Catching Ka and other festival-bound musicians at the Terrace.
Photo: Rapper Ka performs at the Memorial Union Terrace in 2014, sitting on a backwards folding chair. His eyes are closed as he holds a microphone in one hand and gestures with the other to punctuate his vocal delivery.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
I was sad to miss Bartees Strange’s set this past Sunday on the Memorial Union Terrace, a day after the versatile songwriter-producer played the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago behind the excellent 2020 album Live Forever. Phoebe Bridgers also played in town post-Fork, at Breese Stevens field. But as we kinda-sorta pick up the shattered pieces of live music in Madison, I want to focus specifically on the tradition of seeing artists for free on their way to or from the festival, out on the Terrace or inside at the Rathskeller. It happens sporadically. It also plays into the endearing habit WUD Music’s student bookers have of landing very good shows on incredibly short notice.
In a normal year these shows would happen in July, but Pitchfork Fest was pushed back to September this year. Whether or not you’re actually headed down to the festival itself or enjoy that kind of thing (when I’ve gone I’ve found it pleasant as music festivals go, but I’m a wimp about the heat), these Terrace shows offer a refreshing chance to experience some of the artists outside of the hype and hubbub a festival inherently creates.
Now, it’s the Terrace—so if you are actually there for the show, you will also be surrounded by people who are there to drink beer by the lake and might not really care one way or the other about the music. Sometimes a decent crowd gathers up in front of the stage, and sometimes the people actually paying attention to the set are a more scattered bunch. Often word of the shows gets out fairly last-minute. The last big example pre-pandemic, I believe, was Black Midi’s 2019 visit.
These shows often give you the feeling that you’re getting away with something. Not because it’s illicit, but because Madison is a spot the broader touring-music ecosystem has often seemed to take for granted. In my experience, Madison music fans have always nursed the sense that we miss out on seeing bands here at the very moment that they are A Big Talked-About Thing. Say what you will about the hype cycle, but there’s something galling about almost always missing out on that first surge. Like, maybe this band is overrated and maybe it’s not, but send them up here and let us see? The Terrace offers musicians a college show with guaranteed payment, sometimes just outside the reach of radius clauses that limit when and where artists can play near the date of the festival.
If these bookings are on some level an afterthought, they gave me one of my favorite live music experiences ever. Brooklyn rapper Ka, the night before playing an afternoon slot at the 2014 Pitchfork fest, came to the Terrace for what he said at the time was his first-ever show outside of New York. (Sharon Van Etten made a better-attended post-Pitchfork stop a few days later.) Like his classic albums Grief Pedigree and The Night’s Gambit, Ka’s set that night had the air of a witching-hour soliloquy. Often perched on a backwards folding chair, Ka drew a small crowd of entranced listeners into his exacting craft and unapologetic realism. I truly don’t know if anyone else on the Terrace that night was really paying that much attention. The stage and our little semicircle of 15 or so fans felt, for a while, like the whole world.
That July night by Lake Mendota, with the day’s humidity starting to back off, Ka gave us an especially affecting performance of “Summer.” The song, as he explained when introducing it, is all about how the season isn’t carefree for everyone. “They blasting goons late afternoon for a road block / Started clapping my lil man, was unwrapping his Blow Pop / Shot in the face never got the taste of Sour Apple / Strays from the trays put him down like a power tackle,” goes one verse. The recorded version of the song creates an enveloping atmosphere of dread, and it translated powerfully in this accidentally intimate live setting. (Things felt a little more celebratory earlier in the evening, when a little kid showed off his dance moves during the opening set from producer Riley Lake.)
Ka really seemed to appreciate the little space that came to exist for the span of his set. At one point, he gave friendly shout-outs to almost everyone assembled in front of the stage, calling them things like “my man in glasses” and “my man in flannel.” He stuck around to talk with people afterwards, and came off as just incredibly grounded and friendly, very gracious about essentially performing for 15 people while literally on his way to a much bigger show. He’s still putting out brilliant music, most recently on his eighth album, A Martyr’s Reward.
The only memento I have of that night is a single Instagram photo. The experience, the feeling that a master was giving us some true quality time in the middle of the sailboats and beer pitchers, will always endear me to the performer and the venue. I didn’t have a ticket to see him the next day, but it didn’t matter.