Exuberant experimental rock from Spirits Having Fun, the debut of Madison FemFest, and more events of note in Madison this week. (Spirits Having Fun photo by Julia Dratel.)
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THURSDAY MAY 9
Madison duo The Central has often touched on elements of grindcore—rapid-fire drum patterns that aim for overload, riffs that slither through blown-out low-end—but rarely bothers with the strictures of 30-second, what-just-hit-me song structures. Instead, drummer Alex Roberts and guitarist/vocalist Frankie Furillo are all about flexibility, and seem determined to make curveballs the norm. The Central’s 2016 album Discovery Of A Rat incorporated elements of avant-jazz, punchy guitar-pop, and screwball sound collage into the duo’s maniacal post-hardcore whirl. The duo went much farther afield on 2018’s Sick And Dying, placing cheerful “ooh-ooh” vocal harmonies alongside bracing screams, and building songs around often restrained guitar figures. “Peace At Home” finds The Central experimenting with gospel and R&B influences, crafting hooks that fall right in that space between familiar and just a bit… off. “Quiet Mouse In Muscatine” builds bells, wordless vocals, and creaky percussion noises into an at once tender and unnerving arrangement. And on tracks like “Whatever Happens,” Roberts and Furillo still deliver plenty of gnarled, pulverizing heaviness. It all feels impulsive in the extreme, but more often than not The Central deftly pulls of its bizarro-world mix of ideas. Look for some new material in the band’s set at this show.
Poney started out in 2005 as a Wausau-based hardcore band, but has embraced elements of prog and metal for years. Over time, Poney’s lineups have changed several times and its current members have converged upon Madison (most of them play in other local bands too, including No Hoax, Black Cat, and Cave Curse). Drummer/vocalist Ben Brooks’ rugged bellow and furiously churning rhythms have always been pretty central elements, even as the band’s songwriting became more complex and melodic. Some of Poney’s biggest musical shifts occurred on the 2010 concept album Seamyth (loosely based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”) and on 2018’s Pagan Nouveau, an album that uses the sheer heft of Tyler Spatz and Scott Miller’s guitars to accentuate soaring hooks. The overall approach of songs like “TV Teeth” and “Cube” is just as dense and aggressive as ever, but there’s an overtly melodic approach at work here. A lot has changed since I first heard Poney more than a decade ago, but it still strikes me as one of the most creatively fertile heavy bands around. Poney and The Central play here with Portland, Oregon experimental-rock outfit The Mercury Tree. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY MAY 10
Chicago band Avantist, playing here as part of the multi-genre Bangers & Mash dance night, create something incredibly tight and nimble from a musical worldview that reaches across several gulfs at once. Comprised of four brothers, Avantist draws on shattering post-hardcore, psych-rock, prog, Mexican folk musics, and vividly recontextualized strands of pop and R&B. The aims are lofty, yet the results, on 2018’s self-titled album and Terasoma EP, also connect on an immediate gut level, as if the band is making all these influences fuse together through sheer heroic force of will. Terasoma‘s “Violence” works as both a whiplash math-rock track and a mightily yearning pop song. Fernando Arias’ bilingual vocals plunge straight into all the incongruity this mix of influences creates on paper, never getting hung up on the difference between furious screams and supple melodies.
Guitarist David Arias, drummer Luis Arias, and bassist Erick Arias are every bit as fluid. “Tidalwave,” from the band’s LP, puts a powerful forward-looking spin on surf-rock, while “Veneno” cuts pretty close to straightforward hardcore. On another highlight from the LP, “Human Driver,” Avantist creates a writhing knot of barbed guitar lines and explosive drums, pulling back at points to make room for The Mars Volta’s Adrián Terrazas-González to contribute some cavernous sax lines. Madison-based MC Red The Bully, who told us recently that he’s been at work on some new material, will also be performing here. The night’s DJ is fellow Madisonian Quinley, who spins frequently at Nattspil and other venues, and can be expected to channel the mood of the room into a flexible mix of house and techno. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY MAY 11
Milwaukee’s week-long Riverwest FemFest began in 2015 to empower communities that have largely been excluded from creative spaces throughout history. In offering a platform for people of color, womxn, femmes, gender-nonconforming/non-binary/trans-identified persons, FemFest honors these groups’ efforts to occupy and (re-)claim artistic spaces. While this year’s Riverwest FemFest runs from May 26 to June 2, Ellie Jackson (one of the festival’s co-founders) and Madison-based musician Rosalind Greiert (guitarist/singer for Heavy Looks and host of WSUM’s The Effeminate Musique) have collaborated to present a one-night Madison edition of FemFest.
This year, the nascent festival will benefit Wilma’s Fund, which assists homeless members of Dane County’s LGBTQIA+ community, as it celebrates the vital role womxn play within the community. Madison FemFest will showcase the works of Emma Dehlinger, Malerie Lenz, and illustrator T.L. Luke, who designed the event’s poster, while Charly Rowe will lead “A Catharsis Workshop For PTSD” to open the event. Following this presentation, Madison power-pop band According to What, which released its rollicking, twee-tinged Punk Songs To Hold Hands To EP in April, and the genre-bending multi-instrumentalist Ms. Lotus Fankh (pronounced “funk”), who recently completed a video for NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest with Radio Milwaukee’s help, will launch the event’s musical portion before a new Madison band called Woke Up Crying performs. To conclude the festival’s events, DJ Hitachii will spin records across various genres highlighting femme voices. —Shaun Soman
The forthcoming debut album from Spirits Having Fun, Auto-Portrait, pushes the band’s scrambled complexity to a series of exuberant peaks, offering a vision of experimental rock that values friendliness and warmth as much as it does twisted rhythms and abstracted melodies. On songs like “Electricity Explorer,” Katie McShane’s vocal melodies flit among a tangle of McShane and Andrew Clinkman’s alternately sweet and cracked guitars, while drummer Phil Sudderberg and bassist Jesse Heasly string fragmented meters into an amiable flow. The album’s title track (also its opening track) begins with a fast-flickering guitar melody that creates a feeling of lightness, as if to reassure listeners that they’ll be treated kindly during the wild rhythmic tumbles to come. Things get a bit more unsettling on tracks like “Gift Shopping,” as Clinkman and McShane’s guitars engage in a dissonant but taught back-and-forth. “Alligators Bellow In B-Flat” finds the band at its most playful, with its loose, shuffling drums and lyrics about key changes and mouse pads.
At some point it’s hard not to be reminded of Deerhoof or Ponytail, but don’t let that distract from everything Spirits Having Fun’s members (currently split between Chicago and New York) bring to the table from their formidable backgrounds in jazz and avant-rock. McShane and Healy both play in the mangled art-pop ensemble Listening Woman. Sudderberg and Clinkman play with eminent saxophonist and improviser Ken Vandermark in Marker. McShane’s solo career includes work as a new-music composer and cellist, Sudderberg played in the singularly warped Chicago outfit Wei Zhongle, and Clinkman has made experimental solo releases and played in the Boston-based Cowboy Band. With all that experience and versatility in the mix, it’s hard to imagine Spirits Having Fun getting hemmed in too easily, and it’ll be interesting to see how Auto-Portrait‘s songs mutate in the live setting. —Scott Gordon
MONDAY MAY 13
Historian Simon Balto made a couple of different marks on Madison during his time here, earning a PhD at UW-Madison and building up his career as a folk singer-songwriter. Balto, now a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Iowa, has focused much of his research on African-American history and especially how it relates to policing and incarceration. At a time when even moderate and conservative Americans are beginning to admit that racism is brutally baked into our criminal-justice system, Balto’s work can help us understand how we got here. In the new book he’ll discuss here, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago, Balto explores how one notoriously racist and sadistic police force responded to the racial realignments of the Great Migration.
Balto’s time span in Occupied Territory goes from the race riots of 1919’s “Red Summer” to the violent repression Black Power activists faced from Chicago police during the 1960s and 1970s. All of this points to the state of race and policing in Chicago in the 21st century—machine politicians still try to cover up for murderous cops, and the Chicago Police Department established its own black site in 2004—but Balto is chiefly concerned here with putting readers deep into the 20th century, and revealing how racism and corruption shaped black neighborhoods’ relationships with Chicago police. Balto is currently working on a book about a closely related subject—CPD’s murder of activist Fred Hampton—so perhaps he’ll have more to say about that here. —Scott Gordon
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