New York, L.A., Nashville, Austin, etc.: these are all cities that get written and sung about. The dirty streets where our rock n roll icons get strung out, and get rich, and die trying. The places whose streets, or bars, or saloons and studios harbor, hold, and heave with musicians. They are cities we think of as being some of the music capitals of the world. While all of these things are true, it barely scratches the surface of the American music scene. In an attempt to capture a more accurate geography of your record collection, we’ve reached outside of New York for a clearer perspective on the past and present of some of the underrated cities of the American music scene. A few hooked-in journalists have been kind enough to contribute sketches of the musical landscape of their city, concluding with an artist recommendation for our Share the Sound segment. Our first contribution comes from Jessica Steinhoff, Arts & Entertainment Editor at Isthmus The Daily Page in Madison, Wisconsin.
Madison, the capital of Wisconsin and the home of one of the country’s largest public universities, is a bastion of progressive politics, outdoor recreation and scientific research. In recent years the 240,000-person city has claimed another title as well: live music epicenter. It regularly appears on national top 10 lists for concert-going, alongside New York, Nashville and Austin. Venues such as the High Noon Saloon and Majestic Theatre draw acts that tend to visit larger cities, and ticket prices are a pittance compared to those in Manhattan and even Brooklyn. Stars like Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machines Tom Morello drop by to play at political protests and campaign rallies. There’s also a thriving community of music lovers who host shows at their homes.
With more than 40,000 students, the university is one reason for Madison’s musical wealth, but that’s not the whole story. Crowds here are known for their generosity. This is the kind of place where buying a round of beers for a touring band is common, even if there are 20 members, and where fans are eager to offer musicians a place to crash. And audiences aren’t shy about cheering til their lungs go raw. The only thing they’re shy about is dancing. But bring in the right act, like neo-soul band Fitz & the Tantrums or EDM trailblazer Dillon Francis, and the moves will emerge after a couple of songs. Some of the most unusual ones are on display in the summer, at free outdoor festivals that draw young hippies, old punks and nearly everything in between, as well as topnotch performers like Malian bluesman Vieux Farka Touré and post-rock pioneers Califone.
What’s more, the city offers a diverse selection of homegrown music, from the indie-rock harmonies of Building on Buildings to the zany pop-punk anthems of Masked Intruder. In the 1990s, Madison’s Smart Studios was the go-to recording studio for many grunge bands. Along with local studio musicians like Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines, Smart’s engineers helped turn Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins into household names. The recording studio’s co-founder, Butch Vig, also went on to form the alt-rock band Garbage. These days, artists like hip-hop DJ Pain 1 regularly work with mainstream notables like Young Jeezy and 2 Chainz, as well as underground idols like Sole. Acts that got their start recording in bedrooms and basements, such as gothic noise queen Zola Jesus, have gone on to big things, such as tours with Fever Ray and performances at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Most recently, Madison folk and soul band PHOX landed on the national radar, scoring a recording deal with Partisan Records and high-profile gigs at South by Southwest and iTunes Fest. And folks like Kelly Hogan, Neko Case’s immensely talented backup singer, live in small towns nearby and gig at even smaller venues in the city. Misfits member Jerry Only is even connected to Madison. A few days ago, he threw a party for a class of second graders at a local pizzeria, helping the seminal horror-punk band bring a new generation of listeners into their fan base.
We asked Jessica to share the sound of Madison:
It’s hard to choose just one entry point to Madison’s music scene. Fans of off-the-wall electronic fare may want to start with Trin Tran or Golden Donna, while post-punk and noise-rock enthusiasts should get acquainted with CONTROL, Zebras and Tyranny Is Tyranny. Psychedelic garage-rock duo the Hussy put on one of the best live shows in the Midwest, and their records are mind blowing as well. One of my top picks is Americana artist Whitney Mann, whose charming tunes never fail to disappoint. Mann is slight and a little shy, but her songwriting ranges from pensive (“All In”, “Been Thinkin’ a Ways”) to downright gutsy (“I Get Even”). With hints of Loretta Lynn and Kacey Chambers, her voice is also an impressive instrument. She uses it to convince listeners that she’s sweetness incarnate before leading them into pits of despair (“I Don’t Believe”, “Call the Cops”) and floating them to ethereal highs (“All I Want”). Its no wonder Willie Nelson’s manager has called her Wisconsin’s best-kept secret.