Madison is not much of a Mardi Gras town.
For one thing, there's simply no tradition for it here, the city not being a major center in its early days for the Catholic culture that made the pre-Lenten splurge such a mainstay in New Orleans, MazatlÃn, Bahia, Galveston or Rio.
And it's simply too cold most years for there to be much of an impetus for serious bar crawling and associated outdoor revelry. Even this year, with temperatures above freezing for the first time in weeks, it's still a good night for libations of the indoor sort.
My favored Fat Tuesday locale for years has been the Essen Haus, the plaster and-wood-paneled palace of pretzels and bier located at the foot of the First Settlement neighborhood in downtown Madison. It boasts as much of an old-school Mardi Gras tradition as you'll find in this city, with one difference. At the Essen Haus it is known as Fasching (or Fastnacht or Karneval, take your pick), the German term for the night of pre-fasting revelry.
There's plenty of gemÃtlichkeit at the Haus for partiers looking for the familiar elements of Mardi Gras, and not just pretzels, mustards and tankards of KÃstritzer Schwarz and D.A.B. There's hot Louisiana music, provided for four years running by The Cajun Strangers. And one can find plenty of cheap plastic green, gold, purple and silver Mardi Gras beads for the taking, if you arrive early enough. There's also plenty of shrimp to wash down with your beer. And if prefer your basic Fat Tuesday fun without the German influence, simply slip next door into the Come Back In, conveniently connected to its sister public house.
And there are other locations for celebrating Mardi Gras in town. In addition to the eats and gatherings to be found among the Cajun and Creole restaurants in Madison, there are always a few more full-on carnivals. This year, these include a Fat Tuesday Party at the Club Tavern in Middleton and a heaping helping of Mama Digdown's Brass Band at the downtown Great Dane.
If that were it, this would be a run-of-the-mill Mardi Gras in Madison.
It's not, though, given the confluence of events that's making for a rare mid-week perfect storm for parties. What is there?
- For music fans, there's the much-anticipated show by Sparklehorse at the High Noon Saloon, as Mark Linkous returns to town for the first time since the mid-1990s. (At least on stage; his latest album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain was recorded at Smart Studios.)
- For those wanting bluegrass with their beads, there's a CD release party for the Bob Westfall Quartet at the Angelic.
- If you're looking for something on screen, there's Chad Vader Night at Indie Coffee on Regent Street, where creators Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda will show all six episodes of their online hit. They'll also debut their new series Morning Radio Mysteries, along with Chad Vader outtakes and other unseen clips.
- Interested in cozying up with a book or videogame controler? There's a discussion with UW education professor David Williamson Shafer at Borders Books west near Hilldale. Along with colleague James Paul Gee, Shafer will talk about his new book How Computer Games Help Children Learn.
These events are simply an appetizer, though, for the two biggest happenings of the night.
The first of these are the Primary Election Day "Victory" parties held by municipal candidates throughout the city. Besides the smaller gatherings for some of the Madison aldermanic candidates, there are the parties held for the big three mayoral candidates: Ray Allen will be at the Esquire Club, Dave Cieslewicz at Madison's Dining and Diversions, and Peter MuÃoz at the Brink Lounge. The central activity of each, of course, will be watching the election results crawl across the bottom of television screens.
The candidates and their coteries of supporters may have some competition when it comes to those TVs, though, as the biggest event of all in Madison this Mardi Gras is actually taking place in East Lansing, Michigan. It's at the Breslin Center where the Badger men's basketball team will be facing their first test as the number-one-ranked team in the nation as they take on the Spartans. Television sets in taverns throughout the city (and state) will be tuned into ESPN tonight, which may make for some amusing channel surfing at the election gatherings.