lang films at Mickey’s, we in Madison get some neat opportunities to hear live music paired with silent films. While those two examples trend towards humor and whimsy, respectively, the UW Cinematheque is bringing us the opportunity to explore deeper emotional depths when violinist and vocalist Alicia Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner add their musical dramatic muscle to 1919’s silent gem The Yellow Ticket (Der Gelbe Schein). Shot partially in Warsaw, the film tells the tale of a Jewish girl who wants to attend medical school in St. Petersburg, but to do so she must conceal her racial and religious roots. While it sounds heavy, especially so hot on the heels of Thursday’s screening of Varian And Putzi, the addition of the live score makes this one of those truly don’t-miss presentations.
Since 2013's Fade, their most recent album of original material, Yo La Tengo's music seems to have turned toward a softer approach. Whether this is coincidental or not remains to be seen, but this year's cover album Stuff Like That There definitely tilts toward a quieter, acoustic direction. It initially seems like the band has gone down this road before: a similar method was used for their previous cover album, 1990's Fakebook. Former guitarist Dave Schramm again returns to contribute, and the band again intersperses a few exclusive originals with revamped versions of older material among greatly varied and carefully chosen covers. The difference here is in the choice of material and the approach to the performances, which is an intriguing glimpse at how a long-lasting band can evolve after 25 years. Fakebook stuck to decidedly twee and sugary renditions of mostly little-known outsider folk and bubblegum pop—even the Flamin' Groovies cover, "You Tore Me Down," was one of that band's sweeter power pop songs. But Stuff Like That There takes a far less cutesy approach toward both the selection and performance of the material, and greatly succeeds in comparison. The younger Yo La Tengo might have used Darlene McCrea's "My Heart's Not In It," a lovely, melodic soul single from 1964, as a springboard for a smiley-faced, folksy good time, which would have made for a nice, if not especially noteworthy novelty. But here the band foregrounds Georgia Hubley's reverbed, clear voice in order to highlight the hidden sadness of the lyrics, and in doing so finds a weight and impressive depth of touch that helps make the song their own. The selections this time aren't as deliberately obscure—there are even versions of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and The Cure's "Friday I'm In Love"—but the source material isn't as stylistically similar as it was before, and the band manifests a lot of genuine feeling and precision in the performances throughout. The overall effect is deeply beautiful.
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 7
New York City-based outfit Sō Percussion was formed in 1999 by four Yale University music students who wanted to dispense with the traditional boundaries of what a classically trained percussion group could do. Thus far they’ve succeeded wildly, building up a repertoire that mostly comprises work they’ve commissioned (from composers including Steve Reich), plus a lot of original compositions from group members and a startling variety of live and recorded collaborations well outside the modern-classical world, with artists including electronic duo Matmos, jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, and Baltimore electro-pop explorer Dan Deacon. This show will feature a Reich piece, a selection from Sō Percussion’s recent collaboration with The National’s Bryce Dessner, and a preview of a still-in-the-works new piece called A Gun Show. Read more in our interview this week with member Adam Sliwinski.
The title of the new theater piece We The 350 refers to the 350 black inmates that Madison’s Young, Gifted, And Black Coalition would like to see released from Dane County’s jail in order to balance out racial disparities in the local criminal justice system. The show itself, written by T. Banks and Sara McKinnon, draws on interviews with black activists to explore the ways in which racism, class issues, and mass incarceration impact black Americans on a daily basis.
If you’re one of the few people in the area that has yet to check out Phox, this may be your last chance for a while: lead singer Monica Martin said this will be the band’s last show until it releases its new album. It’s unsure how much of that new material will make it into this show but Phox can still fill a show with songs the sweet, kitchen-sink pop on its 2014 self-titled album. For all the banjo, whistling, flugelhorn and entire high school symphony bands that Phox throws into the mix of its slow, syrupy music, the songs maintain coherent rock structures and all the instruments fall into orbit around Martin’s breathy lilt. Opening for Phox and rising from extended hiatus is mighty instrumental rock band Cougar. The Madison-formed band hasn’t played live in more than four years or released an album since 2009’s Patriot, but the members are reconvening to play a handful of shows in Wisconsin and Illinois and remotely working on finishing up a new album. It’s possible the last time many people in Madison saw Cougar was in 2009 during the Forward Music Festival. For this show, Cougar will be occupying the same Capitol Theater stage and if it’s anything like that show, the band’s sweeping, precise anthems will react nicely with all that space. More about that in our recent interview with Cougar's David Henzie-Skogen.
This year’s Madison Hip Hop Awards, hosted by the non-profit Urban Community Arts Network (UCAN), will benefit the East Madison Community Center’s Breakers program, and performers at the show will include the solid MC duo Play Fair Cypher and R&B crooner Amy Alida. Whether or not you’re into the concept of local music awards, it’s worth noting that UCAN does a lot of work to help local-hip hop have a place at the table in Madison, and that’s a goal worthy of your support.
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 8
Charlie Brooks has been a vocalist and performer for decades, beginning his career as a backup singer touring with Motown groups like The Supremes. In his time in Madison, he’s been a treasure in his role as the frontman of Clyde Stubblefield’s Funky Mondays band and more recently his own outfit, Charlie Brooks And The Way It Is. But Brooks has been struggling with cancer and other diseases for years, and his family recently announced that he is likely in his final days. It’s absolutely gutting to hear about this, and it will be a true loss to Madison—and its music community, which will be all the poorer without Brooks’ showmanship and charm. But you can help out Brooks’ family shoulder the costs of his medical care by attending this benefit show featuring a still-to-be-announced lineup of local musicians at the Knuckle Down Saloon, where Brooks and his band have been holding down a residency in recent years. You can also donate to the family here.
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 11
Our partners at Nerd Nite Madison return to their usual High Noon thing after another successful event at last month’s Wisconsin Science Festival, and we’ll be there to record yet more installments of these podcasts we’ve been making together. This month’s Nerd Nite talks will cover East Coast vs. West Coast hip hop, the complex social role of the human voice, and cats.
San Francisco-based artist Ethan Rafal visits here to share his new book Shock And Awe, a mixed-media reflection on America’s protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a decade in the making, the book uses text, news clipping, and Rafal’s own photographer to reflect on the insidious cultural and economic effects that war has back on the home front.
Like Kurupt, Fiend, and Curren$y before him, Murs’ fall from his ill-fated shot at the majors—2008’s Murs For President—has been incredibly graceful. Since severing ties with Warner Bros, the Los Angeles-based rapper has continually proved that those cameos from the likes of will.I.am and Snoop Dogg were little more than distracting and poorly chosen, and he’s since been steadily releasing some of his best work to date--bringing us to this year’s thoughtfully raw Have A Nice Life. Murs powerful delivery skirts the line between streetwise and self-conscious, as his confident and booming flow wanders over a dynamically curated collection of backdrops from the soulful, moody, and Thee Arsonist-produced title track to the heavy and ominous slither of the Curtiss King-crafted “P T S D” (which features a killer guest verse from Bay-legend E-40) to the heady pop bounce of the Jesse Shatkin-constructed “Pussy And Pizza.”