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Live music returns to the Crystal Corner Bar

The Willy Street institution held out longer than most, but will start having shows again on September 24.
The entrance of the Crystal Corner Bar is shown from a kitty-corner angle, emphasizing the glass-brick exterior backlit with red lights.
Photo by Grant Phipps.

The Willy Street institution held out longer than most, but will start having shows again on September 24.

Madison’s most spectacular unspectacular bar, The Crystal Corner on Williamson Street, gets back to live music shows September 24. It’s been a long wait for performers and patrons alike. Owner David Day shut the tavern doors during COVID’s first flare in March of 2020. The bar remained closed for 14 months. Even upon reopening in the early spring of 2021, Day didn’t see the upside of live performances. 

“I said no, we’re just not going to do that,” Day says. “Music in that setting was a super-spreader [event] waiting to happen.” His all-or-nothing approach to live entertainment set him apart from other club owners during the most scorching part of the pandemic, owners who chipped away at having shows between the unrelenting highs and lows of numbers and spikes. And now?

“Numbers aren’t spiking,” Day says. “It appears that we’re at a point now where we’re gonna live with what we got.” 

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What the Crystal has got is a full schedule of bands booked into November. (See the full lineup below.) For now, it’s worth reflecting on what the venerable club has meant to the music scene and its un-toppable history as a live music venue. Witness the framed, autographed photos on the walls of musicians who have played the club’s pool-table supported stage. There are 135 picture frames in all. I counted. Latin jazz legend Tito Puente. Rolling Stones member Mick Taylor. Folk-rock star Steve Forbert. A galaxy of blues stars: Shannon Curfman, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, and Shemekia Copeland, just to name a few. And Louisiana musicians, too. Lots and lots of them.

I asked Day what his favorite show of all time was at the Crystal. He didn’t hesitate. “Susan Tedeschi,” he says. “That was a special night.” That show was in August of 1998 and Tedeschi had performed at the State Fair just a couple nights before. Me? I’m a singer-songwriter guy. My most memorable show was seeing Pat MacDonald for the first time around 1981, before he began Timbuk 3. I had never heard of him and was mesmerized by his low-tuned guitars, shrieking harmonica, and relentless wordplay. 

Last July, Madison blues and stride pianist Jimmy Voegeli gave an emotional introduction to a guest performer with his band The Jimmys at their set at La Fete de Marquette. “Thirty years ago,” he said, “I went into the Crystal Corner bar, saw [the great blues pianist] Marcia Ball, and my life changed forever. I knew I had to play the piano like that.” Voegeli is devoted to the room to this day. “Some clubs have great sound,” he tells me. “Some clubs have their own following that will come to any show. Some clubs have a great vibe the second you walk in. The Crystal Corner embodies all of these attributes in one place. I can’t wait to see more memorable shows there.” 

He’s not alone. Patti Almlie has been a server at the Crystal for over 20 years. She says people have come in every day for months asking when music will be back. She’s seen the magic of the room countless times, and she smiles and scans the walls of those picture frames when I ask her about her favorite show. It was reggae artist Eek-Mouse in 2000. Along the way she remembers weird nights, too. Like the evening Woodstock veteran blues band Canned Heat played to a crowd of nine. She sums up the place like this: “You walk into a lot of music clubs and you gotta figure it out. Not at the Crystal.”

No one in the Crystal Corner family is happier about live music’s return than long-time booker/promoter Joe Lambert. He says that since March of 2020 he’s actually had three different schedules of bands lined up to play the club, but each time the sequence of shows was ready to start, COVID numbers spiked. He had to cancel them all. Married with kids and now living in Sun Prairie, Lambert says he doesn’t get to many of the shows he books. But he will definitely be at the Crystal’s grand re-opening show, a Stooges and Clash tribute show September 24 by the Dead Johnnys and the Loose. “I’ll be there either by Tim [Consequence], our long-time sound engineer, who is stepping down from his position, or I’ll be hiding in the corner where the lockers meet the trophy case,” Lambert says. “From that vantage point I can see all the smiles, laughing and dancing, and it rules. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to see the fruits of one’s labor in humans’ happiness.”

As Lambert mentions, there will be a change in personnel at the soundboard. The room will be in excellent hands. Tessa Echeverria Perez will be chief engineer. In addition to playing in Madison bands including Jonesies and According To What, they’ve run sound for musicals, at venues including Communication (which they co-founded), as well as recording and production work at the analogue-only Williamson Magnetic Recording Company. 

In addition to new sound help, Day had to find stage hands to construct and disassemble the aforementioned pool-table-based stage. He says it takes two people to make it happen. A new door person was also hired. Like many in the service industry, Day says finding and keeping workers is a struggle these days. It’s a constant feeling of having a finger in the dyke, “but only one finger,” he says with a laugh. 

By his recollection, Americana musician Nick Brown has played the Crystal roughly 350 times, the majority of those shows with the classic country band Brown Derby. Brown, a ruggedly charming singer-songwriter in his own right, is also looking forward to plugging back in at the space, whether it’s one of the floor shows in the corner by the street or a full-on stage gig. “[The Crystal] remains the antithesis to the consolidated, profit-hungry industry that has increasingly tapped into the local market in Madison,” he says. “The people at the Crystal Corner, the staff and the regulars especially, have a genuine appreciation for music and musicians that’s built on admiration, love, respect and fun more than all the business junk.”

It’s safe to say music lovers’ appreciation of the Crystal is now multi-generational. “When I was a kid, my hippie uncle, who I greatly admired, would come home to New Glarus all sweaty and animated,” says Cat Capellaro of VO5. “He’d been dancing the night away at the Crystal Corner,” she adds. “When I grew up and moved to Madison, the Crystal was a pillar of our community. Just a no fuss place to hang out and see your friends and neighbors. Excellent bartenders. When I finally got the chance to play there it was like coming home.”

Guitarist and band leader David Hecht has played in various groups at the Crystal since graduating from East High in the late 1970s. He’ll resume a monthly gig there this fall with his band Who Dat. Coming home and community are themes he also identifies with. He speaks of the natural camaraderie among musicians there. A few years back Josh Harty an invited Hecht out of the blue to join his band on a few songs. That turned into Hecht sitting in for the whole set and gave birth to a collaboration that continues today. “It’s an honor to have our pics up on the wall,” says Hecht. 

Here’s the current schedule for live music at the Crystal Corner Bar:

September 24:  Dead Johnnys and Loose (The Clash and Stooges Tributes)

 October 1:  Proud Parents, Cult Of Lip, Lunar Moth

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 October 8:  Something To Do, Educational Davis, The Scratch-Offs

 October 15:  Whippets, The Garza, Porcupine, The Known Unknowns           

 October 22: Cribshitter, Heavy Looks

 October 29: Hometown Sweethearts

 November 12:  The Drunk Drivers, Mhos And Ohms

November 19: Venus In Furs, Sons Of Atom, Great Big Kiss (Johnny Thunders Tribute)

 November 26: The Mersey Brothers

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