Madison's small venues are rising up in a landscape that needs them
New spaces are springing up to cater to the city's varied musical niches. | By Emily Mills, Emili Earhart, and Scott Gordon
Madison's live-music landscape has seen a lot of consolidation in 2017, with a few bigger concert promotion companies solidifying and expanding their reach. Locally based promoters Frank Productions and Majestic Live are in the process of merging, which will put several local venues (the High Noon Saloon, the Majestic, and the planned Sylvee) and a lot of other touring-artist shows under the ownership of one company. Multinational concert giant Live Nation, which runs the Orpheum Theatre, has hinted that it would like to book shows at more venues in town.
The jury's still out on how this will impact the local music community, but that's not the whole story anyway.
Several new spots are springing up that promise to cater to a wide variety of tastes and communities. They've focused on booking local artists and hosting touring acts that might not make sense for Madison's bigger venues. To varying extents, they've deliberately tried to fill the voids left by other venues that have closed in recent years, including beloved north side goth club Inferno and downtown's tiny but once-vital Dragonfly Lounge. Existing spaces also have gradually ramped up their value to the local music community, from downtown bar Tavernakaya's slate of local DJs (which complements DJ lineups at other nearby venues like Nattspil and Maduro) to Art In's open-ended hodge-podge of live music bookings on East Washington Avenue to cramped but fun early-evening shows at the Ohio Tavern. Independent jazz venue Café Coda is currently in limbo but has tapped into a long-unmet demand for better jazz bookings in town, as has Arts + Literature Laboratory on the east side.
Further diversifying the mix are ventures that aren't physical spaces, but also aren't conventional concert promoters either. The Queer Pressure collective has been organizing an array of DJ nights, live music, and visual art shows at spaces including Robinia Courtyard and The Wisco. Cult House, a project of locally based experimental musician Dan Woodman, has revived itself recently with concerts at the Gates of Heaven and Art In, in addition to dabbling in food events and DJ nights. Half-Stack Sessions advocates for equity for female and non-binary musicians, in the form of semi-private workshops and public shows at venues including the Wil-Mar Center and Williamson Magnetic Recording Company.
Still, the growing footprint of small venues in Madison, locally owned and mostly not in business with larger local or national promoters, is noteworthy in and of itself. Making a small music venue successful is tough under the best of circumstances, especially if one wants to make music the central focus and not just a sideshow to selling alcohol. To take stock of this changing landscape, we checked in on a couple venues that recently opened and one that's getting ready to.
A new Inferno or two
The shuttering of Inferno in 2015, after nearly two decades of service to the city's underground, industrial/goth scene, left a significant chasm. Its ending was even met with impromptu memorials—a corset and a shiny thong left hanging from the construction fence put up around the old location, along with a note that Inferno was "the only place I ever felt safe."
Almost as soon as Inferno shut down, longtime patrons began to talk about creating a new space. Impressively, two new venues are poised to rise from the ashes: Connections, on East Washington Avenue, and the spot originally referred to as Project Sanctuary, on Commercial Avenue.
The two venues are totally independent of one another, though they will likely share some overlap in clientele. Connections began as a sort of pop-up venue in the back room of Murphy's Tavern, with events like DJ ellafine's Music for the Masses and other dance nights featuring darker beats. Connections has now fully taken over the building.
Connections, which celebrated its grand opening at the end of July, is honing in on an "unbrand" identity—trying not to get too stuck in any one particular niche. Manager Vic Eckstein, a Madison transplant from upstate New York who has lived in town for the past several years, ran Club Voodoo (the late-night alter ego of the Bayou restaurant on South Butler Street downtown, which closed in 2016 and shared an owner with Murphy's Tavern) for the last four years of its operation. Eckstein recognizes that in Madison, "the longer you're here, the weirder it gets," and aims to reflect that with a varied event lineup.
Connections' far-east location (on East Washington passed Stoughton Road) presents an obstacle, but Eckstein sees the location as an opportunity to serve, support, and interact with people living nearby. The club is not only hosting the kind of DJ nights to which downtown residents are accustomed, but also meat raffles, NASCAR-watching events, and age 30-and-up Motown nights (and yes, they do card). Families, longtime eastsiders, and new residents will be crucial in creating the shifting atmosphere of Connections on any given night. "What your community is and the passions of the people you bring to your venue creates your atmosphere," Eckstein says. "People make the place."
That said, as someone involved with the downtown club scene, Eckstein does not want the location of Connections to discourage those not residing in its neighborhood. Small new venues popping up in town are not to be ignored, especially ones that embrace the quirks and oddities of various scenes. Eckstein stresses that "ideally, eccentric people feel comfortable here and can express themselves," adding that "a comfortable space where people can come in and feel safe and respected and not be judged" is a goal. While the "brand" is to not tend to one specific niche at all times, Eckstein hopes that those disparate niches can utilize the venue as a space to express themselves.
Given that a lot of patrons will be driving home from Connections, Eckstein says he will prioritize responsible consumption of alcohol by serving food and designating the front room of the venue as a quieter, more relaxed atmosphere. He hopes that people who leave the event room (where it might be loud and crowded), still feel safe and welcome to hang out, eat a snack, and take some time before going about their night. In any case, the two distinct atmospheres in the space allow flexibility in ambience.
Eckstein says that in these early days, he will see what events work well and what doesn't, but seems excited to work with the community in creating a space that is both accessible to all and supportive of the underground.
A space for friendly weirdos
Over in an ill-used lot along the section of Commercial that serves as a sort of frontage road to Highway 30, situated in a former trucking supply shop, Gregory Kveberg and Jason Socha are hoping to bring their own dream to life. What started as a Facebook group called Project Sanctuary is now tantalizingly close to becoming a real venue—now tentatively named the Defiance Ballroom.
It's a promising space: a smaller room in the front will feature a long bar with craft brews on tap and, eventually they hope, light food offerings and a "cafe" stage for smaller musical acts. They'd also like it to some day be open more days of the week than not, so residents of the quiet neighborhood nearby have a friendly, unpretentious spot to go for lunch and afternoon drinks.
The back room is where the dance floor and main stage will go, and it's an appropriately high-ceilinged, industrial space with exposed beams and plenty of room. Kveberg says he plans to book a diverse array of music and shows, in the hopes of attracting more than a niche audience to the club. There are plans for monthly drag and burlesque shows, live music of all kinds, "weird theater," and anything else folks can dream up.
Kveberg says that, so far, there has been support from their immediate neighbors (businesses, mostly). The nearby Rethke Apartments are neutral on the plans, neither in support or opposed. When the two went before the city's Alcohol License Review Committee, there was initial skepticism from those who were unfamiliar with either the Inferno and its self-policing community, and with the idea for the club generally.
"We told them we're weirdos, but we're friendly weirdos," Kveberg notes with a chuckle.
That seemed to do the trick. Alcohol license approved, neighborhood on board, the next step will be to go before the city's Plan Commission on September 18 to find out what improvements and changes they'll be required to make to the building. Kveberg says they have the budget to make certain needed upgrades, like adding curbsides and redoing the parking lot as required by current city codes. If the Plan Commission requires a lot of work, however, or an upcoming environmental remediation study turns up significant pollution (they say there's no indication it will), they may have to walk away.
"If all goes well," though, Kveberg adds, "we should close on the building in mid-to-late October, with a hoped-for grand opening in late January of 2018."
It would be a welcome addition to the city's scene, especially in an area with very little else on offer in the way of live music.
A quietly booming Cabaret
Meanwhile, over in the Eken Park neighborhood, Tip Top Tavern owner Benjamin Altschul has expanded his holdings to include a new live venue. Directly across the street from the bar, the North Street Cabaret recently moved into the old Grieg social club and has been quietly but steadily building its presence.
Altschul says he was approached by the owner of the building to see if he might want to take it over. "It was a long-standing private community that started on Willy Street," he explains. "I was familiar with it when I was young—my mom used to take me to it. In 2000 it shifted its location to over here. Over time their membership was declining, though, and they weren't necessarily reaching the surrounding neighborhood."
He then held a series of meetings with the neighborhood itself and asked what they wanted to see go into that space. "We looked at a lot of possibilities, but what emerged in a really enthusiastic way was an arts platform," Altschul says. "There was a good deal of agreement, a lot of people very excited and coming forward to say this is something that would be just marvelous. It was surprising in many particular ways. We had just had this gathering place park conversation going on at the time...it was a contentious conversation at a community level. I was ready for the condo association to really stand up against this idea, but they were actually very much in favor."
The room has been significantly renovated to fit its new purpose; drop-ceiling removed, beautiful wood beams restored, and a full kitchen added that can support pop-up culinary events as well as regular food offerings. The stage is modular and can be changed to fit whatever the needs of a given act may be, and the floor has tables and chairs that can be removed for more standing room events as well.
It's an intimate and cozy space with a welcoming, neighborhood feel—and a surprisingly killer sound system. Altschul worked with Greg White of Madison Pro Audio to install a setup that rivals some of the best venues in town. So far, Altschul has focused on booking acts from the more immediate area around the club itself, intent to root it firmly in its community. Eventually, though, he will open it to the wider city and touring acts as well.
"We want to keep it honest," Altschul says. "As we're kind of introducing ourselves to the neighborhood, we want to make sure it's the people who are of this neighborhood really getting a chance to be here before it opens to greater Madison...we want to be sensitive about doing something for this neighborhood. We've been getting really positive feedback so far."
Altschul has already brought in the folks from Half-Stack Sessions, to run several nights. Sunday Night Records, the brainchild of local musicians Nate Meng and Ryan Lansing and born of the regular Sunday night open mics at the Tip Top, also throws a series of showcases at the new venue. Altschul is also thinking about daytime Bingo and Euchre events, to help open the place to a variety of generations. "Nothing is off the table at this point."
"I really see my work as creating safe spaces within the community, for people to come together and connect," Altschul adds. "I really see that as a need, and through seeing people really connect across differences is how we see a stronger community in a global sense. And this is where it all starts, on the local level." Growing up around Mickey's Tavern, which his mother Jane Capito owns (as well as Lazy Jane's), helped him see just what having that kind of community could do for people, he says.
For now, North Street Cabaret is still in its soft opening phase, but Altschul says the plan is to hold a grand opening in mid-September.