With a sketched-together plan to breeze through the Forward Music Fest's Friday night schedule, I help run my son's fifth-grade football practice thinking I might possibly be the only guy in the state to be yelling "Do you want to be the hammer or the nail?" who will be surrounded by hipster beards listening to a laptop band in two hours.
The plan is to pick-up my companion, hit Ian's for a quick slice before rolling into the Majestic at about the midway point of Dan Wilson's early set Friday night and figure out the rest of the night's itinerary from there. Like much of the last few weeks, it's an ideal early autumn evening in Madison and the urge to sit outside Ian's and take in the State Street scene is too much to pass up. Our dawdling will cost us.
Of all the Forward Music Fest's performers, Wilson is closest to my heart and also the most accomplished, by a mile. Formerly of Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, Twin Cities singalong pop outfits both, Wilson has gone on to a solo career that includes a Grammy for writing the Dixie Chicks' "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice."
We arrive to find an emptying Majestice. The guy at the door tells me, "too bad. Sounded pretty good in there." I find out via "sarae" on Twitter that Wilson plays "Secret Smile," "Closing Time," then "FNT" off Semisonic's Great Divide, a CD that accompanied me throughout 1996, thanks to a broken car stereo and my love for the band. It's one of my favorite songs ever and I'm cursing my tardiness.
The door man's clicker reveals only 42 took in the show, a tragic number considering Wilson's reputation and abilities. On another night, maybe, when there are less bands in town to choose from and no festival bracelets and schedules to contend with, Wilson would sell the joint out. On Friday, his name doesn't even appear on the Majestic's marquee.
The Capitol Theatre in the Overture Center is a beautifully-restored vaudeville hall that still hosts the popular Duck Soup Cinema series of silent films. But the Grand Barton organ sits idle tonight as El Valiente shifts seamlessly from one instrumental to another on stage, accompanied by a loop of Super 8 footage. The crowd is seated, silent and sober for the set, which alternates between languid and furious.
AVClubMadison reports on Twitter: "El Valiente starts in the Capitol Theater. Louder, please. This place is beautiful."
Just downstairs, Meridene takes the Rotunda Stage as part of the Eau Claire-based Amble Down Records showcase. They have been featured on Wisconsin Public Television's "30-Minute Music Hour," with lead singer Travis Ives sporting a trademark woolly hipster beard and plenty of plaid. The beard is gone, the plaid remains.
My companion points out that there's a fair amount of The Cure's Robert Smith in Ives delivery and once his falsetto warms up, it's true. Ives has another idea however. "We are Amble Down Records' Blink-182," he says. "Power chords, that's awesome."
The crowd is peppered with Eau Claire loyalists who know every word, but Josh Sundquist, who runs distribution for Amble Down and works the merch table Friday night, tells me the label's bands are developing fans in Madison in an effort to branch out. "We've got the Twin Cities on one side and Madison on the other."
On to the Project Lodge on East Johnson Street, a storefront that once held a true hippie's co-op back when my Semisonic car and I lived in the neighborhood. Tonight, the space features screen-printed posters on the walls and is half-full of locals sipping beer out of bottles.
Instead of Archie Powell and the Exports, as the festival schedule says, it's a band called Ridley featuring three dudes wearing headphones, one of whom attentively tends to his Macbook. What can I say, I'm a Midwestern guy who likes his guitar rock. My companion and I duck out after a few songs and huddle with Nate Tredinnick and Andy Russell of the Shabelles and a handful of other Madison bands outside. They clutch beer bottles instead of Twittering on iPhones.
Nate and Andy recommend the Nathaniel Rateliff and The Wheel, who had played earlier in the evening. Tredinnick describes their sound as sort of alt country with some "precious instruments." It's unclear whether this is meant to be complimentary.
As mellow as our previous stops have been, the High Noon Saloon is teeming. (anjelaj on Twitter: "This is not my crowd." The_Dean: "How behind and packed is high noon?") College kids in flip-flops and hipsters in gigantic work boots are trying to find good places to stand as Archie Powell and the Exports take the stage. Containing former members of The Box Social, AP and the Es pump out accessible guitar pop that gets heads-a-nodding.
But the crowd is social and there's a LOT of chatter during the set. I've never been this elbowed and jostled by a crowd that isn't dancing. Memo to indie rock kid: Get your drink, find a spot to stand and stay there! One kid with a cheesy mustache passes me no less than six times, waving his half-eaten slice of pizza in my face on every trip.
Still, is there a better place to be on a Friday night in Madison than the High Noon Saloon? The staff of bartenders, including owner Cathy Dethmers, is friendly and efficient and many have been there seemingly forever. I even run into a few friends from the O'Cayz Corral days in the crowd.
Flatbear is up next, led by Jentri Colello on guitar and vocals. Wearing her own big-ass work boots and an almost inattentive expression, Colello will break more than a few hipster boy hearts tonight. This is a crowd where jotting in a notebook draws the attention of student journalists and soon I'm in the company of a Badger Herald employee who believes Flatbear is destined for greatness, due to their appealing sound and Colello's stage presence. He finds her "mesmerizing."
anjelaj tweets "Flatbear! Flatbear! Flatbear! Can't wait for the crowd distilation!" Her wish does not come true as the crowd only grows during Flatbear's set. Madison's next big thing?
We're at The Frequency now, which is the club in town closest to the old O'Cayz in terms of both programming and atmosphere. Icarus Himself, the solo project of Nick Whetro accompanied by his National Beekeepers Society bandmate Karl Christensen, slides into a methodical set that gets an enthusiastic response from members of the Blueheels in attendance. Speaking of precious instruments Whetro and Christensen employ a number of gadgets and gizmos to craft their moody sound.
After their set, we stroll out onto West Main Street where we discover we're famished and not a little scrambled after throwing ourselves into FMF's musical fray. Adjourning to the Weary Traveler for some late-night guacamole and conversation-volume music seems like a good idea.
We'll miss some of the late-night action, but battling the crowds is a young person's game. Find reports by searching Twitter for the hashtag #fmf09.
See twitter.com/jjoyce for my in-the-moment Twitterings Saturday night.