Madison Forward Music Fest - Fri & Sat Recap

The 2009 edition of the Forward Music Festival (FMF) provided plenty of action, fun and a few surprises. This was our first time at Madison’s indie music event of the year and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Starting with Thursday night’s showcase headliners Megafaun through Ra Ra Riot, YACHT, Low, Andrew Bird, Wavves and everyone else in between, FMF appealed to the growing independent music fan base emerging across the country.

Virtually none of the artists at the festival receive any commercial radio airplay at all. But, they do inhabit a growing number of internet music blogs/sites that have become the new wave of digital marketing. Andrew Bird selling 2,000 tickets at the Overture Center may give a wake-up call to local media on the emergence of independent music. Indie is not just for hipsters anymore.

Ra Ra Riot headlined Friday night's sold-out showcase at the High Noon Saloon with enough drama to keep everyone interested. Starting with the opening band Princeton, who started an hour and a half late because of a missing drummer, the music schedule kept getting delayed as the night progressed.  Former Wisconsinites, Archie Powell and the Exports, who now call Chicago home, were up next followed by Madison's Flatbear. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's were reduced to an acoustic duo, due to the other band members attending a funeral. The word from hardcore fans at the front of the stage was that the band had broken up, but didn't want to cancel.

Ra Ra Riot evidently tried to pull rank on the event by insisting they start before midnight, according to their contract. They basically forced Madison-based band Sleeping in the Aviary to switch slots with them and then didn't mention it during their set. When Ra Ra Riot finished their gig, two thirds of the sold-out crowd left, thinking the showcase was over. Sleeping in the Aviary soldiered on and put on a blistering set in front of a small crowd of die-hard fans. We like to call it the PBR shower as both band members and the audience sprayed each other with Milwaukee's finest brew. 


Joe Pug drove from a gig in Nashville, Tennessee the night before to be at the Forward Music Festival. Stuck in Chicago traffic en-route to Madison, his set started later in the day at the Project Lodge. Joe has been on a roll in the last year; Touring with Steve Earle on numerous dates, recording a new album, and getting a standing ovation at the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Joe’s new album will come out in January. He also gets the opening slot on Steve Earle’s upcoming European tour. We like Joe Pug a lot and think 2010 will be the year he breaks through to a much bigger audience.

We caught Low at the High Noon Saloon and were mesmerized by the haunting melodies and incredible stage presence of guitarist Alan Sparhawk. It must be the water in Duluth thats responsible for creating such dynamics. Madison's Pale Young Gentleman were the perfect opening act for Andrew Bird and reminded us a lot of Ra Ra Riot who we had just seen the night before.

The eclectic Andrew Bird headliner of the Forward Music Festival, showcased his multi-instrument, ground breaking compositions that mixed folk, rock and classical sounds into something so unique its really hard to describe. The perfect acoustics of Overture Hall almost acted like another member of Bird's band, providing crystal clear sound and ambience that made for an enjoyable evening of music diversity.

Final Thoughts

We followed the twitter stream all weekend and saw a lot of comments about schedule changes and long delays in start times for bands. Although, we spent the majority of our time at the High Noon Saloon, we thought, for a volunteer-run festival, it wasn’t that bad. Yes, there is room for improvement.

The Forward Music Festival is going through growing pains. Spreading out the acts among 10 venues may not be the best strategy for keeping people happy. It’s easier to focus on fewer clubs and ticket buyers don’t have to travel as much. It also reduces the amount of time needed to make difficult decisions on whom to see. Joe Pug could have easily opened for the Antlers and Low at the High Noon, instead of playing to a small crowd at the Project Lodge. Consolidating the schedule also gives musicians the opportunity to play in front of larger crowds, gaining exposure, which is the main advantage of a large multi-day festival. We’re already looking forward to next year for Forward Music Fest 2010. Check out our YouTube page for more videos from the festival.

Andrew Bird at the Overture

Low at the High Noon Saloon


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