Big Business, the Willy Street Fair, Subtle Degrees, a night of animated films with Noxroy, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, and Mike Noto
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 SEPTEMBER 13
This year’s Madison World Music Festival, split between the Memorial Union and a Willy Street Fair stage, brings in songwriters from Sweden, West Africa, and Eastern Europe, among other locales. More so than in past years, the lineup emphasizes artists who combine folk-music traditions with contemporary instrumentation and production, like Cuba-born, Paris-based multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Yaité Ramos Rodriguez’s project La Dame Blanche (Saturday, 9 p.m., Terrace). Rodriguez’s 2018 album Bajo El Mismo Cielo threads a melodic backbone of cumbia music into a pounding electronic landscape that draws on rap and dancehall. The production on tracks like “Ave Maria” and “Olvidate” is both exuberant and hardened, and Rodriguez’s songwriting makes her disparate influences meld together rather than itchily contrast. Her ambitions clearly go beyond making eclectic music you can dance to (though she certainly does that); between the album’s flowing minor-key melodies and slick, cavernous reverb is a heart-tugging affinity for music that has empowered and comforted people across many lands and eras.
Other highlights this year include Puerto Rico band Orquesta El Macabeo’s punk- and ska-inflected Afro-Latin jazz (Friday, 4:30 p.m., Terrace) and the masterful kora (a 21-stringed West African instrument) of Sona Jobarteh (Friday, 5:15 p.m., Memorial Union Play Circle), who was born in London but hails from a long line of Gambian griots.
Before the actual music, the festival kicks off with a screening of the 2017 documentary Burkinabè Rising: The Art Of Resistance In Burkina Faso (Thursday, 7 p.m., Union South Marquee). Director Iara Lee chronicles a community of artists that has flourished in the wake of Burkina Faso’s 2014 revolution, during which mass protests ended autocrat Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule. Against the backdrop of a successful but bruising struggle, the musicians and visual artists profiled in the film work not just on their own projects, but also on rebuilding the country’s political and cultural landscape through creativity. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 14
Madison-based guitarist and electronic musician Andrew Fitzpatrick (All Tiny Creatures, Bon Iver, Cap Alan) has developed a vast realm of sonic manipulation and synthesis in his solo project Noxroy. From the glacially tuneful ambient guitar of 2012’s Cotyledon Observatory to the more abstract and sparingly harsh modular-synth pieces of 2014’s Anverloss and 2018’s Protomontage, Noxroy demonstrates a formidable grasp of the textures and strange harmonics that electronic music can offer.
Fitzpatrick’s approach to making sense of this project live always shifts, though it invariably involves wrangling analog synths, software, and an electric guitar. At this show, Fitzpatrick will throw himself yet another curveball, performing new compositions as he screens a program of Canadian animated shorts from the 20th century. Communication is billing this as a “limited performance,” so it’s likely Fitzpatrick won’t be repeating this particular live set anytime soon. Louise Bock (the wide-ranging solo project of Spires That In The Sunset rise vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Taralie Peterson) and Madison ambient trio Sleep Now Forever will open the show. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 15
Douglas Sirk directs a nail-biting romance between a Henry David Thoreau-channeling tree farmer, Ron (Rock Hudson) and a prosperous suburban widow, Cary (Jane Wyman). While Cary goes about town attending cocktail parties, being dragged around as the date of older men, and fighting off drunken advances, she only has eyes for her stunningly handsome young gardener. When Ron tells her he’s giving up the maintenance business to grow trees, he invites her along to his cottage. While Ron charms Cary with the country life, complete with a conveniently placed copy of Thoreau’s Walden, the two fall in love. Of course, everyone else back in civilization is appalled, and Cary finds she must choose between the man who makes her happy and her own children, who claim they are unable to stand up to the scandalized harassment they face because of her new romance.
Sirk’s use of color and set design to juxtapose the town and country is stunning, and for 1955, its message is relatively progressive. While Cary finds she must be true to herself, against the demands made of single women in affluent society, it is still to a man that she must bend her life. That said, Rock Hudson is always a catch, and you’d have to be cold-hearted to not be yelling at the screen for them to get together in the end. All That Heaven Allows was a major influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who is the focus of a Cinematheque series. Fassbinder’s film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which plays the following afternoon, make subtle references to Sirk’s film, mimicking the symbolic use of a television set, while Fassbinder turns the lovers’ tension up a few notches. —Reid Kurkerewicz
We at Tone Madison recently announced a partnership with Communication, a non-profit venue and arts incubator that opened this spring on Milwaukee Street. As we prepare to move onto our next chapter, we wanted to give readers a chance to stop by and talk with us about the partnership and the future of this publication. A few Tone Madison editors and contributors will be hanging out at the space, spinning records, and taking your questions and suggestions. The event will also be a good chance to learn about Tone Madison‘s reader-supported Sustainer program, but mostly the agenda here is to make sure we’re as accessible and accountable to our readers as we can be. —Scott Gordon
The booking team behind the annual Musique Electronique event at the High Noon Saloon and La Fete De Marquette—probably the most ambitious effort anyone in Madison makes all year to book deep-reaching house and techno DJs and producers from around the world—offer an encore of sorts in Willy Street Beats, which consists of an early-evening lineup at the Willy Street Fair’s Brearly Street stage and a late-night, ticketed after-party at the High Noon. This year’s headliner, Berlin-based Jon Hester (Willy Street Fair, 8 p.m. and High Noon, midnight), excels at blending dark, austere beats with eerie wisps of synth chords on his latest release, a split EP. But as a DJ, he reaches past the sparse, almost industrial feel of his original productions, reaching a nice balance of warm atmosphere and relentless propulsion.
The Willy Street Fair portion of the day will also feature Twin Cities DJ Berndt (4 p.m.) and San Francisco’s Byron The Aquarius (6 p.m.). The High Noon party kicks off at 10 p.m. with a rare Madison set from DJ and producer Sage Caswell. A Los Angeles resident who’s also been spending time in Madison lately, Caswell brings a gorgeous, effervescent touch to house music on releases like the 2016 album Hoop Earring. For all that subtlety, Caswell can also throw down fiercely fun and sweaty DJ sets. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 16
Last fall we had a great time presenting the music at the Willy Street Fair‘s Sunday stage at the corner of Williamson and Ingersoll. We’ll be back out there on Sunday, September 16 with a Tone Madison-selected lineup of great music from Madison. In addition to the stage itself, we’ll have a Tone Madison booth nearby featuring live drawings from artist Rachal Duggan. The mischievous klezmer ensemble Yid Vicious will kick things off at noon, playing a set of their own music and accompanying local Scottish and English folk-dancing groups with help from pianist Stephanie Rearick. Next up, at 2:30 p.m., is Saint Saunter, the DJ and production outlet of Queer Pressure co-founder Sarah Akawa, who will be spinning a mix of dance selections and their own original tracks. Cap Alan, up at 4 p.m., brings an experimental bent to the stage with Jeff Sauer’s Krautrock-inspired drumming and Andrew Fitzpatrick’s playful synth manipulations. Cop Circles, playing at 5 p.m., is the cheeky but eminently danceable project of producer and vocalist Luke Leavitt, who’s been known to collaborate with last year’s headliner, Mr. Jackson. Our headliner, at 6 p.m., is Madison band His & Her Vanities, blasting out post-punk full of yearning vocals and angular hooks. —Scott Gordon
Philadelphia musician Michelle Zauner, formerly of punk band Little Big League, writes bright, confessional indie-pop as Japanese Breakfast. On her sophomore album, 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner infuses an optimistic, melody-focused energy with spacey synths, putting influences like Grandaddy right up front. While Zauner’s first album, 2016’s Psychopomp, already proved her knack for singalong choruses, and an emotional range that soothingly took songs down dark corners, Soft Sounds is a step up in the songwriting department. Her debut just bursts with possibilities and benefits from groovier rhythm-section turns on songs like “Driving Woman,” while “Machinist” pulls off a turn to electronic pop, complete with Auto-Tune and vocoder. Zauner is also a clever storyteller, like on the song “12 Steps,” which tells offers a new twist on a likely familiar tale for most in one way or another: How and why she abandoned someone she was dating to be with someone else. Rather than fixate on the situation’s heartbreak and anguish, she instead makes a case for how letting go can be easy and guilt-free if the path towards living your best life is clear.
Zauner often sounds happy as she sings about mistakes in the past, death, and disease, not because she’s ironically twisting them to fit in a short pop song, but because she is singing from the vantage point of having overcome the associated trauma. Soft Sounds also spends time ruminating on Zauner’s mother’s death, and Zauner’s guilt at having made music a priority in her life. Her live shows are a celebration of life, even as some fans are left in tears. Montreal post-punk band Ought opens.
In other news, Zauner recently got into a Twitter spat with Steel Panther over her denouncement of the band’s offensive pedal. Go check out the fallout from that if you want to see a cultural fault line in action. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Rainer Werner Fassbinder directs a 1973 rumination on post-WWII West German racism that’s also a melodramatic age-gap love story. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul takes place some time after the Munich massacre, when Palestinian terrorists attacked Israeli Olympic team members at the 1972 games. In a Munich bar where Arab immigrant Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem) spends his time drinking after work, he meets Emmi, a elderly cleaning cleaning lady (Brigitte Mira), and dances with her at the bartender’s urging. When Ali goes home with her, Emmi admits to having been in the Nazi party. She casts shame away from herself, wanting to believe that her life has been buffeted by forces outside her control. Then, very subtly, a beautiful love story begins to unravel. Immediately, though, after their first tryst occurs, tenants in Emmi’s apartment gossip and her co-workers say horrible things you still hear today from Germany’s version of the far right.
When the couple marries, Emmi’s children and son-in-law (played by Fassbinder) abandon her. As she becomes increasingly associated with German society’s outsiders, people begin to refuse service and outright ignore her. When these same people acclimate and begin to be nice to her again, realizing that Emmi is of value for her meager wealth and whiteness, in a sickening turn, she herself starts to re-enact oppression against Ali.
Like many Fassbinder films, the ending is a heart-wrenching bummer that leaves you wondering why we can’t just be good to each other. Despite the uncomfortable spotlight on insidious racism, the drama is tempered by Emmi and Ali’s tenderness as they expressed a flawed yet wonderful love for each other with quiet, sweet attention. —Reid Kurkerewicz
The Seattle-formed, currently LA-based duo Big Business arrived in a furious slick of blasted-out bass riffs and rollicking, athletic metal drumming with its first two albums, 2005’s Head For The Shallow and 2007’s Here Come The Waterworks. On songs like Shallow opener “O.G.” and Waterworks‘ “Grounds For Divorce,” bassist/vocalist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis fused the filthy density of stoner-doom with thrashing urgency, and Warren’s songwriting shares the over-the-top smart-assedness of his earlier band, the legendary KARP. During the band’s first few years, Warren and Willis also comprised half of a massive-sounding double-drumkit lineup of the Melvins, making for epic shows that would start with a Big Business set before King Buzzo and Dale Crover joined the duo onstage.
Those first two Big Business records are easily the band’s rawest and best, but even then, there was some actual guitar at the margins to balance out Warren’s workhorse bass-as-rhythm-guitar playing. Over the next three records—2009’s Mind The Drift, 2013’s Battlefields Forever, and 2016’s Control Your Weather—the band expanded its sound with more prominent guitars and synths, darkly layered vocal harmonies, and moments of breathing room amid the blown-out sludge. At different points, Willis and Warren brought guitarists Scott Martin and Toshi Kasai into trio and quartet lineups of the band. Even so, Big Business never stopped being essentially a screaming wooly beast of a rhythm section, and the lineup went back down to two as of Control Your Weather. The band opens up here for Portland, Oregon metal outfit Red Fang. —Scott Gordon
TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 18
Both musicians playing this show are deep into some mid-career rebranding. After years of churning out great-to-decent garage rock, opener King Tuff has shifted gears to try to convince us he’s, like, totally deep. On 2018’s The Other, he flattens out his once raucous rock with a psychedelic-blues sheen. There’s some interesting songwriting and evidence Kyle Thomas, a.k.a. King Tuff, is legitimately challenging himself to branch out and grow, especially when he gets legitimately funky on “Psycho Star,” but then he tries to blow people’s minds by quipping in it “The universe is probably an illusion,” and then has the audacity to make that the chorus. Masterfully adept and most at home in lo-fi soundscapes and production, Thomas here is working with a more ambitious and fuller sound. Still, he hasn’t given us anything as genuine and tight as the stuttering, unstoppable caterwaul of “Sun Medallion,” from 2007’s Was Dead.
Meanwhile, former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, has been mellowing out. His 2018 album God’s Favorite Customer suggests that might be due to a newfound confidence: The record came out without much prior media hype, and it is his strongest to date. The album kicks off with “Hangout At The Gallows,” which starts as an understated lament before swelling into asking: “What’s your politics? What’s your religion?” These questions, although repeated again and again over five minutes while over pretty and then menacing strings, also suggest Tillman is still tweaking his image and approach to performing: Live reviews have noted that Tillman no longer goes on rants about politics (which are actually reasonably lucid by today’s standards), and his once notorious stage banter has receded. Father John Misty has achieved a lush, contemporary sound with a huge backing band and complete with his caustic wit he now gives off the aura of a sarcastic version of The National. Which, by the way, is actually way more interesting than The National. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Although it cites inspirations ranging from metal to contemporary classical music, the deliberately spartan New York duo Subtle Degrees is squarely within the field of contemporary jazz. But there’s nothing wrong with that, really—Gerald Cleaver and tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante can make deeply arresting music. The pair’s new album, A Dance That Empties, comprises one three-movement, album-length composition.
Cleaver’s performance on the record is particularly fine, exploring a variety of percussive colors while improvising on top of an evolving and tightly controlled pulse (his tempo shifts are so natural that they’re almost imperceptible), and Laplante can play with real emotional heat and unconventional effects. The sinuous, incessant and deeply aggressive tenor improvisations that continue throughout “A Dance That Empties II” are among the album’s high points, and there’s obvious, exciting musical communication and connection happening between the two musicians on the second and third movements of the piece. For example, “A Dance That Empties III” really takes off with a beautiful moment of interplay starting just after the 10-minute mark, about halfway through. Endlessly repeating volleys of notes and smartly varied cymbal playing build into a fried, trilling climax, and then burn out into what sounds like a successful attempt to make a tenor saxophone imitate brutally droning amp feedback.
But this is why it’s disappointing that the only really interesting moments in the first movement come from Laplante’s ghostly, introductory overtones and Cleaver’s unaccompanied drumming at the end. It’s understandable that the musicians wanted to save themselves a little before the obsessive endurance contests of the second and third parts, but the music here just isn’t anywhere near as compelling as what’s to come. Still, what follows is often riveting, and Subtle Degrees is at their best when Laplante and Cleaver manage, intentionally or not, to subvert the project’s name. —Mike Noto
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