Frail Body at Communication, “Varda By Agnès” at UW Cinematheque, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Jason Fuhrman, Scott Gordon, Grant Phipps, Sannidhi Shukla, and Steven Spoerl
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7
It feels almost cruel that Agnès Varda was designated the “grandmother of the French new wave” during her lifetime. The title implies that her work roots the genre, of course, but also that she at some point aged out of actively engaging in artistry and into simply nurturing the movement, long retired from her position as a pioneer filmmaker. As lovingly as this title was given, it seems to bury the woman it was meant to honor, to paper over the fact that for her whole career and right up until her death at age 90 in March 2019, Varda had, in her own words, to “fight like a tiger” to bring her films into the world.
To be fair, it’s challenging, maybe even impossible, to properly celebrate the nuances of such a prolific and beloved artist’s vision and legacy with just a handful of words. Luckily, in Varda’s case, we have Varda By Agnès, the filmmaker’s final work, released just months after her passing. It’s as much a tribute to Varda herself as it is a map that overlays her body of work with her practice of cinécriture (cinematic writing) to reveal, through Varda’s own words, the playful and insightful eye and the tender precision that can be traced through her films.
Following Varda from lectures on her filmmaking process delivered at opera halls to the landscapes and environments that swaddle her films, Varda By Agnès is a delight to anyone who has loved her films and longs to revisit them. But her warmth, humor, and enthusiasm for film welcome first-time viewers of her work to Varda’s world just as easily and joyfully.—Sannidhi Shukla
Fiddlehead are something of an anomaly. The Boston band’s just a touch too soft for post-hardcore purists but far too cutting and cynical for large swaths of the overly-polite-indie-rock crowd. Following a bruising debut EP in 2014, the band leaned further into their more melodic tendencies for 2018’s Springtime And Blind, their first effort for renowned emo label Run For Cover. Both PunkNews and exclaim! greeted Springtime And Blind with astonishing reviews, validating what many in Massachusetts already knew: Fiddlehead were onto something.
In the years following the band’s initial 2014 EP, the band got something of an odd assist as the members’ other projects rose in stature. Have Heart, Intent, Big Contest, and Basement all saw expanded interest, despite some of those acts being defunct. As a result, their reputation became ascendant, first regionally, and then nationally. During that time, the band habitually sharpened their live show into a deadly force, adding to their growing notoriety.
All of that effort has culminated with the band’s latest release, the Get My Mind Right 7-inch, which plays like a career summation across its two tracks. Were it not for the swelling feedback that cuts into the opening riffs of the title track, “Get My Mind Right” could have easily turned into a power-pop song, instead veering left into harsher terrain. Over the time that follows that intro, Fiddlehead indulge in fleeting moments that tip their collective hat towards every genre in their genetic makeup: the traded-off backing vocal shouts in the chorus recalling classic punk, the strained vocals embracing their post-hardcore roots, the song’s structure owing a debt to post-punk, and the casually pleading, life-or-death stakes of the outro drawing a direct line to the Midwestern emo and pop-punk bands that served as the foundation for their current label.
“Stay In The Room,” the B-side of Get My Mind Right, finds Fiddlehead embracing their post-punk sensibilities to the furthest extent, falling somewhere between Shellac and Sunny Day Real Estate. Two minutes’ worth of dynamic tension and an abundance of conviction, “Stay In The Room” paints a short but familiar story of a protagonist choosing to succumb to a depressive state when faced with the option of total isolation or burdening others. Fiddlehead find cathartic release in the frustration, proving their worth beyond musicality. Misery loves company, and this about as knowingly empathetic as company gets.
Fiddlehead will be bringing their anxiety-ridden discography and punishing live set to the Memorial Union Rathskeller on Friday, February 7 to headline a perfectly curated show. Oshkosh’s Cricket and Madison’s own Parsing will open, both acts serving as perfect complements to the headliner, rounding out what should be one of the season’s more memorable shows. —Steven Spoerl
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8
Being the adventures of a libidinous young man (Don Johnson) whose principal interests are eating food and getting laid as he roams the devastated ruins of Phoenix, Arizona, in the aftermath of World War IV with his cynical, overeducated, telepathic canine companion, L.Q. Jones’ 1975 post-apocalyptic science-fiction cult feature, A Boy And His Dog, is possibly the greatest popcorn movie ever made. Based on the award-winning 1969 novella by Harlan Ellison and set in the year 2024, A Boy And His Dog⸺billed as “an R-rated, rather kinky tale of survival”—imagines a bleak future in which sometimes literally toxic, masculine marauders compete for provisions while committing savage acts of rape and ultraviolence. An acknowledged source of inspiration for George Miller’s dystopian action film franchise Mad Max, Jones’ movie also feels like a crude, campy send-up of A Clockwork Orange (1971). Indeed, the trailer was made in the same style as the trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s film.
When Vic (Johnson) and his dog Blood (Tiger) visit a makeshift movie theater exhibiting the scratchy, distorted remnants of porn films, Blood sniffs out a female in disguise, Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), who seduces the boy after he attempts to violate her sexually. Thus Vic plunges headlong into a subterranean world of grotesque small-town American pageantry, strictly enforced fundamentalist Christian values, and nefarious plots for mechanized procreation. A Boy And His Dog‘s disgusting and misogynistic dystopia will understandably drive some viewers away, but Jones creates a coherent, nightmarish alternative universe that frequently veers into absurdity, yet compels respect for its witty writing, well-paced direction, and offbeat black humor.
The dog’s performance as Blood and the weird space-age bachelor pad music, featuring contributions from The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, are worth the price of admission (though this UW Cinematheque screening is free). Irreverent, outrageous, titillating and terrifying, A Boy And His Dog presents a bizarre, bitter vision of “a future you’ll probably live to see,” as the tagline warns us. In depicting the spiritual wasteland of American society, Jones certainly had marvelous foresight, if not particularly good taste. —Jason Fuhrman
Lil Guillotine, Breezy Esco, Jay Leebra, Marcus Porter, President Longboi, Kilo aka Skiltz, Cal Smith, Rare MC, Rob Dz. Art In, 7 p.m.
In 2019, nearly one in five pretrial defendants in Dane County were held on bail, with bail amounts reaching thousands of dollars. Coupling this with the fact that Black people have long faced disproportionate rates of incarceration in Wisconsin and in the US at large and it’s hard to ignore the reality that the carceral system, including locally, is underpinned by criss-crossing strains of injustice at every step along the way.
Since its inception in August 2017, Madison’s Free the 350 Bail Fund has used online crowdfunding and community-based fundraising events from concerts to lectures at UW-Madison to communal pho dinners to raise money to free those held in jail pretrial due to inability to pay bail. With a strong focus on freeing Black minors held in adult prisons and on bringing incarcerated Black mothers back to their families, the fund has worked to confront both the racial and the economic inequalities inherent in the carceral system.
On February 8, the Fund is hosting its first hip-hop fundraiser of the year at Art In, with a lineup including Lil Guillotine, a staple of both the local rap scene and of the Fund’s hip-hop fundraisers, and Rob DZ, a community heavyweight whose work is equally rooted both in music and in community outreach at large. Madison comedian and storyteller Cal Smith will be hosting, and the lineup also features music from Breezy Esco, Jay Leebra, Marcus Porter, President Longboi, Kilo aka Skiltz, and Rare MC. Art In is closing its doors at the end of the month, so here’s hoping that both the music and the cause can find another welcoming venue in town soon. —Sannidhi Shukla
Madison has always needed more shows that mix different genres. We shouldn’t be whipping up unlikely music pairings for the sake of being off-the-wall or contrarian, but for the sake of helping the different pockets of our music community appreciate each other. Often the local music we go out to see has as much to do with our social circles as it does with our actual tastes in music. Shaking up the approach increases the chances that at least a few people in the room will be pleasantly surprised.
There’s also plenty of common ground between genres that seem different on the surface, and that’s certainly true for metal and jazz. This show finds free-jazz trio Brennan Connors And Stray Passage lined up between the epic post-metal of Corridoré and the math-metal spazz-outs of Cowboy Amazing. No two of these Madison bands sound much like each other, but they’re all mixing technical complexity with visceral impact.
Stray Passage does play some actual composed material but the real joy of this band is watching saxophonist Connors, bassist/cellist Brian Grimm, and percussionist Geoff Brady improvise their way from quiet meditations to wild, sustained outbursts. The band’s one album so far, 2017’s Emergence, was recorded with a live audience in the actual studio. A lot of the Stray Passage sets I’ve seen have at times been fiery and dissonant enough to scratch some of the same itches that metal does. More importantly, this band practices a deeply committed form of improvisation, one that unites spontaneity with harmonic depth and a mutual attentiveness among all three members.
“There’s a noisy and aggressive aspect to our music that I think we’ll feel more free than usual to explore,” Connors says. “Bearing that in mind, it could also be fun to throw out some more minimal sounds as a point of contrast. Still, we’re going to be sharing the stage with two metal bands. We’ll deliver, but we won’t know what until we get there.”
Corridoré (not pronounced “corridor”) has begun writing new songs to follow up the self-titled debut album it released in 2019. The band creates long, meandering song structures and layers on guitar tracks with shades of both doomy distortion and luxurious reverb. Bassist/vocalist Eric Andraska’s desperate howls offer both complement and counterpoint to the band’s lofty atmospherics, especially on album closer “This Swallowing Sea.” Cowboy Amazing, meanwhile, comes from an entirely more frantic school of heavy music. On a self-titled EP from 2018, the five-piece drew on the dizzyingly fragmented rhythms and punishing attack of bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan, with the occasional swerve into more straightforward, burly riffs. (Guitarist Loren Sommer writes for Tone Madison.) The band recently reunited with founding vocalist Jon Ferris and plans to record another EP this spring. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 9
Every track on Rockford band Frail Body’s 2019 debut for the Deathwish label, A Brief Memoriam, boasts relentless performances, from Lowell Shaffer’s high-pitched shrieks and noisy waves of guitar to Nic Kuczynski’s lithe bass licks (particularly on “Aperture”) and Nicholas Clemenson’s furious, blast beat-inspired drumming. And yet, the band never wholly shies away from tonally switching things up, as on “Traditions In Verses,” which begins with the deliberateness of a mid-era Unwound track before rapidly upping the ante on its latter half. It’s perhaps the sweeping undercurrent of melancholy throughout Memoriam that keeps the tunes engaging, even in the trio’s dizzying intensity, which reaches its peak as “Your Death Makes Me Wish Heaven Was Real” draws to a raucous close.
With additional performers and expanded sonic palette (including guest violinist, cellist, and trumpeter on the “Morning” interlude), Milwaukee’s Snag takes a slightly more math and post-rock-inspired approach to screamo, recalling the now retired Kidcrash and I Would Set Myself On Fire For You. Regarding the latter, perhaps “Fire Esc” is a most appropriate starting point, with its forthright lyrics that address a relationship fallout and ensuing self-hatred. Sam Szymborski (guitar), Bryan John Wysocki (drums), and Peter Murphy (bass) create snaky structures that harness their explosiveness as a unit throughout this self-titled record. Maybe most surprisingly effective is their environmental conscientiousness, most clearly communicated through audio clips, like Ethan Hawke’s Pastor Toller from Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) on “The Only Rational Response,” which addresses the ecological collapse of the world as a reflection of our internal tumult.
Madison band Ghostar used striking dynamic shifts to create an entrancing edginess throughout their 2019 debut EP Swelling, akin to the tracklisting’s B-movie-like wordplay. Steve Higgins’ escalating guitar feedback on “Party Scars,” for example, cuts right into “Sludge Titan,” which channels Kevin Shields’ signature wall of sound. The closing minute of “Knight Rider also runs with this approach, as it builds elegantly with John McCracken’s sharp drum fills before screeching into oblivion. (McCracken is a Tone Madison contributor.) Echoing each other’s abrasive outros, these tracks admirably distill the 20-minute record’s purgative spirit, and conclude on “Prayer Rabbit,” uniting the grander instrumental swells with the searing intimacy of Higgins’ solo sections. Higgins and McCracken started Ghostar as a duo, and Kyle Kohl (whose recent projects have included Miyha and Parsing) recently joined on bass. —Grant Phipps
2/9: Kat And The Hurricane, LINE, Dana Perry. Bos Meadery, 6:30 p.m. (Read more about this show in our feature story on LINE’s debut EP.)
2/10: NOW Ensemble. Audio for the Arts, 8 p.m. (Read more about this show in our interview with NOW Ensemble pianist Michael Mizrahi.)