Deafheaven, Sarah Vowell, Freakfest, Jaap Blonk, Vanessa Renwick, and more of the best stuff in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Chris Lay, Mike Noto, and Joel Shanahan
THURSDAY OCTOBER 29
When you start doing comedy in Madison, you learn pretty fast that you’re gonna have to move off to somewhere bigger after a couple of years fighting for time at the Big Deuce open mic. Sure, Madison is nice and all, but the opportunities for professional growth are scarce once you get past a certain level, and then it’s time to move on if you want to actually make a career in the chuckle biz (as insiders call it). Few folks have shot past that level of local talent faster than former Madison’s Funniest Comedian winner Bryan Morris, who’s come back to his home club as a headliner after moving to New York to test his mettle. It’ll be interesting to see if the mean streets of the big apple have toughened up the whimsical punchlines that have been the bread and butter of Bryan’s story-centric material. Along for the weekend is Stacey Kulow, also a former Madison’s Funniest Comedian winner, who also happens to be returning to Madison after moving to New York at the same time as Bryan, for no apparent reason that we can immediately discern.
Veteran Portland experimental artist and filmmaker Vanessa Renwick is visiting the UW Cinematheque in person at this screening, which offers a 75-minute program of her short films. The highlights include 2004’s Britton, South Dakota, sourced from footage a movie-theater manager in that town shot on a 16mm camera during the Great Depression. But Renwick is regarded as much for stately emotional heft as she is for experimentation, as demonstrated in another film on the program: layover, from 2014, is a mesmerizing, rousing meditation on a flock of migrating birds.
On this year’s New Bermuda, San Francisco’s Deafheaven continue to work within a black-metal framework while flexing their strongest attributes—genre-splicing, hooky riffs, and tightly crafted and explorative songwriting. Equal parts polished and swampy, album-opener “Brought To The Water” seamlessly trudges from battering blast-beats, bleak tremolo-picked guitar, and screeched howls, but before the listener knows what’s happening, it drifts into this gorgeous, major-key breakdown of bright chords, borderline pop-punk octave leads, and, well, more screeched howls. “Baby Blue” is another 10-minute-plus stunner that crawls from a cleanly lush post-rock-y buildup that eventually whirls its way into a punishingly cathartic melodic-doom explosion. Sure, it’s these same qualities that continue to earn Deafheaven the malign of corpse-painted purists worldwide, but it’s a big breath of fresh air, so we don’t really give a shit and neither should they.
Every Halloween there’s an increasingly mad rush to shove over the top frightfully scary movies in your face, and while we’re as excited to see The Intern as the next guy, but let’s class it up a little, Hollywood. With that in mind, we’re pretty thankful WUD FIlm took the high road in bringing the arty psycho-physical horror of Claire Denis’ 2001 Trouble Every Day to the table. The plot is kinda bonkers and involves Vincent Gallo (See? Already scary!) and his wife, who are supposedly on their honeymoon in Paris, but Gallo’s actually on the hunt for a neuroscientist who can help cure some brain disease or other, and it ends up with a puppy getting adopted for some reason, right before a maid gets bitten to death...? It’s complicated, folks.
We’ve gotta say, the two wisest decisions Seattle-based songwriter Eric Elbogen ever made were dropping the misleadingly stupid “To Your Mom” portion of his Say Hi alias after 2006’s Impeccable Blahs and gradually ramping up the synth-pop influence on his endearingly playful and felt pop tunes. On Elborgen’s 10th full-length Bleeders Digest, the crooner’s simple vision continues to ensure that every tasteful element does little more than serve its master—the song. In many cases, its Elbogen’s rudimentary approach that projects a warped personality into his tunes. In “Creatures Of The Night,” an infectious synth sequence stammers above a few simple chords and equally simple drumwork, while Elbogen’s shaky but controlled vocals belt over the top. It’s a similar story with “Lover’s Lane (Smitten With Doom)” or “Galaxies WIll Be Born,” where if any element was adjusted even slightly or an instrument was overplayed, the emo-tinged pop charm could quickly wander dangerously close to The Fray territory. Don’t get us wrong, the tunes are still polished and detailed, but there’s always a sense that Elbogen not only knows, but embraces his limitations as a multi-instrumentalist with highly varying skill levels amongst his instruments of choice, and that’s what’s always made Say Hi such an earworm.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 30
Sarah Vowell’s work as an essayist, This American Life contributor, and journalist plies a distinct blend of historical depth and playfully scathing wit, as embodied in her 2005 book Assassination Vacation. As part of kind of a spillover bonus leg of the Wisconsin Book Festival (it was officially October 22 through 25 but is kind of still going on?), Vowell visits here to share her new book Lafayette In The Somewhat United States. In typical Vowell fashion, the book takes a decidedly odd slant, but does so in order to offer an incisive morsel of history, in this case framed around Marquis Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, the French military officer who fought for America in the Revolutionary War, befriended several of the Founding Fathers, and was generally a beloved, unifying figure in our nation’s early history.
Before Saturday’s Print & Resist event at the Central Library, Madison nonprofit The ArtWrite Collective will hold another celebration of zines and activism. The Hallozine Party will celebrate the release of a new feminist zine called The F-Zine, and will feature additional work from about a dozen artists. The night also includes music from Madison bands Dash Hounds, Gonzo Rongs, and Post Social, and proceeds from ticket sales will partially go to benefit ArtWrite’s work.
Closing out their in-depth look at the films of Cy Endfield (go out and buy the book already), UW Cinematheque brings us Hell Drivers from 1958. The film tells the tightly wound moody tale of an ex-con, Tom Yately (played by Stanley Baker from Endfield’s Zulu, which screened earlier this month), who wants to go straight, but things get complicated when the gravel trucking company he signs on with turns out to be not quite “on the level.” The film, featuring crack cinematography from Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Zardoz) landed on Time Out’s list of “1000 Films to Change Your Life” so... definitely check it out if you’re lookin to shake some things up about your existence. The British version, which is what will be screening, restores 15 minutes that were deleted from the American release.
Dave Rawlings is best known as the guitarist, producer, co-writer, and harmony singer at the right hand of contemporary folk great Gillian Welch. His Dave Rawlings Machine project essentially flips things around, with Rawlings taking the lead lead and Welch still in the mix, with additional accompaniment from members of Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. DRM’s recently released second album, Nashville Obsolete, is a little more spacious and easygoing than the brilliantly stark landscape of Welch’s discography, with fiddle and conversational acoustic guitars and mandolin lending gentle uplift to the oddly affecting “Short-Haired Woman Blues” and the signature Welch-Rawlings harmony pairing doing cheerful work on “The Last Pharaoh.” So, go expecting a more fun side of the duo, but still a solid showcase of their considerable gifts as songwriters and arranger.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 31
Madison Print & Resist (formerly known as Madison Zine Fest) has an 11-year tradition of bringing independent print-media makers together, but it got a significant recharge last year when the event moved to the Central Library space and expanded its slate of exhibitors and added workshops and talks. Exhibitors mostly hail from Madison, but plenty also from the Twin Cities and beyond, and work on display (and for sale) will range from zines to large-scale print artworks to notebooks and other goods. The talks are particularly exciting this year, including the activists of the Overpass Light Brigade, King-Cat Comics creator John Porcellino giving a personal history of the early zine days, and Milwaukee artist Nicholas Lampert holding an interactive climate change-themed art workshop. Learn more in our recent interview with P&R co-organizer Sarah Tops Rogers.
Madison band Pachinko’s pummeling, viciously aggressive noise rock makes a live return at this Halloween show. Led by guitarist/vocalist Brian Brech and including Bongzilla/The Garza drummer/vocalist Mike Henry, the band signed a contract with Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles in the late '90's and released two albums, along with a stream of singles on other labels. Alternative Tentacles wasn't a bad fit for the band; however, Pachinko always sounded more in line stylistically and spiritually with the crushing, furious, wonderfully unhinged noise rock sound that labels like Minneapolis's Amphetamine Reptile and Austin's Trance Syndicate specialized in. The surprisingly technical ensemble playing, caustically sarcastic lyrics and roaring, covertly theatrical and amusing vocals of songs like "Losers Never Win" and "The Ballad of Bon Scott Mominee"—reminiscent at times of a blend between the gleefully deranged stomp and poisonous guitar of Austin's Ed Hall and a more politically incorrect, less anthemic Nomeansno—gained the band a passionate local following before they went on hiatus in 2000. At this show, they'll also play with fearsomely virtuosic local legends Transformer Lootbag, the riffy stoner rock of Droids Attack, and psychobilly outfit Mad Trucker Gone Mad.
In a pointed rebuttal to the amateur-night shitshow that is Halloween in Madison, Ethan Jackson, aka R&B singer/producer Mr. Jackson, set up this night of “mature” festivities and mostly Madison-based music. In addition to Jackson, the night will feature music from Leo Johnson And The New Shoes (that’s Madison jazz adventurers Lovely Socialite, but playing music from and inspired by Twin Peaks), bizarro Michigan R&B artist Jerry Gari, and Madison shoegaze-punk slashers Christian Dior (who will be returning from a short tour here). Also available: a goodie-bag raffle and “special sauce.”
If you thought American Horror Story was reinventing the wheel by applying an anthology structure to the creepiest of creeptastic cinematic mediums, then 1945’s Dead Of Night might come as something of a surprise to you. A series of spooky stories as told by folks who all have nothing in common other than that they have themselves appeared in the dreams of a man who has never met them before in his life, Dead Of Night also serves as a decent intro to a quartet of British filmmakers including Alberto Cavalcanti (Nicholas Nickleby), Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda), Basil Dearden (The League Of Gentlemen), and Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts & Coronets). If you’re in need of a last reason to push you over the edge on this one, Martin Scorsese put it at number five on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time, saying, “it’s very playful…and then it gets under your skin.“
Poking fun at Freakfest, launched in 2006 in an effort to make Halloween on State Street less of a disaster, is easy and perhaps even necessary, as it’s the city’s official middle-of-road Halloween event and has trotted out some real doozies for headliners in its time (Lifehouse, Third Eye Blind), and also there’s just something eye-rolling about this idea that Halloween in Madison *has* to be some crazy over the top thing in the first place. But then again, sometimes the choice of headliner makes a bit more sense (like Atmosphere, last year), and usually there are some redeeming Madison-sourced highlights further down in the list. That’s particularly true this year at the event’s Frances Street stage. Between 9:15 p.m. and midnight, that stage will feature back-to-back sets from two of the best rappers going in Madison right now, Sincere Life and CRASHprez, then a set from the hip-hop/R&B collective Me eN You. The latter is fresh off the release of an intriguing, sprawling three-song suite called “We Are A Mediocre Masterpiece. So What?” So, as a whole it is what it is—the lesser and more Mountain Dew-soaked of two evils—but if you’re there, just know that these hometown acts are the best things in the lineup by far.
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 1
Madison MC Charles Grant brings a charming earnestness and to his gruff-yet-vulnerable-youngster-from-Wisconsin persona, and back this summer we saw him power through a live set after, well, getting sick, which has to count for something. He’s best when he sticks to a more conversational flow, as on “Snakes” and the laid-back, funky “Brown Eyes.” Grant is headlining this pre-Packer-game afternoon show, but we’re equally intrigued to see Madison MC and producer DLO on the bill. Best known for his work in the excellent Madison hip-hop band Dumate and his IceMantis project with Dumate, DLO is also a gifted solo artist who crafts mature, level-headed verses and sonically omnivorous beats. He’s currently working on the sixth installment of Pempstrumentals, his series of instrumental albums.
Nicholas Ray’s 1952 film The Lusty Men stars Robert Mitchum (perhaps best known for his role in Night Of The Hunter, released three years later) as a beaten-down rodeo competitor who quits the circuit and heads back to his hometown in Oklahoma, only to end up in a tragic love triangle with a young aspiring rodeo rider and his wife. Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause, but The Lusty Men shows his gift for bringing a stark, melancholy touch to the Western genre.
TUESDAY NOVEMBER 3
Dutch performance artist, composer, and vocalist Jaap Blonk has spent the last few decades sharpening his maddening phonetic surrealism through many solo endeavors, as well as collaborations with avant-jazz artists and assorted other experimentalists like sax shredder Mats Gustafsson, vocal explorer Joan La Barbara, and percussionist Michael Zerang (who, small world, has also collaborated with partially Madison-based avant-folk journeyers Spires That In The Sunset Rise). Blonk’s live sets center on deftly controlled but brain-twisting voice work, which wanders from decontextualized speech repetition, grunts, growls, screams, and other assorted noises to chuck sonic hammers into the audience's collective auditory cortex and ultimately betray his listeners’ reflexive understanding of the human voice. In other words, we highly encourage you to check this out, even if there’s a fractional chance you’ll hate it and a greater chance you’ll lose your mind for just a little while.
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 4
Winnipeg trio KEN Mode’s approach to noise rock feels both grisly and giddy, spiraling between sturdy lurching Jesus Lizard-isms and high-wire technical complexity. To listen to the band’s latest, this year’s Success, is to be kept off-balance, even if you’re used to nasty and warped music: Opening track “Blessed” recalls the gargle-voiced, sludge-coated ravings of Madison’s own Killdozer, while “I Just Liked Fire” and “Failing At Fun Since 1981” combine frantic aggression with disorienting math-rock rhythms. Holding the variety together is a thrillingly sharp execution that never gets caught up in pretension, not to mention a constant sense of unhinged, malevolent wit.
Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s new documentary, (T)error, goes to insane lengths to explore the world of informants wrapped up in FBI terrorism investigations. In the film, Cabral and Sutcliffe are invited the to follow one such informant in the midst of an investigations, and soon find themselves also interviewing the target, Khalifah al-Akili, a white Muslim convert who has since been sent to federal prison on terrorism charges. This access gives the filmmakers unprecedented insight into the slippery nature of the surveillance state, and puts them in a strange ethical position as they engage with both sides of an active terrorism investigation.
Proper Method, a first-Wednesday-of-the-month residency hosted by Madison DJ crew Foshizzle and electronic music/visual-art group New Nature Collective, uses this month’s installment to celebrate the release of Chants’ third album, We Are All Underwater. The project of Madison producer and drummer Jordan Cohen, Chants uses shifty beats and thrumming low-end to frame tracks that find the beauty in sparseness. On We Are All Underwater, the fun is in what arises in that eerily open and never over-mechanized space plays, from the strangely reassuring hook of “Oxygen Loops” to the forlorn, contorted R&B of “All Underwater.” We’ll have more on the album, and the premiere of one of the album tracks, in an interview with Cohen on Monday.