Madisonians' warm-weather love affair with the UW Memorial Union Terrace would continue even without the annual alfresco "Hot Summer Nights" music series. The beer, brats and picturesque waterside setting guarantee it. But the Wisconsin Union Directorate's summer-long series of free concerts (which kicks off this weekend with the Isthmus Jazz Festival) sure doesn't hurt the head count at the lakeside venue. And this year, with gas prices at historically high levels, walking or biking a mile or so to catch name national acts and popular locals rather than driving to Milwaukee or Chicago qualifies as an especially good deal. Not to mention a truly green approach to concert-going.
This year, the WUD's music committee has put together a very strong schedule that caters to a wide range of tastes. On June 12, Teddy Thompson previews material from A Piece of What You Need a week before its official release. Thompson is a passionate singer who's moved well out of the shadow of his famous dad (and frequent employer) Richard Thompson, thanks to contributions to the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, collaborations with Rufus Wainwright and some lovely retro country performances on last year's Upfront and Down Low. He isn't really for party animals, but he's smart and exceptionally talented. And he's sure to feed off the Terrace crowd's buzzing energy.
On June 13, the well-regarded Scots Frightened Rabbit put an exclamation point on the weekend with a set of roiling, guitar-driven indie rock that's at times reminiscent of the young U2 and the Frames. June's other notable indie-rock booking is Pale Young Gentlemen (June 28), a string-driven local act that's received a lot of attention from the music-besotted precincts of the blogosphere. Along with jaunty Madison residents Whatfor, they're part of a big evening of entertainment that culminates with the annual Rhythm & Booms pyrotechnic display on the other side of Lake Mendota.
Merging elements of jazz and rock, frequent Madison visitors the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (June 26) make their pitch to both jazzers and jam-band followers just as the summer season begins to swelter. They're the first of several acts at the Terrace that both tofu-munchers and mainstream music lovers can enjoy together. The eclectic, hard-grooving jazz-funk organ trio Soulive (July 10) should also bring the Terrace's diverse audience together in sweet harmony.
In recent years, the Union's bookings for the Fourth of July holiday have become more imaginative, and with local reggae kings Natty Nation holding forth (July 5), that streak continues.
Meanwhile, hip-hop followers also get an opportunity to make the Terrace their own with Canada-based Cadence Weapon (July 30), a relentless, dance-friendly MC who's playing a host of major festivals this summer. The next night he's off to Lollapalooza in Chicago, which says a lot about the Union music committee's determination to snag young acts that are in demand around the world.
The genre changes completely on July 31, when dynamic, Dylanesque singer-songwriter Jackie Greene commandeers the microphone. Recent work with Phil Lesh and Friends pretty much guarantees that Greene will draw a contingent of Deadheads to the show. But his varied 2008 release, Giving Up the Ghost, samples everything from lush pop tunes to loping Americana. The night also features Leftover Salmon alum Vince Herman's affable jam-grass band Great American Taxi, which offers up a more down-home vibe.
These picks are just the tip of the iceberg. The series runs every week from June 5 through Aug. 28, and some dates are still being booked. You can keep abreast of the series' evolving calendar by clicking on www.union.wisc.edu/music.