Named for a hill on the outskirts of Paris where Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso built bohemian communities around their artistic ideals, Café Montmartre was an epicenter for our city's cultural crème de la crème as well. Especially when it came to music.
Now Café Montmartre is closed, a casualty of the recession.
While for many locals the Momo's name was hard to spell - and even harder to pronounce - that didn't scare them away, especially if there was a concert. In fact, it was often a band that drew them to the café in the first place, after which they fell head over heels for the wine, the company and the breezy, European-style atmosphere.
Ben Sidran, known to some as the writer of "Space Cowboy" and others as a consummate jazz pianist, helped transform the space into a music venue not long after it opened in the fall of 1992.
His most enduring Momo memory involves a love affair with the organ, which he'd play each week for free. The gig has moved to a 5:30 slot on Tuesdays at Restaurant Magnus.
At first the stage was just a bunch of milk crates and some slabs of plywood, but that didn't stop Sidran and his son Leo, then a student at West High and now an Oscar-winning musician and producer, from putting on some unforgettable performances. It didn't deter folks like Richie Cole, Jorge Drexler and members of the Steve Miller Band from stopping by either.
One of Sidran's favorite memories from the café, however, was a group reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas that happened several years in a row.
"We'd hand out paragraphs and everyone would join in to read, and a band would play behind them," he says. "It was pretty magical."
Café owner Craig Spaulding says he'll never forget when the Sidrans teamed up with jazz and R&B guitar legend Phil Upchurch on the Momo stage.
"That was definitely one of the best shows I've seen," he says. "Then there was this other time during the holidays when Ben brought in [sax player] Bob Rockwell, who lives in Copenhagen, and this amazing organist from Helsinki. Unbelievable."
More recent shows by M. Ward, the Mekons' Sally Timms, the Autumn Defense (a Wilco side project) and local favorite Blueheels crack Spaulding's Top 10 as well. But it's the Rockwell-Sidran show that made him feel like he was back in the arts scene of Paris, one of the places he lived and worked before settling in Madison in the early '90s.
"Both sides of the café were packed, the music was world-class and the vibe was amazing. It really encapsulated my idea for opening the place," Spaulding says.
It's this vibe that drew veteran music producer Butch Vig, plus his bandmates from Garbage and colleagues from Smart Studios, to the café as well.
"I liked the Momo on a personal level because it didn't seem like a Midwestern place to me," Vig says, "and it was something quite new for downtown Madison."
Vig says that he and Spaulding hit it off right away and that Spaulding's background as a photographer also gave the Momo a genuine sense of being an artists' enclave. It felt like a place for getting away from the everyday, which made it the perfect site for Garbage's unofficial headquarters.
"It's the place we went when we needed to escape from the stress of the studios, and any time we flew in journalists from other parts of the world, we took them there for cocktails, so it was like our living room, too," Vig says. "We wrote songs and riffs and lyrics there. We just felt comfortable."
The band also held playbacks for its first two albums there and spent lots of time at the café's bar during the making of Version 2.0, meeting up with friends and chatting with fans.
Spaulding remembers this period as action-packed and full of speculation that Madison might be the next big thing in the music world.
"The café was written up in Rolling Stone. Then MTV came and filmed there. It wasn't part of the business plan. We just knew what we wanted to do - make people comfortable and give them a place to hang out - and it worked," he says.
Garbage's memories of returning to the café after weeks of touring might be those they hold most dear. Vig's side project, the Know-It-All Boyfriends, also played the café on a somewhat regular basis, including this past May.
"It was so nice to feel like we had a home when we got back from the road," Vig says. "It's the first place we'd go after a tour. I'm really sad to see it go; I had no idea it was getting ready to close. Maybe something could've been done to help."
Spaulding says a confluence of factors, including a desire to spend more time with his kids, led to the decision. In other words, even if there had been an outpouring of help at precisely the right time, it might not have swayed him.
On the bright side, he's received several phone calls from people interested in reviving the café and keeping its vibe - and its role as a venue - intact. In other words, don't go rushing off to Paris, Milan or Berlin just yet. A new era of Momo culture may just be beginning.