Curator’s notes: Sun Speak, Tony Barba, and Mahr

Our March 19 event at Arts + Lit Lab spans acoustic warmth and electronic abstraction.

Our March 19 event at Arts + Lit Lab spans acoustic warmth and electronic abstraction.

Sun Speak's Matt Gold (left) and Nathan Friedman.

Sun Speak’s Matt Gold (left) and Nathan Friedman.

When I first saw Chicago duo Sun Speak just last year, I was struck at how deftly they moved between restrained reflection and abrasive exuberance. Guitarist Matt Gold and drummer Nathan Friedman may have a grounding in jazz—most obvious in Gold’s bright guitar tone and supple phrasing—but compositionally they draw just as much on folk and experimental music. On the whole, their music is warm and amiable, but with a restless dynamic. That’s why we invited them to headline a show Tone Madison is hosting on Sunday, March 19 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

The song “Solar Beast,” from 2015’s Sacred Rubble EP, offers perhaps the best window into Sun Speak’s wide range and healthy embrace of contradictions. Gold and Friedman start with quiet, almost fragmentary phrases, hinting at the edges of a composition, before piling on with a distorted guitar loop and rapidly tumbling drums. Even then, they’re still exploring a bit of the contemplative side, with Gold layering on slowly descending chords and conversational melodies and Friedman favoring texture over volume. They manage to come down from that raucous section of the song gently, but without releasing the suspense they’ve built up. The recorded version of “Solar Beast” also features tenor sax, but it’s just as rewarding to hear what Friedman and Gold can do with this as a duo, as you’ll see in the video below.

Sun Speak’s 2014 debut full-length, Light Blue Light, tends to revel in the quiet side. “Walden III” begins over gentle, droning chords and works its way up to a pleasantly loping pace, and Friedman and Gold make that range feel more deep and varied than it might on paper. “Medium Friends” is a bit more brisk, with rhythms that feel almost Latin jazz-influenced and guitar melodies that walk the line between prickly concision and twisting complexity. Sun Speak have been working on a record to follow up Sacred Rubble, so I’m looking forward to hearing their empathetic, versatile approach play out on new material.

Opening up the show are two solo artists who both landed on our top 20 Madison records of 2016 list. Tony Saxophonist Tony Barba plays in seemingly every other jazz project in town, and his credits include a long tenure with Youngblood Brass Band and appearing in the “Sad Sax of Shit” brass section on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. But his 2016 album Winter’s Arms is wholly a solo creation, combining tenor sax with a tastefully deployed chain of loopers, delays, and Moog processors. As he gradually builds up layers of modulation—whether on quiet pieces like “Therapy” or the more harsh “Insomnia”—Barba tends to keep things centered on the sax itself, creating a strong through-line of both melody and room-filling warmth. This solo setup takes on a more unpredictable, improvisational element in the live setting.

The show starts out a little more firmly in the electronic realm. Mahr, the solo project of Madison-based producer and vocalist Nicole Wilson, brought one of my favorite local-music surprises last year in the form of a self-titled EP. At heart it’s an ambient EP, but it thrives on a combination of disparate elements. On my favorite track, “Initiation Well,” Mahr brings in some of the sparse percussive elements I love in techno, but also brief bursts of industrial noise and an eerie, elusive melody that could be vocals or a moody synth patch. The electronic elements here often exist in a spacious haze of field recordings and plentiful but thoughtfully harnessed reverb. She’ll be playing all new material here. Find out more about Mahr on the most recent episode of our podcast.

Don’t forget to check out our other curated events over the next few months:

April 18: Jon Mueller, Jason Kahn, Sheba. Arts + Literature Laboratory, 8 p.m., all ages, $8.

April 22: Record Store Day Party with Wood Chickens, No Hoax, DJ Quinley and DJ Joel. Bandung Indonesian Restaurant, noon, free.

May 18: GateSound: High Plains + Anjou, Alej Perez. Gates of Heaven, 7 p.m., all ages, $8.

May 27: Assembler Electronic Music Workshop. Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2 p.m., all ages, free.

June 24: EMS + openers TBA. Art In, 8 p.m., $8

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