The first photo essay of a new Tone Madison seasonal series.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
In July, I wrote a piece for Tone Madison that reflected on the inherent power at the core of live music photography. Most of that piece focused on small, pervasive questions that don’t have easy answers. Really, when push comes to shove, photography is deeply, unmistakably personal. Since that July piece was published, an aspect of photography I’ve been thinking a lot about is the relationship between location and preservation. Just as we can honor and celebrate the people we admire through photography, the same is true for the world they inhabit.
Thinking about all of this, for months on end, led to a renewed focus on documenting Madison’s music scene—not just with prose, but through photography. Over the summer, whenever and wherever possible, I’ve planted myself near the fronts of stages and started creating what will be an ongoing document of this era of Madison music.
I filled up my camera’s memory cards time and again this year at multiple festivals (Madison Jazz Fest, Orton Park Fest, Dirtnap’s Super Show Extravaganza, ex-Madisonian Chris Joutras’ Michigan-set Yoop! Festival, Make Music Madison, AtwoodFest, Marquette Waterfront Fest, and WSUM’s Party In The Park), as well as a series of individual shows. Through the course of it all, I was consistently reminded of the tenacity of local artists and of the local infrastructure for live music that needs to improve if we want to meaningfully pursue efforts towards greater equity.
Even though there’s a lot of work to be done to bring more inclusivity and accountability to the local music community (Tone Madison will continue to press these issues for as long as they’re present), simply taking in the literal landscape of local parks and excellent performances has been extremely heartening. While Madison may still be lacking on a few live music fronts when it comes to organizational and promotional elements, the city has reliably delivered on its implicit, unspoken promise of hosting excellent live music.
Whether it was watching Graham Hunt blow the roof off Mickey’s Tavern for the If You Knew Would You Believe It release show, Canadian punk act PUP inject The Sylvee with a bit of grimy character, Tani Diakite & The Afrofunkstars liven up a front yard, or a whole host of punk bands from all over America (and beyond) descend on the High Noon Saloon for the Dirtnap Records Super Show Extravaganza, there have been cogent reminders that live music is alive and well in Madison. Following live music’s COVID-conscious absence, the meaning of its return bears new weight.
The pandemic still presents us with risks, of course, and the risks we take on all levels when it comes to live music have to be calculated. Performers and their teams, venue staff, and audiences all have to be aware of communal social contracts to facilitate the continued presence of live, in-person music in Madison. Being separated from that specific aspect of life, while a necessity, was draining. Any time you lose a concrete connection to something you love, the impact can be shattering. Renewing that connection has been immensely affirming.
While I didn’t have the time, energy, or resources to make it out to as many shows this past summer as I would’ve liked, positioning myself back into a routine I haven’t embraced since 2015 has restored a determination to slowly expand those limits. Summer was restorative, and fall’s already shaping up to be more explorative. As this series progresses, the parameters of what’s on display will inevitably follow suit. Entry one is admittedly punk-heavy when it comes to single shows, simply because that’s what and where I’ve had the most access to information and entry. I’ve already made a commitment to make the second entry to this series even more varied.
Even with the focus on one genre, rediscovering the habit of emphatically purposeful documentation has me feeling more connected to Madison’s perennially oddball spirit. These photographs represent not just a document of the people, but of the place, and of the time. While Madison’s music scene remains imperfect and has a long way to go in terms of equity, diversity, and overall balance, the musicians who perform here are still illustrating Madison’s potential. I’ll be here to document their triumphs, on any scale.
An extended version of the photo gallery can be accessed here.