Seeking solace in punk and parody
2016 has been — and pardon the lack of eloquence here — a real shit-show. America and Great Britain are currently hard at work on their political remake of Dumb and Dumber, and every musician or actor you’ve ever loved is now dead. This year was terrible, and it can’t end soon enough.
Yet I was lucky enough to be offered some of the best escapes imaginable: live entertainment. I saw more shows this year than I did the year before, which makes narrowing down my favorites more difficult.
Direct Hit! tops my list. The Milwaukee punks released an excellent album, Wasted Mind (their first for the groundbreaking label Fat Wreck Chords), and toured relentlessly. I saw them twice in Madison (June at the Majestic and November at the High Noon), and once in Milwaukee, where they opened for Blink-182 at Summerfest. Two years ago I saw them play the Dragonfly Lounge to about 12 people, so getting to see them take off is pretty cool.
In September, I watched punk supergroup The Falcon, a longtime favorite of mine (and a band who’d never really toured before this year) demolish the Frequency.
The day after America elected Donald Trump, the audience found catharsis as Jeff Rosenstock tore apart the Sett at Union South (and raised more than $300 for Planned Parenthood in the process). His latest album, WORRY., was USA Today’s top album of the year, by the way.
Perhaps the most surprising show I saw in 2016 was Jamestown Revival. I had never heard a single one of their songs until I tagged along with some friends to see them at the High Noon in October. Their effortlessly cool country rock and charismatic stage banter reminded me of a combination of Gram Parsons and R.E.M. (and their bass player bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Stipe).
"Weird Al" Yankovic
Finally, most of my fond memories of 2016 will be centered around one man: “Weird Al” Yankovic. Isthmus assigned me to interview one of my childhood heroes, and talking with him is a memory I’ll cherish forever — along with the experience of seeing him live. With his hilarious multimedia interludes, near-constant costume changes and the fact that he’s got more energy than most artists half his age, “Weird Al” is still one of the best live acts around. It stands out not just as the best show I saw all year, but the best show I’ve seen, period.
— Tom Whitcomb
Brits, Breese and nostalgia
They only had a mere 13 songs to choose from — and it didn’t matter one bit. Anthony West and Jacqueline Vander Gucht — you know them better as Great Britain’s Oh Wonder — may have brought a modest musical arsenal to the Majestic back in June, but, as they say, it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. Backed by enormous ‘O” and “W” lights that kept revealing surprising and unexpected visual depths, the duo proved more than big enough to fill the space. While the uptempo hits (think “Lose It” and “Livewire”) showcased the strengths of West and Vander Gucht’s vocal harmonies, it was the melancholy “All We Do” that brought the crowd to a total jawdrop standstill. Calls to get off your ass and just do something positive really don’t come sharper than this.
On a balmy night in August, another piece of Madison’s future music scene crystallized — and it looked an awful lot like John McCrea, wearing his trademark trucker’s baseball cap, prancing around the stage and clutching a vibraslap. Cake’s contrarian vibe has always been a good fit for Madtown, but it was an even better fit for the open air and artificial turf at Breese Stevens Field, where the mini Eaux Claires vibe was both welcome and real. Unfettered by the need to cling to convention and, more pointedly, pimp new material — the band hasn’t produced any in six years — McCrea and company were free to play (and say) whatever crossed their minds. As McCrea waxed monotone about fear and loathing in Madison, sang “Rock ’n’ Roll Lifestyle” and gave away an actual tree to a lucky concertgoer, the crowd embraced the vibe. Post-election, the band’s “Make America Cake Again” caps may have lost some of their ironic appeal, but the performance won’t.
2016 was yet another year of the Aughts Nostalgia Tour, as another bustle of bands now multiple decades removed from their high-water heydays brushed off the dust from the hits and geared up for one more battle. Some of these were probably better left in the hazy vestiges of our collective memories. But at least one proved worthy of a hearty remember-when: Jimmy Eat World, who brought the mod-rock hard to the Barrymore in October. The band leaned heavily into hits from Bleed American, their 2001 platinum breakthrough — a bold and welcome move, given that they have a new slate of songs to hawk. Jim Adkins, still looking as boyish as he did the first time he roared about salt, sweat and sugar, reminded us that there’s a lot more to his band’s hits catalogue than the radio-ubiquitous “The Middle.” And when Jimmy Eat World launched into “Crimson and Clover,” everything was right with the world.
— Aaron R. Conklin
In 2016 I attended 70 or more concerts or musical events; many of these were extremely satisfying, even great, attesting to the remarkable richness and diversity of Madison’s classical musical life.
It’s impossible to represent so many riches in the small space allowed here, but here is a tiny sampling of the year’s finest.
Among major organizations, the Madison Symphony Orchestra offered a wide spread of repertoire in its seven concerts. As always, there were guest soloists, many of distinction. Two pianists stand out. Playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in March, Emanuel Ax eloquently juxtaposed the poetry and aggressiveness in this fascinating score. He was also completely physically engaged in the music, even when he was not playing. The other pianist was Garrick Ohlsson, who brought intensity and nobility to Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in April. Another notable soloist was violinist Henning Kraggerud, who played Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in October.
The most striking solo performance was by Russian violinist Ilya Kaler, who played with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in October. Kaler rescued the Tchaikovsky Concerto from frequent vulgarity and overindulgence to make it a coherent and truly musical masterpiece. This concert was otherwise noteworthy for presenting rare symphonies by William Boyce and Schubert (No. 4).
Isthmus Vocal Ensemble
The Middleton Community Orchestra, despite nonprofessional status, continues to reach high performing standards. I particularly admired its April performance of the unfairly neglected Sibelius Symphony No. 3, conducted by Kyle Knox.
The Willy Street Chamber Players continued their second season of July concerts on the east side, and the artistry and enthusiasm of these wonderful young players is an absolute joy. I particularly loved their opener, spinning out one of my favorite chamber works, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Another memorable performance was Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 1, superbly rendered by the Ancora Quartet in September (with a new first violinist, Wes Luke).
In the category of lyric theater, top honors must go to Madison Opera’s flawless, beautifully sung and imaginatively staged Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach, which played in April.
In January, meanwhile, Bill Lutes, Martha Fischer and friends brought us their third “Schubertiade,” now becoming an annual high point in presenting the “social” side of Schubert’s music.
With a Shakespearean theme, the Madison Early Music Festival in June was a bit uneven in programming, but included two delightful yet very different concerts — one by New York Polyphony, an all-male quartet, in Tudor sacred music, and the Baltimore Consort performing secular pieces.
In April, the Madison Bach Musicians put Handel’s inescapable Messiah back where it belongs, in the Easter season, successfully re-creating the period style.
For choral music, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble gave the Brahms German Requiem about the best performance I have ever heard. Scott McPherson drew out of 114 singers truly remarkable clarity plus outstanding German diction. I am torn between that and Kaler’s Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performance for my choice as “Concert of the Year.”
— John W. Barker