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Untethered and un-staged

Local music in a year without shows.

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.

This is the seventh year Tone Madison has published a year-end roundup of local music. Madison musicians always give us more than enough worthy recorded work to choose from. Throughout the year, you could stay plenty busy just browsing through Madison artists’ releases on Bandcamp, listening to the music they submit to us, pestering them about that album they’re sitting on. Still, this year has really driven home for me that live music is the connective tissue. 

Apart from just plain enjoying shows and bumping into friends and acquaintances, I miss how live music allows you to put things in context. Local shows let you put faces to names, catch up with people about projects old and new, understand how different people in the local music world relate to each other, hear artists you haven’t heard before, and get new perspectives on ones you have. The more you get out to shows—from packed blowouts to poorly attended mid-week slogs—the more you appreciate the sheer variety of musicians and fans we truly have here. (One reason that Tone Madison doesn’t really do concert reviews is that when I’m at a show I’d much rather devote my attention to soaking up the music and talking with local musicians in the crowd about what they’re up to, as opposed to taking notes in my horrible chicken scratch and anxiously trying to remember song titles.) Live shows are still limited and commodified in their own ways, but there’s no replacing the deep sense of connection they provide, both with music and with other people.

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This year, we got two months and change, during the winter doldrums. (There were some abortive attempts to bring back indoor shows over the summer, and some patio shows, but when most people still don’t feel safe at large public events, that hardly counts as a functioning live-music scene.) In that short window, several Madison-area bands celebrated a new album or EP releaseOne of those was also the final hurrah for an essential local venue, Art In. A new house-concert venue, since dubbed Common Sage, held its first show. Plans for a new venue (or nightclub, or café, or networking space, or something) on Willy Street went both seriously and comically awry. Even during the comparatively dead time of year for live music, there was plenty to hear and explore. 

What live music I did manage to see in 2020 helped me get a better sense of local recordings that came out. For instance, seeing hip-hop crew Supa Friends in February at Art In, it was hard to miss the tight yet boisterous chemistry among the group’s five MCs. So when Supa Friends’ debut EP came out this summer, I at least went into it with some sense of how all the voices and personalities in the group play off each other. Reedist and composer Maggie Cousin put out a single this year and contributed to a stellar multi-media work, but I learned much more about Cousin’s abilities and repertoire from their recurring gig at Café Coda, probably the most rewarding live-music experience I had this year.

Without reference points like that since March, I’ve felt pretty untethered. I’ve enjoyed some very good live-streamed shows this year—worth doing especially when the sound is good, and when there are creative visuals and other media elements in the mix—but we know by now that those just can’t nourish us in the same way that actual live shows do. There’s no way around it. We still came to the end of the year with dozens of local releases to consider, and it was just as difficult to narrow down our favorites as it always is. That’s a testament to the depth and resilience of music in Madison. 

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