Madison's Dharma Dogs were one of the first bands to play the Memorial Union Terrace this year. They opened for touring bands Pleasure Leftists and Heavy Times in late April. As they delivered their spirited take on grunge and punk, abrasive sounds almost felt normal at UW venues.
That's because Wisconsin Union Directorate's music committee has been pairing adventurous national acts with Wisconsin openers as of late: Pissed Jeans with Appleton's Technicolor Teeth, Italian hardcore band Raw Power with Appleton's Wartorn and Madison's Panther, former Harry Pussy guitarist Bill Orcutt with experimental Milwaukee drummer Jon Mueller, rockers Purling Hiss with Madison avant-folk duo Spires That in the Sunset Rise. These shows have also tested the limits of the Union's role in local live music.
Erica Motz, a UW sophomore and music committee member, has championed some of these shows. Local musicians such as Samantha Glass' Beau Devereaux, who played cassettes of obscure synth music between sets at the Heavy Times show, have mentioned Motz as their hookup for Union shows.
Motz says it's important for WUD to provide local performers with more chances to play for all-ages crowds and a decent, guaranteed paycheck.
"I feel like the Union is a really great resource for doing that sort of thing, but it isn't being used to its full potential," she says, pointing out Madison's lack of all-ages venues, a problem aggravated by the Project Lodge closing last fall.
But Motz doesn't want to book any more WUD shows due to some recent incidents at the Rathskeller. Union staff pulled the plug on Pissed Jeans' April 20 show because of moshing and crowd surfing. (WUD has rules against these activities and probably wants to avoid personal-injury lawsuits, but calling the cops seems like an overreaction.) At an April 12 show featuring New York rapper Joey Bada$$, PA speakers got dented and cartridges from WUD-owned turntables went missing.
Motz says that during the May 3 Raw Power show, Union staff requested that the crowd refrain from moshing, even though it's practically impossible to prevent at a punk-rock show. Plus, moshing isn't complete chaos. It customarily involves watching out for others and picking up people who fall down.
Motz admits that she took a risk in booking acts whose concerts are rowdy enough to get shut down due to crowd-control policies and volume limits.
"That is kind of doing a disservice to the artist. I feel bad about it," she says about the shows the Union ended early.
If Union staff sign off on bands that test the limits, it seems that they're setting up WUD concerts for failure. WUD has been booking national acts for years and has the budget to pay for them, so shouldn't the Union be able to handle rowdy situations without ending the shows early?
WUD Music staff adviser Courtney Byelich asserts that the Union doesn't want to "censor" students' booking efforts. Of the Joey Bada$$ debacle, she says, "ultimately, it's a learning experience for the students." She notes that the Union likes having local musicians involved, and that the WUD music committee's mission changes each year as different students take the reins.
Unlike a rock club, Memorial Union and Union South must serve many people and purposes at once. The balancing act can be difficult, and sometimes it has hilarious side effects. For instance, when Jon Mueller played a solo drum set in Union South's coffeeshop last November, many students looked up from their books to glare at him.
The Union must accept that things like moshing, large turnouts and even unruly crowds come with the territory of live music. To deny that is comically conservative. WUD should actively reach out to local bands of all varieties. It's the Wisconsin Idea, right?
If these issues thwart a student with ambition, taste and a pretty cool agenda, the ultimate victim isn't just Motz but Madison's entire music community.