Saladin Ahmed visits for WisCon, Madison Comedy Week makes its debut, Buildings play crushing noise-rock, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, Chris Lay, John McCracken, and Joel Shanahan
Sponsor message: The weekly Tone Madison calendar is made possible with support from Union Cab of Madison, a worker-owned cooperative providing safe and professional taxi services.
THURSDAY MAY 24
WisCon is one of the oldest feminist science fiction-based conferences in the country, foregrounding the important role of marginalized voices in the genre and serving as the birthplace of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, which recognizes sci-fi and fantasy works that challenge notions of gender. For more than 40 years, publishers, authors, vendors, and fandoms have converged in Madison to hear panels and readings from featured guests. This year’s guest of honor are Saladin Ahmed and Tananarive Due, both rising stars in the sci-fi and fantasy worlds.
Ahmed’s first novel, 2012’s Throne Of The Crescent Moon, won a Locus Award for Best First Novel and was also nominated and became a finalist for for a Hugo Award in 2013. This book weaves together magic, adventure, and political complexity in the tale of a weary “ghul hunter” who happens upon an evil plot to overthrow a khalif. It’s the first installment of Ahmed’s planned Crescent Moon Kingdoms series, set in a world that reflects elements of Middle Eastern geography, cityscapes, and culture. Ahmed’s is also known for his work in comics, poetry and short stories, some including Stars Wars-based fiction and Marvel’s Black Bolt series.
Due is a fantasy writer whose work pulls together elements of Afrofuturism, black horror, mystery, and speculative fiction. She has published a long list of short stories and novels but is possibly best known for her African Immortals series as well as the Tennyson Hardwick series. African Immortals is a four-novel series that follows the story of the Miami detective Jessica Jacobs-Wolde, whose life becomes intertwined with a threat from immortal beings. The Tennyson Hardwick series is an exciting and playful collection that follows a former male prostitute and current budding actor into a moving mystery in the shaky world of Hollywood. Due’s work is expansive and covers many genres, characters, and stories that are able to please many different types of audiences.
This year’s WisCon will feature a reading from both of the guests of honor on the night of Thursday, May 24 at 6 p.m. at Room of One’s Own. The rest of the weekend, at the Madison Concourse Hotel, will have panels focusing on topics such as queer comics, black women in leading roles, white feminism’s effect on the efforts of intersectional feminism, mental disability in video games, a gadget petting zoo, and many informative and exciting opportunities to learn about the intricate and expanding world of science fiction. —John McCracken
FRIDAY MAY 25
Chicago-based guitar-and-drums duo Sun Speak explore a wide landscape of jazz through their finely honed instrumental craft. Guitarist Matt Gold and drummer Nate Friedman are longtime improvisational collaborators, so any given show will be a little different from the last. The duo describes themselves as “electric chamber music,” as they are modernizing sounds and styles of small ensembles working in classical traditions, like string quartets, but also drawing on jazz methods, all filtered through modern production technologies like looping pedals.
Sun Speak’s recordings juggle the feeling that their instruments are discovering themes on a sonic journey together, even as the melodic groundwork remains solid. This approach lends itself to absorbing a wide range of genres, giving the instrumental album they released in 2015, Sacred Rubble, a chaotic range of moods. The band’s latest release is a collaboration with the Portuguese singer Sara Serpa, and texturally is more refined. Serpa’s voice adds elegant melodies over instrumentals that make smooth jumps from quiet rumination to intense builds. On “Basin,” Serpa eschews lyrics for a kind of airy hum, using her voice like a trumpet, which eventually digs into a beautiful groove as her voices lifts and falls with Gold’s strumming chords and arpeggios. Space Junk, a trio comprised of Madison jazz heavies Paul Dietrich (trumpet), John Christensen (bass), and Louka Patenaude (guitar), opens this show. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Some years it’s all too easy to rip on Brat Fest, yet every so often the massive pork-gobbling party nabs an impressive headliner. It may not top last year’s visit from George Clinton, but this year it’s a pleasant surprise to have Tempe, Arizona jangle-pop crooners Gin Blossoms playing a Monday afternoon set. Sure, it’s a ’90s nostalgia trip, but sweetly wounded singles like “Hey Jealousy” and “Til I Hear It From You” wormed their way into my heart in middle school and I’m still here for it.
The band had a successful but rough initial run after the release of their 1989 debut album Dusted, enjoying a few hits but also enduring the firing and suicide of co-founder Doug Hopkins, who also wrote some of the band’s best songs. The band started a second chapter in 2001, and in June will release their third post-reunion album, Mixed Reality. You can probably expect to hear some of that, but the band is still obliging about playing the old favorites. Those in search of the more standard Brat Fest thing can catch former Staind frontman Aaron Lewis doing his country thing on Friday and Bobaflex doing their post-grunge mouth-breather thing on Saturday. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY MAY 26
Last year, Minneapolis-based noise-rockers Buildings dropped You Are Not One Of Us, their debut for Wisconsin label Gilead Media long-awaited follow-up to the filthy and pummeling 2011 album Melt Cry Sleep. And while the production is warmer and stonier and vocalist-guitarist Brian Lake has scaled back his David Yow-channeling groans, the band still sounds as frantically unhinged as ever. Album opener “Separate By Numbers” rolls out with growling feedback before exploding into Lake’s discordant riffing and the rhythm section’s airtight bearhug hammering grooves and thunderous bass lines.
Throughout You Are Not One Of Us, Buildings does a killer job of jamming a lot of different ideas through their dusty sonic lens. “Smell The Pool” is a trudging grunge nightmare that stomps around the listener’s skull like it owns the fucking place and “Mother Nature” blasts off into blistering hardcore tempos. Meanwhile, “Pastor Dick” is a beautiful, drunken mess. It begins with sun-faded classic rock vibes before Lake’s mutant vocals carry it into ominous surrealism. It should also be noted that Buildings are known for their punishingly fun live show. —Joel Shanahan
One of several events launched in protest of Brat Fest sponsor Johnsonville’s political ties to Scott Walker, the annual Wurst Times festival is now entering its eighth year of scrappy counter-programming. This year’s festival raises money for the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, Guitars for Vets, and the Madison Area Music Association, and features a four-stage lineup of several dozen local bands at the High Noon, the Brink, the Brass Ring, and the outdoor patio those venues share. Brats and other food items are available throughout the day, and the music ranges from the rollicking sludge of Droids Attack to the sturdy reggae of Natty Nation to the congenial folk-rock of Nate Meng And The Stolen Sea. There’s interesting stuff throughout the day, from Glassmen’s intricately warped indie-rock at 11:15 a.m. to No Name String Band’s expansive take on bluegrass at 6:15 p.m. —Scott Gordon
This show celebrates the release of a new 7-inch featuring two songs each from Madison bands Clean Room and Lurk Hards. Clean Room, a trio blasting out playfully scuzzy hard rock, contribute “Jackhammer In A Fur Coat” and “Heartwork,” both also released on last year’s Madcity Meltdown EP. They followed that up with the March release of the Down To The Axle EP, and recently released a video for one of its tracks, “Run From The Reaper.” (Still more recording is planned for later this summer.) Lurk Hards, who combine nimble bluegrass instrumentation with raucous punk songwriting and the powerhouse vocals of Nikki Shackleford, are at once moody and fierce on their two contributions, “Shred Song” and “Rip N Shred.” Lurk Hards and Clean Room share the bill here with a third Madison band, standout black-metal duo Tubal Cain. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY MAY 27
Organized by Cynthia Marie, Peter Rambo, and Jake Snell, the inaugural Madison Comedy Week kicks off Sunday, May 2 with Skinny Dip Comedy Night and the Madison Area Comedy Awards (the M.A.C.A.s) at the Nomad World Pub, and runs through Sunday, June 3, when Twin Cities husband-and-wife headliners Mary Mack and Tim Harmston top the bill at a Central Park Sessions show in McPike Park. In between, local comedy fans will find 20 or so events spread across various venues, highlighting the broad range of talent the city has to offer.
The list of locals on board includes several winners of the Madison’s Funniest Comic Contest (Johnny Walsh, Nick Hart, Charlie Kojis), but also practically every top 10 finisher, dating back a few years (Deon Green, Gena Gephart, Esteban Touma, Alan Talaga, Adam McShane, Anthony Siraguse, Kevin Schwartz and on, and on). Along with the locals, there are a grip of great comics coming in from Milwaukee (Chastity Washington, Ryan Mason, Vickie Lynn). The structure of the event is smart, with most showcases energized with fun and conceptually interesting hooks. The aforementioned Skinny Dip Comedy Night, for example, will feature comics stripping down to their undies. Other events include a roast battle, a comedy show in someone’s backyard (location TBD), and a “D.A.R.E. for Adults” sketch show.
As a sampler of local and regional talent, the week of shows is solid. And the barrier for entry is just about as low as you could ever hope for, with most shows either free (including those opening and closing night events) or just a few bucks. The 10 shows at the Broom Street Theater are $5 each, but there’s a 50% price drop if you buy a pass to all of them. The whole thing feels really lovingly put together and designed to maximally highlight Madison’s criminally underestimated comedy scene in a broad and inclusive way. —Chris Lay
Finnish band Insomnium combines the rhythms of death metal with surges of grandiose melody, with results that are often simultaneously polished and brutal. It’s hard not to think of Amon Amarth in this territory, though Insomnium indulges in more atmospheric flourishes in between the stately jackhammerings on its 2016 album Winter’s Gate—which is actually one long track. And vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen has a respectable, throat-scorching vocal style that holds up even if you don’t have the context of metal’s endless subgenre distinctions. Sharing the bill here is Madison’s Bereft, who’ve mostly laid low since releasing their second album, 2017’s Lands. That record introduced an element of atmospheric doom to the band’s already weighty and emotionally draining songs. They’ve been working on writing new material, some of it due for a split release with Iowa City doom outfit Aseethe. —Scott Gordon
WEDNESDAY MAY 30
Experimental multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Kathleen Baird spent about a decade living and playing music in Madison, primarily as a member of the far-flung psych-folk outfit Spires That In The Sunset Rise, before moving to New York City in 2014. Since then, Baird has continued to work as part of Spires and dig in deeper on her solo work under the name Ka Baird. That project’s first proper album, Sapropelic Pycnic, was released in 2017 on Drag City and finds Baird summoning a cosmic, chaotic swirl of her own flute melodies, fractured electronics, and ethereal yet commanding vocals. Tracks like “Tok Tru” and “Oneiric” showcase Baird’s gift for creating suspenseful dynamics within what feel like wide-open-droney soundscapes. This show, presented by Tone Madison, will be Baird’s first in town since the album came out. She’ll be sharing the bill with fellow STITSR member Taralie Peterson, performing here in her solo project Louise Bock behind a new album, and Madison’s own Cult House Sound project will be spinning records before and between live sets. Tickets are available online, and there’s a discount for Tone Madison Sustainers. —Scott Gordon