Madison Club Crawlin' with Priests, Stef Chura and Wood Chickens
It's time to let a little secret out of the bag.
One of the advantages of living in the Madison area is the steady stream of emerging independent bands that pass through town or play free shows. Some people say it's because of the University of Wisconsin Madison's youthful energy or the city's strategic tour routing location between Chicago and Minneapolis. We're not talking about corporate arena concerts or mainstream names.
If you live for finding that next big artist by seeing them in a smaller venue before everyone else catches on, Madison is the place to be. Plus, parking availability and drink prices are much more reasonable than a bigger city.
Case in point is a recent Friday night. Sporting a smartphone and $20, I set off for an evening of live music. Several free shows from the Rock of the Arts' club calendar were calling my name. Chicago hip-hop phenomenon Noname was playing the Sett at Union South while the more raucous Priests and Stef Chura were invading the Rathskeller at the Memorial Union. I also had my eye on Wood Chickens, a local cow-punk band with a record release show at Mickey's Tavern.
Right away, I face the dilemma of which show to start the night. My social media stream is flooded with people having difficulty getting into the free Noname show because the Sett had hit capacity. I opt for the Memorial Union and Priests with Stef Chura. Both bands have just released excellent new albums and I was curious to see what the newly remodeled Rathskeller looked like.
Stef Chura has just started the first song of her set with Slow Motion, an upbeat gem from the Michigan native's new album Messes. A friend of ours, Fred Thomas, help produce the album. Chura, backed by a drummer and bassist, has this distinctive vocal quality complemented by a finger picking guitar style that sets the grungy lo-fi singer-songwriter subject matter apart from her peers. She seems a bit reserved in a live setting but loosens up a bit as the night progresses. The early crowd kept their distance from the stage hesitantly curious about the underground Detroit songstress with the unique voice. Chura sounded like she shares the same vocal DNA as Sammy Llanas of the Bodeans. Check the new album out.
In between bands, I head over to the beer garden for a Moon Man to quench my thirst. For those of you reading this from out of state, that's a New Glarus brew. Heading back to my seat, the audience has grown considerably larger pressing up against the outer edges of the stage. I change location and stand up front to get a better view. The lights dim and we're off.
Washington, D.C. post-punk foursome Priests unleashed a ferocious set energized no doubt by the excitement surrounding their just released debut album Nothing Feels Natural. Rumors of a great live show permeating the local rumor mill were true. Lead vocalist Katie Ann Greer and guitarist G.L. Jaguar played off each others kinetic vibe taunting the crowd into a frenzy. Greer maneuvered the stage like a gymnast at one point standing up on the edges of the bass drum kit to get her point across. Her charismatic presence coupled with the aggressive nature of Priests material made for an entertaining evening.
The show still drew around 200 people despite the competing Noname gig across campus that for all practical purposes was sold-out. Just enough of a crowd to keep the energy level high without being packed in like sardines.
The Rathskeller stage remains largely unchanged with everything looking much cleaner. The walls must have been treated with something because they glistened and looked brand new. The tables behind the stage still exist and the overall acoustics haven't changed a bit. It was always similar to being in a cave when the room wasn't filled to capacity.
It's about 11:00 pm and the night is still young. I decide to check out the Wood Chickens for their record release party. Mickey's always starts the music later in the evening and as luck would have it I walk in when only the second of four bands are about to start. I shimmy up to the bar for another Moon Man. A lot of local musicians in the audience.
Duke Erikson of Garbage, who still lives in Madison, walks in and nods to everyone as he makes his way through the crowd.
Reverend Rectifier & the Sinners made up of veteran local musicians take the stage or in the case of Mickey's the corner floor space by the bar. They proceed to find their groove and win over the adrenaline fueled Friday night crowd. You can sense the momentum build as the break between bands gives me the opportunity to move up from the bar toward the next band.
The Foamers? are a two-piece Green Bay outfit that blow the doors off the conservative stereotype of Northeast Wisconsin. The Black Lips meet Johnny Thunders on some kind of heavily caffeinated beverage. These guys are warming up a crowd that is already stoked for the record release party hosts.
Wood Chickens are a perennial Madison favorite who are best experienced live. Skunk Ape is the new 7 inch being released tonight and fans are buying up the vinyl feverishly. It's almost 1:30 am before they commence with the cowpunk onslaught. The rabid crowd is eating this set up and the eclectic beer-soaked ambience is contributing to the fun. Mickey's bartenders grant a one song extension to take us right up to bar time as I get kicked out into the crisp February night air. A night of free music in Madison. Let's do it again!