Maybe it's not really part of the Wisconsin Idea, but every year UW-Madison students fearlessly sift and winnow large volumes of CDs, MP3s and live shows in search of the musical truth. For some this is practically an academic exercise, and the early weeks of this year's syllabus include a slew of touring indie bands like Rainer Maria and Built to Spill. They'll be presenting the current take on national pop authenticity.
But here's where the course always gets especially interesting: the topic of local music. Sometimes unexamined by our collegians, local music is where indie values begin. It's where the barriers separating musicians and fans are broken down. And Madison, as it happens, teems with creative local bands and artists in every genre.
From Labor Day through Halloween there's a multitude of chances for budding musicologists, or interested music lovers, to do some fieldwork. To get you started, here are six diverse opportunities to sift and winnow some Madison-based music ' and (here's where we get to the Wisconsin Idea) to drink beer while you're at it.
Clear Blue Betty
Taste of Madison, Saturday, Sept. 2, 5:30 p.m.
It's the perfect vibe for a Clear Blue Betty show: Labor Day weekend, smoky grills and beer tents on the Capitol Square, the first Badger football Saturday of 2006. Clear Blue Betty was formed in 2002 by three former members of the UW Marching Band ' lead vocalist Beth Kille, drummer Tony Kille (they are married and Tony has now completed medical school) and lead guitarist Rob Koth. They have emerged as Madison's answer to the BoDeans. The band's style of heartland rock may be uncomplicated, but it's distinguished for its honesty, integrity and passion. The stage presence and charisma of Beth Kille make the price of admission to any Clear Blue Betty show well worth paying (better yet, this show is free). The band will be performing songs from their recent release, Write Your Name in the Sky.
Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons
Willy Street Fair, Sunday, Sept. 17, 5:50 p.m.
Fast-forward two weekends to another street festival, and another band well suited to the vibe. The theatrical punk of Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons brims with the same kind of provocative expression that makes Williamson Street Madison's most eclectic neighborhood. The makeup, costumes and stage antics of Shane O'Neil and Cynthia Burnson are a performance art all its own. Screamin' Cyn Cyn's music captures everyday absurdity and irony with razor-sharp humor. Their song "Garbage Day," for example, is a personal reflection on all the kinds of things that, for better or worse, we throw away. With these lyrics, it should be Madison's official song every Aug. 15: I know they're going to a landfill/Where they will rot and sprout trees/But my life can be such a handful/So don't remind me of it please.
Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons make terse, fast-tempo punk that is sweetened with sophisticated pop sensibilities. They bring pure creativity to every dimension of their act.
Brink Lounge, Friday, Sept. 29, 8 p.m.
Singer/songwriter Mark Croft has earned a mountain of praise since the release of his 2005 debut album, Sympathetic Groove. He won the "Best New Artist" and "Best Male Vocalist" categories at the 2006 Madison Area Music Awards, and Butch Vig named Croft as one of his favorite local artists last January in Madison Magazine.
Croft's skill as a rhythm guitar player distinguishes his music. His up-tempo strumming and rapid-fire chord changes fill his songs with energy. Like any respectable singer/songwriter, Croft pines about the trials of love ("She's a landslide, and I'm at the top of the hill"), but there's more, including the anti-war song "America."
Funk, blues, folk ' it's all here. Croft is not just another guy with a guitar taking up space in the corner of a coffeehouse.
Know Boundaries and The Crest
High Noon Saloon, Saturday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m.
The violence associated with hip-hop shows at Club Majestic this summer has been one giant downer for local fans of the genre. But the split personality of Madison hip-hop remains clear: Most venues, including the High Noon, host rap shows without incident. And Madison is home to a core of high-integrity hip-hop artists who are all about positive energy.
The Crest and Know Boundaries are two such acts. The Crest is made up of sibling MCs Jack Cracker and AD, DJ Skrabble and beat producer Jason Blare. Their 2005 album, Skeptik, raps against corporate greed and senseless war. Know Boundaries is a six-piece rap/rock/funk band that feeds off the stage presence of rapper Jermel Randolph. The intensity of their grooves make Randolph's raps that much more powerful. Welcome to local hip-hop's real deal.
DJ Nick Nice and DJ Mike Carlson
The Inferno, Friday, Oct. 13, 9 p.m.
The stature of Nick Nice and Mike Carlson in the local DJ scene is hard to overstate. Nice was a founder of the Midwest rave scene in the early 1990's and a resident DJ at the Queens club in Paris during his years in France. He's defined the Cardinal Bar as a mainstay of the dance scene for more than a decade. Carlson, meanwhile, has emerged as the principle beat master at various fetish events (a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it). These include Leather + Lace at the Inferno, Fetish Night at the Cardinal and Kink(ed) at the Annex. He's the local DJ who can seemingly do it all ' mixing a wide variety of styles, including industrial, techno, house and acid jazz. He's also the owner of MC Audio, the DJ gear shop on University Avenue.
Awesome Car Funmaker
King Club (Halloween Bash), Thursday, Oct. 26, 9 p.m.
One of the best local albums of 2006 so far is Awesome Car Funmaker's Of Lovers and Monsters. With 17 songs, all clocking in at less than three minutes, the album showcases the furious bursts of raw energy that are ACF's signature, and the ingredient that makes their live shows unforgettable. The music is power-pop, alternately and perfectly influenced by punk and metal.
ACF front man Ryan Corcoran is a graduate of UW-Madison. In this town where music and politics frequently intersect (the mayor reviews records on the radio), Corcoran made a brief bid for city council last year, before dropping out of the race. With nearly 8,000 friends on MySpace, ACF may harvest more brothers and sisters than anyplace on fraternity row.