A small downtown Madison venue has slowed down considerably after a few busy years.
Back at the beginning of 2012, things were getting busy for the Dragonfly Lounge, a 75-capacity bar and venue in the basement of Bellini Italian Restaurant, 401 E. Washington Ave. Madison bands were putting on frequent shows featuring mostly local, and some lesser-known touring, artists, a few local DJs experimented with new residencies there, and a free-jazz band called Glacier held a short-lived but really fun weeknight series with rotating guest musicians. As it became something of a regular venue, the Dragonfly put up a new awning to make itself easier to find, and even experimented with a late-night menu.
Recently, though, the number of shows at the Dragonfly has dropped off considerably. For a good few years there, most the Dragonfly would often host at least one or two shows of note each week. This fall, the only one on my radar is Ken Mode on November 4.
When I checked in with Dragonfly booker Jamison Downing recently, he said there have indeed been fewer shows at the Dragonfly, because Bellini has been renting the space out more often for private events like wedding receptions and corporate dinner parties. Downing says he’s also been spending more time on Bellini proper than on the Dragonfly itself. But there are still shows there—not always easy to keep up with, as Dragonfly doesn’t really take charge of promoting events and relies on organizers to get the word out about things—and the Monsters Of Poetry reading series still holds its events there.
“By no means are we stopping shows,” Downing says. “I know we are set up to be there for a while. We have tons of events booked through next year."
Monsters Of Poetry co-organizer Adam Fell says Bellini did ask the series to switch from Fridays to Saturdays to accommodate more private events in the Dragonfly, which he says “was not a big deal to us at all.” Fell says the group plans to keep having readings at the Dragonfly. “Jamison is a great champion of ours,” Fell adds.
Eric Caldera, who plays in Madison bands El Valiente, Oedipus Tex, and Cribshitter, and briefly worked the door and the bar at the Dragonfly, backed up Downing’s explanation for the changes. “Bellini wanted to prioritize booking their restaurant events, so Jamison just has fewer dates to work with down there,” Caldera says.
The Bellini property has also been on the market, and last month the Dane County government considered buying the property to establish a new homeless shelter. The county ended up going with a different site on East Wash.
The Bellini property is still listed, but it’s not clear whether its owners, the Gargano family, still hope to sell it amid the East Wash redevelopment boom. Co-owner Pete Gargano did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and Downing says that the property has been on and off the market many times over the years.
Downing has always seemed happy to keep things loose at the Dragonfly, letting a mix of people from across the music community steer the venue’s events. Back in 2012, when I wrote about the Dragonfly in an Isthmus story, Downing told me, “Right now, I don’t give a fuck what everybody else is doing.”
That may not sound like much as a business plan, but there’s a bit of a noble spirit in that attitude, and at best it has made the Dragonfly a lively sandbox for local bands and DJs wanting a place to play, and for people wanting to book unusual touring artists—bands including Wolf Eyes, Faun Fables, Circuit Des Yeux, and German metal outfit Downfall Of Gaia have played there in recent years.
Madison has a lot of venues, but not many that are so open to letting local artists and bookers throw ideas at the wall, and with a decent PA in-house. Venues like the High Noon Saloon and The Frequency also give local artists a platform, but have to balance that with demand from touring artists and established promoters like Frank Productions and Majestic Live. (Majestic also has booked a couple shows at the Dragonfly, but Downing says those were one-offs and he doesn’t currently have anything booked with them.) And several other places, like Mickey’s Tavern, do a good job of prioritizing the local and offbeat.
But from the perspective of someone who wants to set up a show, having one more option in town never hurts. While the Dragonfly isn't entirely off of Madison's live-music map, its reduced availability for shows will be felt.