Cathartic noise-rock from Djunah, Julia Reichert’s “Growing Up Female,” and more events of note in Madison this week.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 31
The high-schoolers in Racine band VenganzA play scorched-earth punk with a strong affinity for the menace of 1980s thrash-metal. While the band has released just a few demo recordings, VenganzA has been playing frequently around the state over the summer and fall, even scoring a slot at Summerfest, and its live set already makes a strong impression. The influence of Slayer comes to the fore on “The Axeman,” a ghoulish portrait of a serial killer who terrorized New Orleans in the early 20th century: The song begins with an ominously ringing, clean-toned guitar figure before bursting into a brutally chugging verse complete with gnashing vocals and baleful threats. Elsewhere in its repertoire (“Lose Lose Situation,” “Hypnotized”), the band channels its youthful disaffection through a mix of unvarnished hardcore and muscular metal swagger. VenganzA also sometimes throws in a cover of The Misfits’ “Last Caress,” which is always a little unsettling coming from a band of youngsters any way you cut it, and they’re not the only ones on this Halloween bill who follow in The Misfits’ twisted footsteps.
The other band of relative young folks at this show, Madison’s Flying Fuzz, digs a little more into stoner-metal and classic-rock territory, and with impressive skill of its own. The band released its self-titled debut album earlier this year, and will be playing a set of Misfits covers. Madison trio Clean Room’s set here will kick off its final tour with its current lineup of guitarist/vocalist Jeffrey Halleran, drummer Elyse Clouthier, and bassist Matt Behm. In the new year, Halleran plans to carry on the project with bassist Adam Flottmeyer (Wash/Interlay, Norris Court, Like A Manatee) and drummer Taylor Low. Clean Room is also preparing to release a self-titled compilation in November, which will largely commemorate the gleefully shuffling hard rock the band has created in its current lineup. The release will also feature some bonus tracks that capture other iterations of the band over the years, with appearances from guest musicians including Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 1
Madison is hosting a series of events this week that pay tribute to the great jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, all with the involvement of his widow, author and scholar Maxine Gordon, who published her book Sophisticated Giant: The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon in 2018. Maxine Gordon spent years working behind the scenes in jazz as a manager and producer, and after Dexter Gordon’s death in 1990, she went back into academia and developed a formidable track record as a jazz historian. Her visit to Madison has been a mix of book talks and musical celebrations, with performances by artists including the New Breed Jazz Jam, UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble, and pianist and UW-Madison jazz studies leader Johannes Wallmann.
Maxine Gordon will also be in attendance to share her book on Friday night at Café Coda, where her residency will culminate in an intimate concert celebrating Dexter Gordon’s compositions. The night will feature three saxophonists who are worth catching in any setting: Sharel Cassity, Hanah Jon Taylor, and Eric Koppa. Wallmann, bassist Nick Moran, and drummer Matt Endres will join them, in configurations that will switch between quartet, quintet, and sextet, to explore Gordon’s repertoire from a variety of angles. —Scott Gordon
The Chicago two-piece Djunah (pronounced JUNE-uh) uses the basic elements of noise-rock to open up improbably vast emotional territory on its debut album Ex Voto, set to release on the day of this Madison show. Guitarist/vocalist Donna Diane (who also plays synth bass, via foot pedals) and drummer Nick Smalkowski clearly know how to bludgeon the listener with snaggled chords and queasily swaying rhythms, but they’ve also seized on the magic connection between austerity and flexibility. The very bleakness of Djunah’s approach gives each sonic element plenty of room to branch out, especially Diane’s voice, which stretches from the breathy baritone lunge of “Animal Kingdom” to the tender melodies of “Kiddo” to the gradually escalating bellows and screams of “Bless Your Money.”
Diane creates a gut connection in every register and every state of throaty distress, and uses her versatility as both vocalist and guitarist to imprint the songs on Ex Voto with engrossing scenes and characters. The most powerful story here is “Nurse And Nun,” a portrait of healing female archetypes turned inside out by trauma. Diane pulls us into the story with a restrained, melodic intro “I’m nurse and nun / Undertaker of men / All men cry upon my table / I’d give you the balm but you’re unable.” From there, Smalkowski builds toward a mighty churn, while Diane’s guitar phrases make precise, resourceful hops across the instrument’s range. By the end of the track, Diane’s voice is somewhere beyond a wail, pushed to a point where her rage burns into something like triumph. Like the record as a whole, the song hurls itself across a continuum of fury and catharsis. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 2
Although Julia Reichert made her debut documentary and sociological study Growing Up Female (co-directed with James Klein) in 1971 and released it the following years, the patriarchal language that frames it is stuck in the 1950s. In the 50-minute film’s first half, Reichert observes as adult instructors and guidance counselors inculcate teenage women, who would later become the Boomers, with their attitudes about how to be womanly and subservient. In reflecting upon these moments, the mini-feature, which kicks off a November series on Reichert’s five decades in film, makes a curious companion with the startling vérité of Frederick Wiseman’s High School, released just a few years prior in 1968.
Reichert’s progressive viewpoint, physical presence, and voiceover narration thankfully lift Growing Up Female as a whole, both in its introductory thesis and hopeful conclusion. This is why, nearly 50 years since its initial release, and eight years after its selection for Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, the documentary is now seen as a crucial part of the ’70s feminist movement. In a series of interviews with women like Janelle, Terry, Tammy, Jessica, and Mrs. Russell, from grade school to their mid-thirties, Reichert mines the underlying effects of gendered constructs that foster an unhealthy sense of materialism tethered to one’s self-image. Men are not only referred to as the gatekeepers to what’s permissible and proper, but also directly portrayed as such. Midway through the film, Reichert shrewdly lets the callous misogyny of a nameless advertising executive convey his industry’s intention to manipulate behavior and values, with specific attention to creating a false freedom of choice for young women.
While this pervasive oppression can seem inescapable, Growing Up Female is perhaps most heartening when it captures the intelligence of the women’s instinctual self-awareness through either candid response or expression. Twelve-year-old Janelle sees herself as equal amongst her male peers and resists her mother’s rigid definitions of femininity. When the focus shifts to sixteen-year-old Terry, her comments initially express a naiveté about married life. However, after Reichert reveals the conservative perspective of her vocational school’s extensive course on that very subject, Terry grows more skeptical when an older female authority essentially tells her that a man should never have to be concerned about menial domestic tasks. The final interview with Mrs. Russell, a homemaker of 12 years, also prompts some interesting on-camera self-reflection, and suggests an underlying, fundamental shift in the ways women thought of their identities separate from their lives as wives and mothers.
Growing Up Female screens as the first part of a double-feature with Methadone: An American Way Of Dealing (1974), which chronicles the sadly still-relevant subject of opioid addiction and how the social safety net mishandles it. —Grant Phipps
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3
Combining the beloved and timeless genres of neo-noir, western, and Nicolas Cage, John Dahl’s 1993 film Red Rock West is a thriller that delivers splendidly on most of its expected tropes. Originally intended as a straight-to-cable release, the film bolsters its meat-and-potatoes thrills with a tight script and reliably magnetic acting from its leads. The film opens with Michael (Cage), the prototypical loner on his last dollar looking for work. As he drifts into Red Rock, Wyoming, he is mistaken for a hitman and paid $5,000 to kill the wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) of a local bar owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh). Just as Michael thinks he’s beaten the odds and made some easy cash, he gets wrapped up in an increasingly complicated game of shifting allegiances involving Wayne (who also happens to be the town’s bloodthirsty sheriff) and the real hitman, Dallas (Dennis Hopper), that takes him in and out of Red Rock several more times as the film approaches its brutal final standoff.
With a workman-like directorial style, Red Rock West‘s character largely relies on the grinding tension of the screenplay and the measured eccentricities of Cage, Boyle, Hopper, and Walsh. The first half of the film deploys the sort of linear thriller plotting where each problem’s solution begets a new problem, creating a sort of constant thrum of unease. Cage’s performance lies somewhere on the more reserved end of his spectrum, with a small handful of expertly deployed highlight-reel-worthy line readings to keep viewers on their feet. This makes him the relative straight man for Walsh’s quiet intensity, Boyle’s coy allure, and Hopper’s scenery-chewing menace. Taken all together, the actors imbue the film with a constant threat of violence that sells even the more predictable plot turns as compelling cinema. —Maxwell Courtright
10/31: Tomeka Reid Quartet. Arts + Literature Laboratory, 6:30 & 9 p.m. (Read more about this in our interview with guitarist Mary Halvorson.)
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