Let’s give this whole Sylvee thing some time

The new venue’s initial lineup is less than seismic, but it can take a while for a venue to really carve out its role.

The new venue’s initial lineup is less than seismic, but it can take a while for a venue to really carve out its role.


A developer's rendering of The Sylvee released in 2017. 

A developer’s rendering of The Sylvee released in 2017. 

I hesitated to weigh in on Monday’s fall lineup teaser from FPC Live’s new 2,500-capacity venue The Sylvee, in part because it mostly seems like a benign roundup of the usual suspects, and because the Madison-venue-news lobes of our brains could use a rest. Also, FPC Live rolled out a bunch of artists’ names without giving us actual show dates yet, which is kind of obnoxious. (They’ve since begun rolling out specific show dates.) The names included Kamasi Washington, The Decemberists, Garbage, Death Cab For Cutie, Jenny Lewis, The Glitch Mob, Shakey Graves, and a grand opening with the charmingly gritty Denver R&B outfit Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats. There’s some solid stuff in there—and the venue will be announcing more fall shows beyond these—though Washington and Lewis are the only ones that really make a big splash.

What we’re seeing so far undermines the idea that the venue would be a game-changer for the kinds of touring concerts Madison would be able to pull in. The Sylvee won’t begin its life with a humongous bang, and maybe that’s fine. In fact, after the last year or so of venue news, some gradual, not-so-seismic change would be welcome. Plus, a rendering the venue’s developers released last year (see above) makes it look like performers and crowd members will be vaporized by aliens or something, which is kind of cool.

The lineup might assuage some of the anxiety Madison has about being passed over by touring acts like The Decemberists. If it’s not The Decemberists, well, we’ve all experienced some angst over some high-profile-ish artist we like not getting here as often as we’d like. But it’s not unusual for a touring band to skip Madison on one pass through the region and then come here on a subsequent leg. Maybe having the space available helped make some of these shows possible, but The Decemberists, for instance, are a band that gets here every two or three years. Their last show in town was in fall 2015. They put on a great show and it’s nice to have them coming back, but this doesn’t break any patterns.

As far as I can tell, the only artist in the lineup who hasn’t been here in a good while is Lewis, and Ninja Sex Party appears to be making its first Madison stop. Garbage, whose Madison connection we are all legally required to bang on about until the end of time, are a fun and symbolic part of the venue’s fall lineup, but even then, we still get to hear Shirley Manson say “Madison, it’s so good to be home!” in a melodious Scottish accent every few years as it is.

This is a lineup that plays it down the middle, doesn’t give Live Nation shareholders too much to sweat about (nothing says “playing it safe” like booking the admittedly gifted Lake Street Dive), and largely reshuffles a segment of a fairly typical fall concert lineup in Madison. For the moment, it’s as if the approach that has worked for FPC Live at Breese Stevens Field will simply be expanded to an indoor space, with maybe a bit less emphasis on classic rock. And as at Breese Stevens, at least a handful of these shows will be quite good.

The Sylvee does have its advantages. It was designed and built as a music venue from the start, whereas lots of other venues in town, including the similarly sized Orpheum, have been retrofitted for live music. The Sylvee’s impact beyond this fall could be more surprising. Remember when the Majestic Theatre reopened under new ownership in 2007? Most of us weren’t impressed with the initial lineup, but pretty soon the venue was playing a formidable role in the live-music calendar. In our defense, the Majestic’s grand reopening bash featured a headlining performance from Mandy Moore, but it still illustrates that it takes more than a few months to know what a venue is really going to be.

Frank Productions rolled out plans for the new venue amid an acrimonious spat over control of the Orpheum. Now it’s a rebranded, Live Nation-controlled company called FPC Live, which owns The Sylvee and controls booking at the Orpheum, so it’s water under the bridge. Madison’s arguably gotten better at attracting touring bands, which has as much to do with the growing population and concert organizers stepping up their ambition as it does with changes at any one venue. I’ve always wondered whether this was something Madison really needed, or just something Frank Productions really wanted.

The Sylvee is starting with about the lineup you’d expect—a few artistic high points, a generous serving of inoffensive safe bets, enough genre diversity to satisfy a few distinct audiences. Maybe it’ll take more chances with time, and at the very least Madison will hopefully have a nice new concert space to work with. But on this one, the folks who tell us not to fuss so much about all this change happening in Madison’s venue landscape might, for once, have a point. Let’s make sure to support smaller venues in town and give this big one time to carve out its role.

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