In a Madison spring, the only things popping up faster than road-construction projects are opportunities to hear music outside. Well, mostly to drink beer outside, but the music is still pretty crucial.
And just like the newly jagged plates of every major street, it's quite a busy and disjointed mix - and therein lies the charm. This year's outdoor-music season brings the usual rich opportunities to sway to diverse international sounds on the east side, but also to masochistically admire emotionally damaged art-rock at the Terrace. To hear local bands on a nice patio but also to do whatever the DSM-IV's fancy term is for actually paying to see Korn. To overdo it at both Brat Fest and Summerfest.
Overwhelming though all of it is, here are some suggestions to guide your pursuit of the summer's best open-air listening.
On the Terrace
This summer's season of free music at the Memorial Union Terrace is as idyllic as ever, what with local reggae vets Natty Nation making their annual appearance (June 23) and the Handphibians and the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband (May 25 and 26, respectively) laying down sunny rhythms. But first you'll have to get through a dose of pity with a side of avant-garde sneers this Friday, courtesy of Xiu Xiu (May 18). Jamie Stewart and pals are skilled at fusing his shuddering vocals with eerie beats and Swans-inspired provocation, and it'll be fun to watch Stewart's many choice words cleave apart the fans and those who just unwittingly show up: "You have always lied to us/Richard Brautigan never stuffed his underwear in your mouth," Stewart sings on "Black Drum Machine," the last track on the new Always.
Terrace regulars are less likely to run for cover when the Isthmus Jazz Fest returns (June 1 and 2). Headliner Mary Stallings (June 2, Union Theater) began her career singing in San Francisco-area clubs, then in the 1960s went on to work with the likes of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. In reviewing her latest album, Don't Look Back, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff went so far as to say that Stallings "is not for babies. She is not to be wasted on the young." Which is a dramatic way of saying: Expect a more patiently assured, more gospel- and blues-influenced performance than the light, flitting stuff some associate with the phrase "jazz vocal."
Midwestern acts remain a big part of the Jazz Festival, including Madison pianist Dave Stoler in a quartet and some bold work from young Chicago saxophone player Rajiv Halim.
At this point in the season, there's usually quite a bit TBA at the Terrace. It's not clear whether the Wisconsin Union Directorate will pull together their usual free stopover from bands headed to July's Pitchfork Music Festival, but if they snagged Wild Flag for that, it'd sure be worth leaving your Pitchfork fatigue at home.
WUD and the local branch of The A.V. Club are still working on an annual summer series that brings an assortment of local bands to the Terrace on Wednesday evenings. Student radio station WSUM usually holds its Snake on the Lake Fest in early September and tends to get the lineup out sometime in August.
Meanwhile, tide yourself over on the Terrace with Australian band Royal Headache's charming-enough garage-pop, and an opening set of proudly backward-looking rock primitivism from Madison's the Lonesome Savages (June 8).
East and around the world
The annual east-side festivals provide a summer residency for sounds ranging from West African to zydeco. The Marquette Waterfront Festival (June 9 and 10, Yahara Place park) brings Dengue Fever's revival of Cambodian surf-rock back to the neighborhood, as well as the more surprising addition of MarchFourth Marching Band, a 24-piece Portland outfit that strives to muster a freaky street fair all on its own. Local acts ranging from Latin jazz masters El Clan Destino to Icarus Himself round out Waterfront Fest.
Another regular presence in Madison's summers is La Fete de Marquette (July 12-15, South Dickinson Street and East Washington Avenue), this year featuring Vieux Farka Touré. His third album, The Secret, finds him twisting as capably as ever through his native Mali's interpretation of blues. La Fete also looks to Louisiana with Dumpstaphunk, the Iguanas and Marcia Ball. And there's a miraculous melding of its African and Cajun tendencies in Madagascar Mifohaza, a showcase of Madagascar's native salegy genre, which combines a funky, festive gallop with plenty of accordion (and sometimes, even better, synth-accordion).
Orton Park Fest (Aug. 23-26) is, customarily, even more of a grab bag, kicking off that Thursday with a Cycropia Aerial Dance performance, then proceeding throughout the weekend to boast everything from Saturday's sturdily rocking headliners the Sadies to Sunday's jazz brunch.
Speaking of globetrotting lineups, the Madison World Music Festival (Sept. 14-15) isn't yet ready to announce its 2012 lineup. "At this point we have musicians from Tunisia, Sweden, India and Ireland and hopefully a Cuban band, too," Wisconsin Union Theater's Esty Dinur says. The festival will have its customary stages at the Memorial Union Terrace and in the Willy Street Fair's to-be-announced lineup, which always includes tons of local acts across most genres (Sept. 15-16).
The upstart Fruit Fest (June 19, Plan B) returns for its third year of LGBT-pride festivities, featuring rapper Cazwell's none-too-subtle advances, like the single "All Over Your Face." As if to balance out his campy masculinity with a woman's touch, there's Girl in a Coma, Thea Austin and Nervous But Excited. This year Fruit Fest is adding a bingo fundraiser for AIDS Network, and brings back its "Fruit Loop" 5K.
Pork and its discontents
Due to the financial ties between World's Largest Brat Fest supplier Johnsonville and Gov. Scott Walker, last year saw the rise of not one but three solidarity-friendly alternatives. Which hasn't stopped World's Largest Brat Fest from once again booking a boggling number of acts across four stages (May 25-28, Willow Island at Alliant Energy Center). Those who gather under the cloud of pork-smoke can take in everything from pensive singer-songwriter Anna Vogelzang (an early front-runner for "Most Out of Place at Brat Fest") to the 1980s hard-rock covers of Cherry Pie.
The sausage-separatist movement is back with the People's Brat Fest, featuring food sourced from local bakeries and meat-makers, and a music lineup that includes the Pints, the Skintones and the Solidarity Singers (May 26, UW Library Mall). There's also Wurst Times (May 27, High Noon Saloon, Brass Ring and Brink Lounge) with 30 bands, among them Ida Jo & the Show, Anna Wang & the Oh Boys and the Getaway Drivers.
The tunes will be just as varied, and the atmosphere just as neighborly, during the 15th annual WORT Block Party (May 20, 600 block of West Doty Street), with local music ranging from the solid folk of Josh Harty Band to the self-explanatory Weapons of Mass DeFunktion.
All's fair that's festive
All that community and idealism helps you cope with the reality that folks are still going to plunk down $42 plus Ticketmaster fees to hear Korn headline WJJO Band Camp (July 28, Willow Island at Alliant Energy Center), our annual reminder of nu-metal nightmares that refuse to fade. If you want to spend good money on metal, pony up extra to see Iron Maiden play the Marcus Amphitheater on July 4 during Milwaukee's Summerfest. The British metal giants are still worth seeing - during a show in Florida last year, vocalist Bruce Dickinson held onto his strong range and hurled not one but two Union Jack flags across the stage during "The Trooper."
The Marcus Amphitheater lineup also includes Neil Diamond (July 8) and the Beach Boys (July 1), but of course the real point of Summerfest is the crazy mix you get just prowling the main grounds on any given day. Imagine an evening catching the returned Ben Folds Five (June 28), shortly after marveling at all the folks who actually remember the words to Milwaukee doofus Pat McCurdy's songs. The Summerfest effect may be heavier on June 30, which boasts the terrific hip-hop showmanship of the Roots alongside ZZ Top, Scorpions, Thievery Corporation, and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
Milwaukee and Madison acts will help to keep it interesting for those who wander over to the Cascio Interstate Groove Stage, with highlights including an intricate post-rock set from Collections of Colonies of Bees (June 29) and the grooves of DJ Tarik (July 3). Those are just a couple of the headliners, and the stage tends to fill out with still more worthwhile upstart Wisconsin acts.
Back in Madison, the musical and gastronomical excess of Brat Fest will modestly echo at Taste of Madison (Sept. 1-2, Capitol Square), whose four stages of rock, country and R&B lineups are yet to be announced. Same for Atwood Summerfest (July 28-29, 2000 and 2100 blocks of Atwood Avenue), the Dane County Fair (July 18-22, Alliant Energy Center) and the Independence Day celebration Rhythm and Booms (June 30, Warner Park).
Down a notch
Madison's outdoor music season is really more about the smaller-scale, mellower things. The Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival (August 3-4, Lake Farm County Park) enters its ninth year of emphasizing acoustic folk in many strains, from the Americana roughage of Cincinnati's the Tillers to the soulful bachata of Dominican guitarist and singer Joan Soriano.
Acoustic music also figures heavily as the High Noon Saloon makes greater use of its patio, hosting free shows there on Thursdays from May 24 to Sept. 27. Some touring acts will fill in the lineup, but expect lots of local country, folk and bluegrass from Oak Street Ramblers (May 31, Aug. 9), Nick Brown (Aug. 23) and Evan Murdock (July 26). Another experiment that continues this year is touring acts playing lakeside shows at the East Side Club's tiki-bar setup, most notably San Francisco's Chuck Prophet (July 5), whose songwriting is as flexible and smart-assed as his guitar leads.
In the jazz and classical realms, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Concerts on the Square kicks off with an evening of "Pastoral Dances" from cellist Katrik Papatla and the Trinity Irish Dancers (June 27, Capitol Square), and continues each Wednesday through Aug. 1. Jazz at Five then returns to the Square on Wednesday nights, Aug. 8-Sept. 5. In June and July, Monona Terrace's Rooftop Concerts include country band Madison County (June 14) and singer-songwriter Mark Croft (June 28). Madison Opera previews its upcoming season with the annual Opera in the Park (July 21, Garner Park).
And finally: Rounding out the variety on the Square is Lunch Time Live, on Tuesdays at noon from June 19 through Aug. 7, featuring the Cash Box Kings (July 31) and such locals as Mighty Short Bus (July 10) and Aaron Williams and the Hoodoo (July 24).