Experimental music goes rogue at the Shitty Barn

The Spring Green venue looks to get out of its comfort zone with a show on August 31.

The Spring Green venue looks to get out of its comfort zone with a show on August 31. (Photo via shittybarnsessions.com)

The Shitty Barn in Spring Green has established a pretty reliable groove since launching in 2010. Generally speaking, each season goes heavy on folk, R&B, and indie rock, then takes care to sprinkle in a few sonic outliers. Over the years, the latter have included DJ Abilities, Jon Mueller’s Death Blues project, rapper Milo, the collaborative and solo efforts of reedist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld, Madison math-rock outfit Czarbles, and several visits from the brilliant Twin Cities multi-instrumentalist Dosh. The Barn’s season lineups often reflected the tastes and one might say mischievous tendencies of co-founder Chris Staples, who picked most of the music until handing over the reins to a more collaborative booking team in 2016. It’s worked out well: The Spring Green venue draws crowds from Madison and around the Driftless area, routinely sells out shows in advance, and has far more booking clout than most people would expect from a rickety little barn in a small rural town.

The Barn’s 2018 season—while boasting acts including Dusk, Kevin Morby, and Bully—has had noticeably fewer curveballs.  


“I don’t think there has been a conscious effort to scale that back,” says Seth Alt, a Spring Green resident and the venue’s longtime sound engineer. “The current booking team simply have different tastes in music than Chris Staples had when he was curating the seasons.”

After this year’s season got underway, Alt set up an August 31 show there with three experimental electronic artists: The mysterious Bongo Frontier, Madison’s Scott Fradkin, and New York’s Whirm. All of these artists create music that’s a bit more abstract and austere than what the Barn tends to book, even on its most adventurous nights. Alt, who built sound sculptures and performed electronic music while living in Minneapolis in the mid-2000s, set up the show and hopes to expand it into a proper series in the years to come.

The Barn has also set this show a bit apart from its regular calendar: There are no advanced tickets, admission is pay-what-you-want, and it won’t have all the trappings of a normal Shitty Barn show, like food from a local vendor. Instead of being included in the Barn’s usual show-numbering system (this summer it’ll cross the 200 mark, not counting a handful of bonus shows that have popped up), this show is billed as a “Rogue Session.” One reason for this approach is to keep the show accessible, Alt says: “Tickets to shows at the Barn have become increasingly hard to nab because we are selling out pretty fast, so offering some non-ticketed events gives folks the opportunity to experience the barn without making plans months in advance.”

This summer the Barn will host just this one experimental show, and Alt and the rest of the venue’s team are still figuring out where the idea will go in the future. There’s plenty of experimental music to draw on in Madison, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, and even in Dubuque, an hour west of the Shitty Barn, so there’s no reason the Rogue sessions can’t take on a vital life of their own.

“We don’t have specific programming planned for next year, but we have talked about themes such as ‘pedal’ or ‘synth’ night,” Alt says. “It isn’t intended to be exclusively ‘experimental,’ so another idea is to use this series as a platform for emerging artists that we really like but may not be well-known enough to sell tickets. We are going to see how this first event goes, and spend the winter fully realizing our plan for this series for next year.”

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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