The shows and moments that made our year. | By Chris Lay, Frankie Mastrangelo, Erica Motz, Bianca Martin, Joel Shanahan, Andrew Winistorfer, Ben Munson, Scott Gordon
The best comedy I saw this year is a tie between two Comedy Club On State shows. From way back in January, I loved John Roy’s wonderfully inclusive, rapid-fire, smartest-guy-in-the-room act. Skipping ahead to November, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder than I did at Rory Scovel’s whimsically anarchistic take on crowd work, which occasionally veered back towards actually planned material.
It was also another great year for film around town, and despite some hiccups, the highlight for me was the Wisconsin Film Festival. From the excellent new discoveries (World Of Tomorrow, Tu Dors Nicole, and A Hard Day), the batshit insane (Roar, The Astrologer, and Polyester), and the recently uncovered classics (Ride The Pink Horse, Chimes At Midnight, and my fave of the fest, Crime Wave), it was such a well-rounded and gloriously programmed event. I’m hoping 2016 raises the bar even higher.
This year, I managed to see Drake in concert twice at festival shows. Both performances were miserable, but devastatingly amusing. Despite that, his single “Hotline Bling” came into my life like an unstoppable force. I heard it from local DJs nonstop. This Bob's Burgers animation was my introduction to the new free-to-be, free-to-move, freak-flag, aerobic dance anthem (I somehow missed both the initial music video for and the ensuing parody phenomena of which this animation was a part). Nonetheless, bless Drake and bless Bob's Burgers for giving me some slick and open dance moves. It was one of my favorite pop-culture blips of the year.
Seeing Brazilian metal overlords Sepultura burn down the High Noon Saloon on May 21 (with a crushing opening set from German death-metal legends Destruction) was an awesome reminder that “replacement vocalist” Derrick Green has now been in the band for almost 20 years and is well deserving of being considered a full member. While it was great to see them rip through a handful of classics from the Max Cavalera days, I also couldn’t complain about the band lashing out some tunes from 2013’s The Mediator Between Head And Hands Must Be The Heart, which marks their full recovery from 1996 nu-metal entry Roots and a plunge back into the progressive death metal they began with. Another great show that comes to mind is The Hussy’s album release show for this year’s excellent album Galore, for which they assembled a full band that included Fire Retarded guitarist-vocalist Tyler Fassnacht, New Villains leader Logan Kayne on bass, and an appearance from ex-Ivory Library and current Squarewave mastermind Jeff Jagielo on lap-steel.
Lastly, despite the fact that I performed at the Musique Electronique tent at this year’s Le Fete De Marquette, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention this incredibly stacked event and, in particular, the DJ set from Detroit techno legend and headliner Claude Young. The grinning deck dominator ran the gamut of classic Detroit electro, soulful techno, dirty house, and more with razor-sharp mixing and programming, at times operating the crossfader with his elbow and sometimes even his fucking teeth. I was also lucky enough to catch sets from a couple of my new favorite locals who began popping up as I was on my way out of town, like synth-funk artisan Mr. Jackson at Bandung and abrasive shoegazers Christian Dior at The Wisco.
Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Malportado Kids are a cumbia-punk duo that share members with political punk force Downtown Boys. Check out pretty much any popular music publication's 2015 top year-end album list and you are likely to find Downtown Boys' LP Full Communism, a ripping debut full-length brimming with punk anthems railing against systemic oppression and modes of inequality. Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco's project Malportado Kids offers the same vital socio-political critiques as Downtown Boys with added tropi-punk-driven rhythms. Malportado Kids' 2015 EP Total Cultura has a rallying effect, calling listeners to dance like hell and destroy oppressive systems. I got to see Ruiz and DeFrancesco when they came through Milwaukee in June to play a packed and brutally hot summer show at the Cocoon Room (RIP). The duo got the entire room on their feet as Ruiz belted out her brilliant criticisms of white supremacy and toxic masculinity, while DeFrancesco furiously banged a tom drum over interwoven beat samples. Just when it felt the room couldn't have grown more alive with Malportado Kid-energy, Milwaukee's own queen emcee and former Madisonian Zed Kenzo jumped into the duo's set to destroy the overheating room with an incredible freestyle. It was one of the best Wisconsin shows I've ever attended, hands down. This year, Ruiz and DeFrancesco also spearheaded Spark Mag, a radical arts and culture publication that promises to support political art and organizing, so be sure to bookmark it.
The past year saw me attending fewer events in Madison than in any of my previous four years living here, owing to an unfortunate combination of insufficient transportation, cash, and motivation, but I made the effort when Mitski finally toured through Madison on November 18 at the Frequency (with Callan Dwan of Idle Bloom on guitar and Casey Weissbuch of Diarrhea Planet on drums). Mitski (the stage/band name of musician Mitski Miyawaki) has been touring for the majority of the past year on her November 2014 release Bury Me At Makeout Creek. It’s her third album but the first to attract major critical attention. Simultaneously sad and uplifting, it’s elegantly composed and precise but capable of losing composure at the exact right moments.
Miyawaki is unafraid to sound off about the insult of male audiences not believing her to have written her own songs, and admits to working hard and caring a lot about her craft in contrast to an image of musicians’ “effortlessness.” She covered One Direction’s “Fireproof” to express her frustration with “elitism of indie rock” and the devaluation of culture created for teen girls, and she fiercely affirms people of color, queer people, and women for their participation in music scenes. I went to the show alone—thanks, Mitksi!—and as eager as I was to hear her play live (I got chills when Mitski traded her hot pink bass for Dwan’s guitar and started to sing “Last Words Of A Shooting Star”), it was exciting to see someone who has been bold and real in not only her music but also in interviews and on social media. Being at the show, braving the sometimes anxious experience of going alone, especially after skipping so many good shows over the year, felt worth it.
The most memorable non-musical moment of the night was when she began one of her last songs with a dedication: “this is for all my—no offense to anyone else—to all my girls of color in the room.” This being Madison, the room was mostly white people, like me, and many immediately began muttering to each other over the music. She paused to say, “that doesn’t mean all the rest of you can talk.” Some laughed, but she wasn’t joking.
I didn’t realize this until I sat down to write this up, but my year of going to concerts in Madison was really front- and end-loaded. I hardly saw anything here between March and October, unless you count hearing Phox faintly in the distance at Eaux Claires when my girlfriend and I decided we’d see them here instead of hiking up one of Justin Vernon’s mud-hills.
Anyways, I saw Kacey Musgraves for the second time in Madison last February when she played the Orpheum in advance of her great sophomore album, Pageant Material. It’s rare that going to see someone with as much thinkpiece baggage as Kacey lives up to and defies all the hype around them, but she did. Again. But the best concert I saw in early 2015 was Sturgill Simpson at the Majestic, where I found it impossible to reconcile his status as country music’s “savior” with the humble, quiet dude doing songs about acid who was in front of me. His guitar player was the best.
This fall/winter was dominated in my memory by shows at the Sett in Union South. Ascending country kingpins Old Dominion were as fun live as their debut LP Meat And Candy. But the best show I saw in Madison this year was the Vince Staples, CRASHprez, and Lord Of The Fly show at the Sett in December. I feel like I’ve watched CRASHprez grow up in public, thanks to seeing him open for travelling rappers for like three years, and him turning his high profile opening slot into a simultaneous showcase for Madison youngster Trapo and a confrontational art piece—he flyered the mostly white crowd with pictures of African Americans killed by police—was a thrilling sight to behold.
And Vince Staples was so good—and so funny that I would pay to watch him and his DJ do crowd work—that it made me realize that I had been underrating his 2015 debut album, Summertime 06.
My wife and I bought our first home in 2015, so it was the year I became a shut-in and a blabbering twerp obsessed with “house stuff.” But despite spending roughly three months installing one toilet, I still managed to get out to some shows. Most recently, I saw Vince Staples at the Sett and was liquefied by his music and his uncanny ability to banter with the crowd. He made Kool Keith’s September show at the Majestic look awful by comparison, but Kool Keith was also just awful in general—although his new collaboration with L’Orange, Time? Astonishing!, is the best thing he’s made in years. Whatever energy Keith lacked was probably still lingering from Chance The Rapper’s performance at Revelry. He showed up with Donnie Trumpet And The Social Experiment and left with my face, which he ripped off. Revelry was also one of the handful of times I’ve had a chance to see CRASHprez, who has become one of the most ferocious and impressive MCs in Madison. On a side note, I’m already saving money so I can hire hitmayng to DJ my daughter’s graduation party in 2027.
I got appropriately wasted for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s show at the High Noon in June. Spencer, in spite of now looking like the lead singer from Train, still possesses all the pelvis-wagging magnetism that he practically invented during his ’90s heyday. I’m still piecing my life back together after Neurosis’ August show at the Majestic. It helped that I finally got out and saw some excellent local bands—like the Tea Heads, Transformer Lootbag, and Wood Chickens—that I should have seen sooner. But like I said, I had toilet shit to do.
As far as touring music goes, 2015 in Madison was a year of surprises, bringing in several acts I’d normally expect to skip Madison, especially in hip hop and heavy music. Two were especially meaningful to me:
DJ Premier and Royce Da 5’9’s show as PRhyme in February at the High Noon was the only chance I’ve ever had to see one of hip hop’s all-time great producers in action, paired with one of its most underappreciated MCs. Their set was true to the cutting, austere focus of PRhyme’s 2014 self-titled album, only deviating from the material for a rapid-fire, mid-set display of Premier’s legendary skill. Just as importantly, the show gave me a greater appreciation for Royce, who performed with a charismatic balance of toughness and turbulent vulnerability.
I’d also never had a chance to see Bay Area metal titans Neurosis before their August show at the Majestic. This show not only spanned Neurosis’ discography, but also brought all the grim determination one could ask from a band that’s been going for 30 years. Up there in front of guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly, I was reminded of everything heavy music can be—vast, moving, and relentless. Scorched-earth doom duo The Body and dynamic sludge masters Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth (featuring Tad Doyle of the great grunge band Tad) both played excellent opening sets.
I also saw dozens of great shows from Madison bands this year, but my favorite—again, because I wasn’t expecting it—was seeing Jex Thoth open for Yob in October at the High Noon. Jex Thoth—that’s the name of both the band and its lead singer—have toured extensively in Europe and the U.S., but this was their first-ever Madison performance in all the time they’ve been based here. The band combines doom-metal heaviness with tender prog-rock drama, and realized it beautifully on stage before an equally memorable, pulverizing set from Yob.