Majestic Theatre organizers' hearts were in the right place Monday night when they put together a fundraiser concert for the 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin to delay a vote on Gov. Walker's highly controversial "budget-repair" bill. And the lineup featured several homegrown musical acts that typically succeed at drawing revelers downtown: Mama Digdown's Brass Band, Brazilian ensemble the Handphibians, creepfunk purveyors Steez, reggae superheroes Natty Nation and DJ supreme Nick Nice.
However, a few wrinkles prevented music-loving protesters from packing the house. The start time of the night's other musical event, a huge concert featuring Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, MC5's inimitable Wayne Kramer and Springsteen-esque singer Ike Reilly, shifted considerably, with these musicians performing from about 7 p.m. to 8:20 p.m. rather than 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. as originally planned. This concert moved from the Capitol to Monona Terrace as well, causing some confusion and, ultimately, frustration for many people trying to take in the events downtown.
Unable to delay their event much later than its announced 6 p.m. start time, the Majestic started their show shortly after 7 p.m., which meant a much smaller crowd than anticipated. The theater requested a $20 donation for the senators at the door, but given that there were only about 70 people in attendance mid-show, probably didn't meet their goal.
This sparseness drained the event of some vitality, but the performers soldiered on admirably, demonstrating their dedication to the cause through song. Mama Digdown's emanated sass with its powerhouse of brass, while the Handphibians proved there's power in numbers by bringing two dozen performers to the stage. Spirits were high as the ensemble clanged cowbells, pummeled drums and shook their tailfeathers while rocking a musical gourd. The band's bass drummer served as ringleader, perched at the front of the stage, where he responded to the percussive inquiries of his collaborators with wonderfully rhythmic responses.
Sporting a powdered George Washington wig for President's Day, Nick Nice provided tunes from his green MacBook between the live sets. The selection was eclectic, ranging from the Beatles' "Revolution" to "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel, but it didn't quite reach the level of electric since much of the audience refilled their beers while he performed.
By the time Steez hit the stage, the crowd had developed a hippie vibe: Fans spun in circles and ventured into their own personal la-la lands as the band funneled Madonna's "Like a Prayer" through a saxophone. But these weren't the hippies that protested the Vietnam War decades ago; instead, they seemed to be the folks who wanted to take in some protest music but weren't into the punk- and thrash-laced offerings of the Monona Terrace concert.
Despite the slim turnout, there were sparks in the room: They just weren't coming from the dance floor. Those who lingered by the bar were able to tap into some of the latest news and rumors about the whereabouts of the Democratic legislators and an alleged scheme to assign some of the budget-repair bill's provisions to other pieces of legislation so the Republicans could vote on them without their counterparts from the other side of the aisle.
Andy Stone, a Madison native, UW-Madison alum and current resident of Portland, Ore., shared troubling rumblings, but he was overwhelmed with pride about his home state. "I've never been so proud, maybe ever, of Wisconsin," he said.
This sentiment echoed in the evening's final performance, an inspired set by Natty Nation. Jah Boogie channeled Bob Marley's politically charged cool with a cover of "Get Up, Stand Up," sharing a run-and-walk dance that could be the next big move for fans of the Wii game "Just Dance." As he swaggered past the stage's "Trap the Rat" sign, the spotlight lingered on his band mates, who funneled ardor through their instruments.
Aaron Konkol stole the show with his keyboard solos more than once, while bassist Nick Moran provided a solid bottom to the sound while whispering sweet nothings to his instrument. If this passion is any indication, the protests will continue for quite some time.