The East Side park turns out to be an above-average outdoor venue.
The Central Park Sessions music series had to switch locations for its first installment this summer, due to the skatepark currently under construction in Central Park. So the series’ Thursday, July 30 kick-off show with Hanggai, Dengue Fever and Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble took place instead at Olbrich Park, right on Lake Monona. Both at the concert and afterward, I kept having conversations with friends and co-workers who said that Olbrich Park had turned out to be a surprisingly good outdoor concert spot. (Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Olbrich Botanical Gardens, which is technically part of the park and also hosts concerts, but the main part of the park on the lakeshore.) I’ve never seen a show there before or the spot the organizers used—sort of around on the western end of the park, where it curves around in a little pocket—but I hope it won’t be the last time I see music there.
I’m not saying this just because it was a particularly fun show and a nice night—the space itself has a lot of specific advantages. In this case, the stage was set up to face a little hill, so that you could get up in front if you wanted to, but also go flop on the grass without sacrificing your view, a bit like a natural amphitheater. And while sound quality is usually the first thing to get sacrificed at an outdoor show, the sound at this one was actually pretty good, both up by the stage and from up on the hill. The way everything was set up, there was certainly enough space for a decent-sized outdoor-festival crowd, but the boundaries of the hill and the lake also gave the event a bit of neighborly intimacy. The lake helps to cool things down (and it’s pretty), and there’s a decent amount of shade before the sun goes down. And just due to the configuration of the space, the areas where people congregate aren’t right up against all the beer tents and food carts. (OK, full disclosure, it’s also walking distance from my house.)
The Central Park Sessions is now back at Central Park, with three more shows to go. Overall Central Park is a great new space and the location is hard to argue with—it’s no surprise that people are holding a lot of events there, from these shows to Yum Yum Fest later this month—but it can feel a bit too flat and crowded when it comes to live music. Especially when there’s a huge turnout for an event like Fete De Marquette, the effort to squeeze in all those people and a big stage and a bunch of vendors can feel a bit like madness.
We’ve got a lot of outdoor spaces and a lot of outdoor music in Madison during the summer, and of course, outdoor shows are more about fun and socializing than about having an ideal aesthetic experience. If the view isn’t great or the sound is a bit blown out, that isn’t going to ruin it for most people. Still, it’s not every park or field that feels so well suited to an outdoor show, that balances music-friendly aspects with a leisurely atmosphere. Olbrich Park has that—to the pleasant surprise of many Madisonians, including myself—so let’s take advantage of it a bit more often.