Minneapolis’ New Primals, an expanded FemFest lineup, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon and Steven Spoerl
THURSDAY, JANUARY 16
Madison band We Should Have Been DJs pulled off a heroically raggedy feat on last year’s album Side A, which ranked among our top 20 Madison records of 2019. Mike Pellino and Alex Mitchard’s frantic, tangled guitar hooks power unapologetically melodic punk songs that reflect viscerally on suffering, struggle, and alienation (“Prizefighter,” “Grow”) and, on “Red Hotel,” call out the impact of gentrification on Madison’s music community. And Side A turns the band’s tormented emo into very much a communal affair, thanks to the powerful guest vocals a bunch of other local musicians piled on top of the core members’ vocals across all seven tracks. Especially on the refrain of “Red Hotel”—”If you wait for it to happen / You’ll wait for it forever”—the guest vocalists sound at once like game collaborators and fans caught up in the throes of an earnest singalong, crashing through inhibitions to attain a state of vulnerable yet joyous connection.
Pellino and Mitchard, along with drummer and Erik Fredine and bassist/vocalist Drew Ferguson, also know how to pull back and create quiet, aching passages between the moments of full-throated purging. “Prizefighter” builds up with an understated but tense bass line, as the two guitarists work around each other in flickering figures before pulling together in a restless groove. In the middle of Side A‘s closing track, “Grow,” WSHBDJs shift right from wounded fury to a slower-moving passage of ringing guitars and gauzy reverb. But even then, the band doesn’t sacrifice its rough edges, piling on a few final group screams and triumphant cymbal bashes.
Headlining this show is Minneapolis trio New Primals, who wrap the jagged chords and menacing vocals of noise-rock around particularly tight and syncopated structures. On “Death Hoax,” from the band’s 2017 EP Wraith, drummer Andrew Kurtz and bassist Eric Nordling create rhythms that expertly ride the line between precision and chaos, all of it under guitarist/vocalist Sam Frederick’s unhinged grunts. “Modern Lover,” the first single from the forthcoming album Horse Girl Energy (with new drummer Lars Oslund and vocalist Ali Terveen), takes more of a staggering, off-centered approach, giving Frederick’s guitar and Nordling’s bass a chance to stretch out into queasy but impressive spirals of dissonance. Madison punk outfit Black Cat rounds out the bill here. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY, JANUARY 17
Following several successful runs in Milwaukee, Riverwest FemFest expanded out to Madison last May for a one-night event at Communication. That venue will once again play host to a portion of the festivals offerings, housing a special workshop portion of the event on Saturday. While workshop leaders Communication will be tackling topics like how to get started in stand-up, home recording, and effective music marketing, Bos Meadery will be hosting the festival’s live music portion on both Friday and Saturday. A slew of notable local and regional acts will be participating, including Appleton country-boogie masters Dusk, Madison power-pop standouts Proud Parents and Heavy Looks, Milwaukee rapper/dancer/producer Zed Kenzo, Milwaukee punks Fox Face, Madison queer-punk champions Gender Confetti, and producer/DJ Saint Saunter (among several others).
Riverwest FemFest initially started as a celebration of artists that have been historically Othered throughout history, providing a safe, inclusive opportunity for a standalone showcase. The core tenet of the festival remains the same: amplifying voices that aren’t exclusively male in an industry where that still, unfortunately, can present barriers. As recently as 2018, studies had shown the repercussions of systemic sexism manifesting on the major festival level, forcing several bookers to focus more on inclusivity. 2019’s booking outlook has been more diverse, but not by much, presenting a clear need for local, community-driven festivals like Riverwest FemFest.
“Our hope is to produce a creative, uplifting, and empowering space for people in our community who historically were excluded from performance spaces and events,” says Rosalind Greiert, one of the festival’s organizers and guitarist/vocalist for Heavy Looks. “We strive to create a welcoming environment where people can meet, collaborate, and celebrate each other and their talents. We hope people feel comfortable to express and share themselves through art and music and that it makes a lasting positive effect in Madison so that we can continue doing events like this.”
While FemFest happens once a year, Greiert also stresses the need to take a bigger-picture view of equity in Madison’s creative communities: “There’s a ton of talented musicians, artists, and performers of all walks of life here in Madison and around the city. It’s a hub of creative people and there’s no good reason why certain folks are more represented than others in the entertainment scene. I know we’re not the only ones pushing for more diverse representation in the Madison music and art scene. There have been some great strides to create more inclusivity and diversity with groups like Half-Stack Sessions, events like Gender Fest and Hot Summer Gays, and spaces like Communication and Bos Meadery. In the seven years I’ve lived [in Madison], I’ve seen a lot of improvements, but there’s always room to grow.”
Greiert also makes it clear that the festival continues to happen thanks to the support from the greater Madison arts community, who have ensured the festival continues to have an extension in the city. Hotel Indigo will be providing a discounted rate for those attending the festival and Noosh will have a booth and be selling food on both nights. All of the proceeds from the festival will be split between the performing artists and Willma’s Fund, a branch of the OutReach LGBT Community Center that’s dedicated to assisting Dane County’s homeless LGBTQ+ residents. —Steven Spoerl
SATURDAY, JANUARY 18
The year’s first installment of Robinia Coutyard’s Jams series features one of the monthly dance night’s most intriguing headliners yet. Flower Food is the DJ and performance moniker of Emma Danch, whose work has ranged from compelling, danceable mixes to experimental sound art. Jams is all about getting people to dance, so Danch will be spinning a DJ set here, but there should be plenty evidence of her adventurous ear among the grooves. Take a recent episode of Mixed Prints, Danch’s show on WNUR, Northwestern University’s radio station. Over the course of two hours and change, the set incorporates more than enough rhythm to nudge people into motion, some of it decidedly rooted in techno and some of it a little more experimental. But throughout, Danch also lets the listener/dancer bask in an incredibly rich range of spaces and textures.
A series of site-specific electroacoustic pieces Danch calls “Talking Spaces” combines abstraction with an almost playful musicality. These pieces draw on everyday sounds, from the soggy thrum of a dishwasher (take that, Matmos!) to the ambient noises of beaches and parking lots. Danch gathers sound samples in real time and manipulates them with software. These pieces are very true to the idea that improvisation isn’t merely a free-for-all, but a practice of spontaneous composition. As the clicks and hums and snippets of voice accrete, Danch quickly finds rhythms and harmonies to play with, reminding us in a very literal fashion that music can be a powerful response to our environments. And I’m sure it’s not lost on Danch that a good DJ set is also a response to the mood of the venue and audience.
Perhaps the most impressive “Talking Spaces” piece that I’ve been able to hear (without actually seeing it in action) comes from Danch’s performance at an experimental-music festival in Serbia in 2016. Danch starts with barely-audible echoes and voices, and over the course of 40 minutes, builds them into whirring collages and undulating, blasted-out dissonance. Let’s hope she gets back to Madison to showcase this side of her work, after spinning what promises to be a very good set here. DJ Zip Disk, DJ Umi, and Jolokia round out this installment of one of Madison’s most ambitious dance parties. —Scott Gordon