The veteran Madison-based percussionist brings together an ensemble of longtime collaborators. Also, sock puppets.
Percussionist Geoff Brady has played in so many different contexts and settings over the past few decades—jazz groups, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, eccentric Madison fixtures like The Gomers and Yid Vicious, experimental music projects—that an off-kilter variety show would seem to be his natural habitat. Brady’s versatility and his tendency toward playful mischief also makes it hard to guess just what audiences are likely to hear at his Thursday, May 5 show at the Gates of Heaven in James Madison Park. He’s titled the event “Geoff Brady & Friends: New Music, Cat Cartoons, & Complaining.”
The show will center around a six-piece ensemble: Brady, multi-instrumentalist Kia Karlen, bassist Kenny Stevenson, saxophonist Brennan Connors, tuba player David Spies, and percussionist Michael Brenneis. “I’ve known them all for a long time and played with them in different contexts over the years, but I think this is the first time the six of us have played together as a unit,” Brady says. “I’m really looking forward to that.”
The connections Brady has with these five players will make for quite the convergence of styles. Karlen and Spies are his bandmates in Yid Vicious, a band celebrated for its raucous take on klezmer music. Brady plays in Connors’ wide-ranging free-jazz trio Stray Passage. Brenneis and Brady have explored the strange edges of experimental percussion and improvised music in projects including The Active Percussion Duo and Tomato Box. Stevenson and Brady play together in Hirt Alpert, a tribute band focused on the music of Herb Alpert and Al Hirt.
In addition to the music, the May 6 event will feature the return of the Sockrates Sock Puppet Carnival of Morals and Logic. Karlen and Brady formed the sock-puppet troupe in 2013, tapping into a rich vein of the local consciousness with dramatized readings of customer letters from the Willy Street Co-op newsletter (and the heroically patient replies Co-op staff prints alongside them). If you’ve ever filed a hyper-specific complaint about the bulk candy or the parking or flour shortages or any number of other things, your words might end up in a Sockrates performance. Two additional Madison-based musicians, Anna Purnell and Lisa Marine, will join the Sockrates cast for this show.
It’s a safe guess that Sockrates’ source material may have evolved in a couple directions during the pandemic: a lot kinder, or a lot more unhinged. Brady says he’s been noticing a “higher percentage” of supportive customer messages in the newsletter, “and a few of them just sort of reflect the times we’re living in, you know? Or they’re saying, like, you know, ‘Tell your employees not to breathe.’ Stuff like that. The kind of responses people are having pretty much everywhere.”
For the less sock-centered part of the evening, Brady has prepared a few new compositions, including one that will make its debut: “Oh, Bartleby: Music From The Imaginary TV Series.” Brady didn’t share too many hints about what this will actually sound like, but says he composed motifs for the characters in Herman Melville’s famous short story “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall Street,” while leaving room for this ensemble of gifted improvisers to stretch out.
“‘Bartleby’ is one of my favorite stories, and I always thought it would make a really good sitcom, but I don’t have the money or connections to make that happen,” Brady says. “So when we got these people together who were willing to play at this performance, I wrote some music for the imaginary sitcom. As far as I know, I don’t think anyone’s made a sitcom of it. I think there’s a couple short operas. But no TV series yet.”
The ensemble will also be improvising music to accompany several cat cartoons. “Those are real wildcards,” Brady says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen yet with those, and won’t until we’re doing them, probably. We’ve got a Tom And Jerry and an avant-garde [cartoon] from I think, Germany, or something. And also, Brennan and Michael are doing a duo with a Felix The Cat pirate one. So those will be fun.”
In addition to planning this show, Brady has been working on solo material, continuing to play with Yid Vicious, tentatively planning some new recordings with Stray Passage, and getting ready for the return of Brenneis’ Tomato Box ensemble, which was most active in the late ’90s and early aughts. Tomato Box’s next show is planned for Friday, June 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. on the Memorial Union Terrace, and Stray Passage is scheduled to play on June 10 as part of Strollin’ Capitol East, which kicks off the 2022 Madison Jazz Festival. But if you’ve somehow not seen Brady play (or haven’t seen music at the Gates, a historic synagogue with lovely acoustics), his unpredictable evening is a great time to start.