Jimmy Sugarcane’s dancehall reggae, a new Sid Boyum documentary, and more events of note in Madison this week.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 10
Jimmy Sugarcane, William Z. Villain, Pollinators, Disaster Passport. Mickey’s Tavern, 10 p.m. (free)
Chinedu James Ejiogu is relatively new to Madison and local audiences, but he’s been soaking up dancehall reggae since his childhood in Nigeria, along with music that ranged from Dolly Parton to Fela Kuti to the Everly Brothers to Nigerian highlife guitarist Oliver de Coque. “My dad used to bring me dancehall mixtapes when I was in grammar school,” Ejiogu recalls. “I knew some songs before I knew the artist.” The music he makes under the moniker Jimmy Sugarcane interprets dancehall, and a host of African and American pop influences, through a contemporary lens, combining impassioned vocals with sleek, upbeat electronic percussion.
Since moving to Madison a few years ago, Ejiogu has put together a live Jimmy Sugarcane lineup with Kameelah Harris DJing and Luke Bassuener (Asumaya, Faux Fawn, and plenty of other projects) on drums. This frees up Jimmy himself to focus on vocals and hyped-up crowd interaction, which he refers to as his superpower. Between lyrics that often focus on universal themes of love, affection, and attraction—”Now we’re committed through any weather / If you’re cold, I can be your sweater,” he sings on “Ti Ile”—JImmy Sugarcane is an impish showman, riling up the audience with abrupt cries of “ehnh!” and “Suuuugar-su-gar-cane, o!” and usually getting all but the most reserved Madisonians to shout it back. It’s hard to capture the “ehnh!” thing in writing, but you’ll know it when you hear it, in an abrupt, almost nasal departure from his usual singing voice. It’s good, sweaty, danceable fun, and the music aims to melt people’s boundaries a bit, whether they’re social or cultural. “I remember the first time I performed a song written in Igbo, my language,” Ejiogu recalls. “Someone walked up to me and said, ‘I don’t know the language but I knew it’s about love.'”
He’s working on finishing some new songs, and at this show he plans to include some older songs that haven’t been in his other recent live sets around town. Bassuener will be pulling double duty with Disaster Passport, an instrumental outfit that also features two banjos and baritone guitar, and became something of a local sensation last year by performing an original live score to the 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi. Also playing at this Mickey’s show are Quad Cities power-pop act Pollinators (led by former Madisonian Tom Teslik) and bizarro-world Balkan swing outfit William Z. Villain.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 12
Within the first two minutes of Madison-based filmmaker Gretta Wing Miller’s 2019 documentary Sid Boyum: Life Is An Illusion, we’ve already been told that the late artist was a “curmudgeon” and a “lecher,” and been warned not to mythologize him. Boyum (1913-1991) left an indelible imprint on Madison’s east side through his concrete sculptures, from a whimsical polar-bear chair to Henry Moore-inspired abstractions. The non-profit group Friends of Sid Boyum has inspired new interest in Boyum’s life and work, initially forming in 2015 to save Boyum’s abandoned house on Waubesa Street (and the many sculptures on the property) from a county tax auction. Miller’s hour-long film provides a revealing and often humorous overview of Boyum’s art and the impressions he made on local residents as he made his “rounds” at spots that included an Atwood Avenue dance studio, the Ohio Tavern, and the Union House Tavern (now the Malt House).
Miller began working on the film in 2000 and went above and beyond in exploring Boyum’s archives, even offering glimpses at comics he created as a student at East High School, the elaborate but playful celebrations of fishing he drew for The Capital Times, his eccentric and sometimes savagely funny Christmas cards, and a fake artifact he allegedly created for The House on the Rock. In addition to the work itself, Miller explores the many experiences and influences that shaped Boyum, including his time working as a photographer for a local machine company and the Japanese art that inspired him to create an elaborate backyard garden. Miller also doesn’t shelter viewers from the occasional misogyny and cruelty Boyum expressed through his art.
Boyum created a legend around himself, not just with his prolific output but with his strong opinions and boisterous claims. The man literally won a lying contest once, and Miller gives the audience space to wonder where the reality ends and the tall tales begin. Did he really go to Bohemian Grove? Did he really apprentice for Ansel Adams? The film neither debunks nor lends credence to Boyum’s more outrageous claims, instead letting us revel in the mystery and absurdity of his public persona. The film documents some of the Friends’ recent efforts to preserve Boyum’s legacy, and features music from Madison-based acts including Mal-O-Dua. This screening, sponsored by the Monona History Club, is free but registration is required.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 14
Bell Monks, the duo of multi-instrumentalists Eric Sheffield and Jeff Herriott, has channeled the power of hushed moments into both song-oriented material, as on the 2016 album Big Bay, and into eerie instrumental journeys, as on Brocades + Palimpsests, a 2016 collaboration with experimental electronic musician Gregory Taylor. Whatever form it’s taking, though, Bell Monks’ music expertly sketches out a space between frosty despair and open-hearted yearning. Songs like “Hold Me Close,” from Big Bay, also benefit from the quavering baritone of Herriott’s vocals, in performances that combine raw vulnerability with just the slightest touch of grandeur.
On another highlight from Big Bay, “Open Song,” Sheffield’s skeletal, swinging drums, a guest vocal from Heidi Johnson, and muted harmonica from guest Brian Lucas come together to evoke the beautifully sad contemplations of Low and Mazzy Star. Bell Monks captured yet another facet of their sonic curiosity on the 2013 release Colias 1, a compilation on which Madison label Mine All Mine Records invited 25 different artists to share their takes on ambient music. Bell Monks’ entry, “Let The Waves Carry Us (Part II),” uses burbling chords and sparse, ringing guitar to strike a balance of steadfast calm and unresolved tension.
Herriott lives in Fort Atkinson and Sheffield is currently based in upstate New York, but their musical activities as a duo have usually centered around Madison. Bell Monks will return for a January 14 house concert in the Vilas Neighborhood. (The hosts aren’t publishing the address, but anyone interested in attending can get more information by emailing [email protected].) Herriott says the duo is currently finishing up a new album that has been in the works since 2014. Bell Monks’ set here will consist of both songs and instrumentals. Two experimental duos from Madison, Woodman/Earhart and Sexe/Russell, will be playing as well.