Local music is a window on Madison culture. The major events, sounds and trends that affected our scene this year reflected our collective mood, the new ways we're using technology, our racial relations, our pursuit of meaning through art, our approach to play and humor. On the brink of a new year, here are 10 music stories that shaped the character of our city the past 12 months:
Prog rock surges. Bands like the Projection People, Orphan Bloom and the Cemetery Improvement Society recalled the 1970s' Zeppelin-fueled, heavy progressive era. Local scene veterans Marc Claggett, Kevin McDonnell, Brad Hawes, Tyler Commo and Scott Cannady united as Projection People. Their self-titled CD was moody rock that experimented with strings, keys and electronic samples. It was my favorite local album of 2010. Claggett and Hawes also performed in the Cemetery Improvement Society, whose dense concept record explored a story line about a prostitute who kills her pimp. Orphan Bloom blended rock and world influences, thanks to Saigopal Nelaturi, a UW graduate student originally from India.
The campus music scene blows up. Happy party bands were everywhere to be found in the basements and Greek houses surrounding UW this year. The Nod, the Choons and Meteorade fronted a class of campus acts that thrived on accessible technology and recording equipment. These artists didn't lament the under-21 limits to local live music. They took control of their fate and made a scene all their own.
R Place rises and falls. Rick Flowers' Park Street bar brought live music to a south-side neighborhood that has no other clubs. The Wednesday night jam at R Place attracted top players, such as saxophonist Harlan Jefferson and guitarist Richard Hildner. "People here know the blues," Flowers told me last spring. "They feel it." But the bar also became a flashpoint for late-night trouble along Park Street. After gunshots were fired outside the club in October, the city moved to shut R Place down. That effort continues, while Flowers counters in a lawsuit that the city is discriminating against him.
The Project Lodge gets influential. Music was only part of the arts scene that brewed at this East Johnson venue in 2010. The storefront space also hosted visual art exhibits, readings and plays. Run by volunteers (see Josh Wimmer's excellent feature "The Do-It-Yourselfers" in the Oct. 21 Isthmus), ProLo managed to attract national acts on grassroots support.
Forward Music Festival stalls. Two years after commencing a large-scale regional music event akin to South by Southwest, the volunteers behind the Forward Music Festival paused their efforts this fall to regroup for the future. FMF featured dozens of national and local bands in several venues. "We must first honor our outstanding financial commitments," co-organizer Bessie Cherry told me last August. "We will announce plans for the future as those plans are solidified." Hopefully, they will be in 2011.
Halloween tributes take over. 2010 wasn't the first time local bands posed as famous national acts on Halloween weekend. But the fad reached new heights this year. Events at the High Noon Saloon stretched over two nights. The Crystal Corner and Frequency joined in on the cover-band extravaganza. When I asked Sean Michael Dargan last October why his group decided to cover the Cure, his enthusiasm was clear. "They're perfect for Halloween. Big spiky hair, extensive makeup, dark, brooding and amazing songs."
Zooniversity raps Bucky. Few UW students have attracted the pop-music limelight like Quincy Harrison and Cliff Grefe. The duo perform rap parodies as Zooniversity. USA Today took note of their Midwest coed stereotyping ("The Coastie Song") late last year. This year, the group's "Teach Me How to Bucky" swept the city and spawned the T-Shirt phenomenon of the year.
Zola Jesus tours the world. The national indie-rock press embraced Madison's Nika Danilova, who composed dark, industrial compositions as Zola Jesus. After earning an impressive review in Pitchfork, Danilova toured Europe twice, opened for Fever Ray and played 97 shows. "It is time now to take the fight back into my bedroom, this time even a studio, to create a new war, a new challenge," she wrote on her website earlier this month.
Musical competitions heat up. From Top 40 countdowns to battles of the bands, pop culture has long made sport out of music. In 2010, competitions were a mainstay of the local scene. The Madison Songwriters Guild sponsored its monthly Song Showdown at the Alchemy Cafe. Triple M (105.5 FM) sponsored Project M. The locally produced web series featured 10 artists competing for prizes including radio airtime and a meeting with an Atlantic Records executive. Isthmus continued Band to Band Combat, an online talent show that included four rounds of voting and a final live competition. In the words of Depeche Mode, "It's a competitive world."
Established venues reign. It was an amazingly stable year for the club scene. Sure, there were changes. The news that Restaurant Magnus would close was a setback for Madison jazz. The Pub closed soon after adding live bands. Ill-starred boutique bowling alley Segredo hired former Annex music manager Brota Oroian and began offering shows in October. Still, the leading live-music venues endured in 2010. The High Noon Saloon and the Frequency succeeded with a blend of touring and local bands. The Annex remained an oasis for hard rock. Inferno still cornered the electronic market. And the Barrymore, Majestic and Orpheum all continued to share larger concerts.
However Madison's mood changes in 2011, it's sure to influence the sound of our music. And vice versa.