When I first started writing about local music back in the '90s, the scene was in a period of contraction.
O'Cayz Corral temporarily closed. The Paramount on Park Street, the East End on Atwood Avenue and the Chamber on King Street all shut down around the same time. Every Madison band I talked to back then bemoaned the lack of places to play.
Remarkably, more than a decade later, Madison is now host to a premier music festival that gives a couple of dozen local acts a chance to share the stage with regional and national talent. In its second year, this weekend's Forward Music Festival welcomes more than 100 artists to 12 venues over three days, Sept. 17-19.
To turn a lineup that big into a cohesive program, the festival groups like bands into themed events. The string of sets suddenly becomes a more manageable batch of showcases.
"We want to put as many local bands as possible with major-label or national touring artists," says Bessie Cherry, one of FMF's lead organizers. "We consider what venue a band have played in Madison before, what genre they represent and what demographic they appeal to. Then we try to make sure it all coalesces into a show that is fresh and unique, something you wouldn't necessarily see on any given night in Madison."
This year's headline show on Saturday features the folk-rock of Andrew Bird at Overture Hall (7 p.m.). Last January, Bird released Noble Beast, an album that's ridden the success of the single "Oh, No." Given Bird's use of lush, layered guitar and violins, the local, opening band was a logical choice - Madison's well-known chamber-rock band Pale Young Gentlemen.
Forward Music Festival has involved some of Madison's most influential music bloggers and promoters to shape the festival's showcases. Matt Fanale is the Madison-based industrial noise act Caustic. He's also a music promoter who previously presented Reverence, a stand-alone electronic music festival that's being incorporated into Forward Music Festival for the first time this year. Reverence showcases power all three nights of the festival, including Thursday at the Frequency (7:30 p.m.), Friday at the Orpheum Stage Door (10:30 p.m.) and Saturday at the Inferno (5 p.m.).
If pop-punk is your thing, you'll want to be at the Orpheum Stage Door at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. There, Absolute Punk welcomes Florida's Between the Trees, Pennsylvania's Punchline and North Carolina's Farewell. Full details for the fest are at fmf09.com.
Cherry says there's a downside to the showcase concept. Without a major regional or national headlining act to build a theme around, some genres are left out. "We tried so hard to book major Midwestern hip-hop and metal acts, but we weren't able to," says Cherry. "When that happens, local acts in those genres don't get the same opportunity to participate. I don't want this to be known just as an indie rock festival."
In the meantime, Cherry sees Forward Music Festival adding value to a local music scene that's already thriving: "There's such a wide fan base for music in Madison, and I give the promoters and club owners all the credit for bringing so much diverse talent here. FMF is the idea that all venues should work in harmony at least one weekend a year."