A new film festival explores the meanings of family, the Found Footage Festival returns, Kamasi Washington plays the Sylvee, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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THURSDAY NOVEMBER 1
Paul Metzger and John Saint Pelvyn are solo musicians from the Twin Cities who explore areas of American Primitive avant-folk in radically unorthodox ways. Metzger has been building instruments for decades, modifying banjos and guitars into mutant creations that he plays with virtuosic abilities. His self-taught playing method is an idiosyncratic blend of stringed instrument disciplines, resulting in unusual techniques, like playing his 23-string banjo with a bow. Metzger’s most recent album, 2015’s 1300, features two long improvisations influenced by Indian classical ragas, with Metzger accompanying himself on tablas.
John Saint Pelvyn’s finger-picking abilities are evident on his newest album, 2018’s A Clerical Error In Shasta County Shouldn’t Have To Ruin A Saturday Night, but his guitar playing is also slathered with feedback and extensive use of his whammy bar, filling his music with creaking, warbly textures. The opening track, “Yreka, Last Call,” evokes the work of American Primitive pioneers John Fahey and Henry Flynt, slowly building its melody over a constant throb of droning feedback fiddling.
Neither Metzger or Saint Pelvyn have played Madison in a few years, but previous visits have always benefited from being in small intimate venues, so Communication is a good spot to see these two unconventional musicians play. —Ian Adcock
Considering that it’s the product of horror masters Stephen King and David Cronenberg, 1983’s The Dead Zone is an unexpectedly muted, solemn film. Christopher Walken stars as Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered schoolteacher in Maine. After dropping off his fiancee Sarah (Brooke Adams) on a rainy night, Johnny is badly injured in a bizarre auto accident. Awakening from a coma five years later, he discovers Sarah has married and has a son, and that he (Johnny) now has psychic powers that predict the future. Johnny tries to use his new powers to help others, but the premonitions take an emotional and physical toll on him. When Johnny meets opportunistic politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he foresees that Stillson will eventually cause nuclear armageddon and decides to try to change the future by assassinating him.
The Dead Zone was Cronenberg’s first Hollywood film, and it’s a major departure from his earlier independent films. Lacking the body horror and sci-fi intellectualism of Scanners or Videodrome, The Dead Zone has more of an emotional resonance than a typical Cronenberg film. Cronenberg describes it as “certainly my least offensive film,” shifting the focus away from King’s serial killer subplot to focus on Johnny and Sarah’s romance. Where Cronenberg’s films are usually centered on intellectual, unemotional protagonists, Walken’s excellent performance depicts Smith as a man tormented by his psychic powers. A deeply effective Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone is a mature, serious film from David Cronenberg with a solid emotional core. —Ian Adcock
Loudon Wainwright III has totally played into his image as a raffish and wisecracking singer-songwriter, so it’s not quite unfair, even if it’s reductive. I mean, right before the 2016 election he collaborated with Funny Or Die to make a Trump-baiting novelty song and video that hasn’t aged very well. (The song, “I Had A Dream,” speculates on all the crazy shit that would happen if Trump became president and, well, guess what.) So, he’s probably not too worried about seriousing up the image he earned in the early 1970s with songs like “Dead Skunk” and (hoo boy) “Rufus Is A Tit Man.” But there’s always been a much more weighty thread to his work.
When he resists the lure of dad-joke-gone-too-far humor, Wainwright can deliver raw and disarming songs about memory, family, and loss. Both 1992’s History and 2001’s Last Man On Earth abound with examples and make good starting points for anyone who wants to get deeper into his work. History‘s “Sometimes I Forget” captures the massive absence of those small, day-to-day interactions with someone who’s died, and on Last Man‘s “White Winos” Wainwright reminisces about drinking with his late mother and how grief impacts his own relationship with alcohol (maybe a little funny, but in this context pretty crushing). And of course, it’s not always an either-or kind of deal: Wainwright used his playful side to surreal and unsettling effect on “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” one of his finest accomplishment as a songwriter and later covered by Johnny Cash. Ideally, the smart-assed and the somber will complement each other as Wainwright unpacks his songbook in this intimate Stoughton Opera House show. —Scott Gordon
For its annual fall weekend film festival at the Marquee Theater in Union South, WUD Film thematically extends the empathetic themes of last November’s “Hyphenated-Americans Film Festival” to “What Is Family?” in 2018. The 10 recently released feature films screening here collectively question the evolving notion of family in our current era. While a number of the diverse selections will focus on nuclear and biological relationships in a myriad of urban and rural environments, others are more inclusive and fluid in showcasing how a community, clique, or even a group of coworkers may also emulate and mirror the oscillating moral support and denunciation of a familial unit.
Three selections at What Is Family?—Xavier Legrand’s intense domestic thriller Custody (Nov. 1, 9:30 p.m.), as well as Tim Wardle’s shocking documentary on estranged triplets ,Three Identical Strangers (Nov. 4, 3 p.m.), and Andrew Bujalski’s workplace dramedy Support The Girls (Nov. 4, 6 p.m.)—screened at this past April’s Wisconsin Film Festival. A couple others, like Debra Granik’s moving survivalist drama Leave No Trace (Nov. 3, 6 p.m.) and Aneesh Chaganty’s mobile device-crafted investigative drama Searching (Nov. 3, 8:30 p.m.), had brief theatrical runs in Madison.
Most notable, though, are the few films that will see their local premieres during this fest. They include opening night pick, Summer 1993 (Nov. 1, 7 p.m.), a patient, quietly beautiful, partly autobiographical first feature directed by Carla Simón. The narrative chronicles the trying transition for six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas), who is forced to live with her aunt (Bruna Cusí) in the seemingly idyllic Catalonia after her mother’s tragic death in Barcelona. Additionally, I’m personally looking forward to Friday’s late-night selection, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline (Nov. 2, 11 p.m.), a breakout at Sundance early this year, and which recently had a couple screenings at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Recalling Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977), Decker’s surreal psychological tale fuses outré, potently animalistic performance art and a fraught mother-teen daughter relationship (Helena Howard and Miranda July, respectively). The transfixing yet volatile mood is augmented further by the stunning avant-garde score by Pulitzer Prize-winning vocalist Caroline Shaw.
For the full What Is Family? schedule, visit the Wisconsin Union’s official site. —Grant Phipps
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 2
Jazz has always been a loose concept, one of its tenets being improvisation upon pre-existing forms of music. Tenor saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington is doing his part to ensure that remains true. After studying ethnomusicology at UCLA, working with artists across varying genres—from Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar to funk legend George Duke to Shins/Danger Mouse offshoot Broken Bells, and putting three albums out on his own—Washington finally earned a wide audience for his ambitious music with The Epic, released in 2015 on Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder. Three short years later, between continuing his work with other musicians as well as releasing the Whitney Biennial-commissioned EP Harmony Of Difference, Washington came back with another album, last June’s Heaven And Earth.
The album pulls together a myriad of influences: Afro-Latin music, hip hop, classical orchestration, psychedelia, and choral elements, all with a big band sound. And a big band it is—two basses, double drums, an assortment of keys (piano, keyboard, organ), strings, and an entire horn section. If that sounds potentially overwhelming, it is. Heaven And Earth is a soaring sprawl of a double album (plus a surprise 40-minute EP released in the liner notes of the album, titled The Choice) that rarely lets up. While the album is cohesive and best heard from beginning to end, there are standout tracks. The fierce, political “Fists Of Fury” (yep, the theme song to the Bruce Lee film) almost sounds like it could be at home on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? or Curtis Mayfield’s score to the film Superfly. “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” the first track of Heaven, is celestial indeed, with tinkling cymbals and a beautiful classical string composition. The last track of the album, “Will You Sing,” is a commanding, piano-heavy track that sounds like you might hear it in church on Sunday morning: A choir sings, “With our song one day we’ll change the world / Will you sing? / So much strength in what God gave to us / Will you sing?” The spiritualist vein is strong, similarly to Washington’s other releases, but in a less gospel, preachy sense and more so along the lines of Afrospiritualist musicians like Sun Ra or Pharoah Sanders. The devotional aspects lend themselves to moments of transcendence rather than proselytizing.
There aren’t any immediate stylistic differences between the two sides of Heaven And Earth, though Washington has stated in a press materials that “The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of. The Heaven side of this album represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me. Who I am and the choices I make lie somewhere in between.” However, Washington’s discerning vision and commitment to collaboration shine throughout. When Washington decides to step to the forefront, on tracks like “Hub-Tones,” “The Invincible Youth,” and “Journey,” it’s clear he takes his first job as saxophonist quite seriously, from smooth, funky trills to blasting crescendos. But one of the wonderful things about Heaven And Earth is how well he has brought together his most talented contemporaries and led them fearlessly, most often allowing his own playing to take a back seat in order to allow the music to stand on its own, or let his collaborators shine. The album is rife with excellent contributions, including members from his band the Next Step and his LA collective The West Coast Get Down, as well as electronic funk artist Thundercat, vocalist Patrice Quinn, and the multitalented Terrace Martin (producer, rapper, etc), who stops by to play alto saxophone on “Tiffakonkae.” Opening this show is self-described “garage punk jazz funk” five-piece Butcher Brown, from Richmond, Virginia. —Katie Hutchinson
Wisconsin natives Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher have made a career of unearthing bizarre video relics and vintage public-access shows, building up a collection of excruciatingly funny stuff that ranges from repulsive video-dating profiles to questionable health regimens. They started up the Found Footage Festival in 2004, and over time parlayed its popularity into documentaries, books, and a series of televised pranks that had the added benefit of elevating their friend Mark Proksch to roles on shows including The Office and Better Caul Saul.
One of these pranks, in which Pickett and Prueher appeared on local TV news shows as the absurd fitness duo “Chop & Steele,” prompted broadcast company Gray Television to sue them, in a transparent act of corporate bullying. Fans rallied to raise funds for Pickett and Prueher’s legal defense, and Gray Television dropped the suit in March. But after all that, the core of FFF is still the live show, in which Pickett and Prueher share briskly edited montages of their latest finds. The two also interject with just enough comedic banter to keep things moving, and that in-person touch is one of the main reasons why these shows are still an exciting yearly occasion. Still, they know when to let the footage speak for itself, and they excel at dredging up misguided, hallucinatory, self-awareness-challenged stuff from across the vast VHS wastelands. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 3
Dumb Vision blended pop melodies with staticky sleaze on its 2016 self-titled debut album. Madison has plenty of noisy punk and garage-rock bands these days and Dumb Vision’s members collectively play in a good number of them—guitarist Erick Fruehling and drummer Alex Ross are in Fire Heads, bassist Griffin Pett plays in Wood Chickens, and guitarist Chris Joutras’ projects include Coordinated Suicides and The Momotaros—but the fuzzy swing of songs like “Warm Meat” and “Leave It Alone” gave this band a distinctive place among that part of the local music community.
Dumb Vision’s sound gets a little darker on Modern Things, the new album it will celebrate at this show. The title track and “Damn It” share a lot of that first album’s smart-assed brightness, but much of this new record heads straight into discordant feedback, murky low end, and blunt-edged melodies that bear the influence of metal and early hardcore. ” I don’t think it was very intentional,” says Fruehling, who generally takes the lead on writing the band’s songs, though all members contribute vocals and ideas. “But I wanted to slowly step away from our ‘pop-punk’ side and get into some darker territory, but also maintain some of the catchy riffy bits that are in that kind of music.”
“Your Vibrations,” “Made Of Glass,” and “Couldn’t Sleep” are among the harshest-sounding tracks Dumb Vision has put out so far, but also among the most dynamic, each one veering through volatile guitar breaks and mangled choruses in less than two minutes. There are fragments of catchy melody throughout Modern Things, but most of these songs let abrasive texture and pile-driving rhythms break through to the foreground.
“I think I was trying not to overplay which lead to some creepier guitar parts… maybe,” Joutras says. “A couple of the songs were older but we intentionally left them off the first tape because they felt like the beginnings of a new batch of songs/direction… which the rest of this record is comprised of.” Fruehling adds that the band has plenty ideas left over and plans to start writing another EP or album soon. —Scott Gordon
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 7
The Lady Laughs Comedy Festival’s third edition highlights the talents of women comedians from around the Midwest and beyond, via events with titles like “The Broad Side” at Plan B, “Trail Blaze-HERS!” at the Nomad World Pub, and a “Clam Slam Open Mic!” at Camp Trippalindee. The whole five-day fest culminates with a show titled “I ❤ Funny Women!” at The Barrymore, which festival organizers have announced will will be “filmed with 3 cameras in a Streaming Network style.”
The lineups for the shows, at least the ones featuring Madison comics whose work I know, look really great. The set of shows I could recommend most enthusiastically would be the four-pack of formidably funny lineups on November 8 at Plan B, which builds to sets from notable locals Cynthia Marie and Vanessa Tortolano, and the “Slay All Day! Show” on November 9 at Plan B, anchored by Stevie Leigh Crutcher and Brittany Tilander. The aforementioned “Clam Slam Open Mic!” at Camp Trippalindee, on November 9 and 10, should also be an entertaining grab bag given the number of performers in town for the fest—on top of a vibrant local scene that’s always up for some stage time.
Passes for the whole festival are $75, and passes for individual days are either $15 or $20 depending on the day. —Chris Lay
Chilean director and writer Dominga Sotomayor’s third feature, this year’s Too Late To Die Young, explores a rural commune through the eyes of its adolescent residents. In a community formed as Chile transitioned from Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship to democracy, newly free intellectuals and artists debate installing electricity before planning a celebration of the approaching new year. But Sofia (Demian Hernandez) yearns for life outside the commune’s porous bounds. Like any interesting young person in the ’90s, Sofia smokes cigarettes while taking baths and listening to Sinead O’Connor and Mazzy Star. Asked to teach her friend how to drive, Sofia cooly answers, “I don’t know how. I kinda just do it.” This aloof philosophy of responsibility permeates the film. While Sofia exudes detachment from her immediate surroundings, she also misses her mom, who hovers seemingly just outside her life. The thin plot and attention to messy details highlight the uniquely wandering patterns of life in alternative communities, which necessarily lurch from crisis to crisis as members experiment with new solutions to everyday frustrations. Too Late To Die Young is further bolstered by its music, as community members are each expected to perform, all balancing off-the-cuff charm with steady practice of craft, much like the film itself. —Reid Kurkerewicz
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