Winter may be the least popular time to leave the house, but it becomes a bit easier when there’s great live music to go out and see. Here are some highlights of the acts braving the Upper Midwest snows and bitter cold to play Madison in late 2018 and early 2019.
Majestic Theatre, Dec. 1
At 25, Colter Wall may not seem old enough for the hard living of outlaw country. Besides that, he’s Canadian. But like Neil Young before him, Wall is also giving a take on an American genre on par (or even beyond) anything his Yankee counterparts are offering. Marked by a rumbling baritone that’s like a thunderstorm across a Saskatchewan oil field, Wall is two albums deep thus far. Each was helmed by Nashville studio wizard Dave Cobb, who’s worked worked with Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. The latest, Songs of the Plains, was released in October and sees Wall finding a groove in his downhome, up north sound.
Mickey’s Tavern, Dec. 1
While we’re fans of all of Bobby Hussy’s approximately 420 bands in the Madison area, The Hussy is the OG. So it’s never a bad idea to catch a show by the literally guitar-burning garage punks, especially on their home turf at Mickey’s. They’ll also be hosting Minneapolis’ BLAHA, which features Mike Blaha of The Blind Shake and who will be releasing a tape on Hussy’s No Coast label.
Majestic Theatre, Dec. 3
If you came of age during the mid-2000s, Stars were the soundtrack to your life, whether you knew it or not. The Canadian indie pop band had songs featured in nearly every teen TV show, from The O.C. and Degrassi to Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill. And that’s largely because their twinkling take on chamber pop is a perfect expression of the wide-eyed earnestness so many youngs try to mask under layers of cynicism. They’ll be joined here by My Brightest Diamond, aka Shara Nova, another seriously talented veteran chamber popper.
High Noon Saloon, Dec. 5
Sometime within the last five years, hip-hop got dosed. The genre has found a new bedfellow in psychedelic rock, and emcees from A$AP Rocky to Travis Scott are tripping out their rhymes. Rising Connecticut emcee Felly is chief among those, with his 2017 LP Wild Strawberries hailed as “a complex, enriching aural ecosystem that you can get lost in if you’re not careful.” His 2018-released EP Winters in Brooklyn illustrates the often bleak, eerie nature of New York winters and the vibrance that pulsates through them.
The Sylvee, Dec. 5
Manchester Orchestra is like Brand New for people who can’t listen to Brand New anymore. The Georgia indie rockers share that band’s penchant for expansive, sonically challenging records, with none of the creepy aftertaste of Jesse Lacey. Plus, Andy Hull is a far better lyricist than Lacey. He’s able to navigate dense metaphors and spirituality without ever dipping into the misogynistic undercurrent that permeated their era of emo. Manchester Orchestra’s latest album, last year’s A Black Mile to the Surface, is a damn masterpiece, full stop. They co-headline here with The Front Bottoms, another group of proto-emo folk-poppers led by another equally gifted lyricist, the witty and weedy Brian Sella.
Coliseum at Alliant Energy Center, Dec. 5
Lindsey Stirling does it all. The violinist and performance artist is also a go-to collaborator for many musicians, including John Legend, Evanescence and Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday. And that’s a testament to Stirling’s skill on the violin. She has an innate ability to model her playing to whatever genre calls for it, including experimentations in the disparate fields of EDM and Christian music. Stirling is on tour in support of a holiday album, Warmer in the Winter, released in 2017.
Megan Thee Stallion
The Sett at Union South, Dec. 7
About 10 years ago, Houston, Texas dominated hip-hop. Swaggering hard-hitters like Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Mike Jones dominated the airwaves, helping put the Deep South on the rap map. Megan Thee Stallion continues that tradition, gender-flipping H-Town’s inherent swagger with sex-positive anthems that paint her as a Southern version of Cardi B. Just listen to this cypher session — Thee Stallion has bars. Take a chance to see her for free before she blows up to Cardi’s level.
Crystal Corner, Dec. 8
If you’ll recall the earlier mention of Bobby Hussy’s 420 bands, this is one of them. With the addition of No Hoax’s Tyler Spatz and Ben Brooks plus synthist (synther?) Emili Earhart, Cave Curse has morphed from Hussy’s bedroom project to a full-blown rock band. Think Nine Inch Nails but punkier. If I haven’t sold you at this point, go listen to the 2017 LP Future Dust and get back to me. The bill here also includes Madison’s Wash and Solid Freex, plus Service, an Indianapolis band that features members of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
William Elliott Whitmore
Majestic Theatre, Dec. 14
Make no mistake, William Elliott Whitmore is the coolest farmer in all of Iowa. The gravel-throated troubadour still lives on the horse farm he grew up on. And in between those horse-related duties, he makes incredible folk music. Whitmore was raised as much on punk rock as he was on old-timey music, so his songs sound like they come from a bygone era while maintaining an aggressive, modernist edge. I mean, how many other folkies can take a Bad Religion song and make it sound angrier without ever even raising their voice past a low growl?
High Noon Saloon, Dec. 20
For a band that’s only officially released a couple EPs and a handful of singles, Milwaukee’s GGOOLLDD works hard as hell. The electropop crew plays tons of shows around the area and tours almost constantly, including a national run this past spring opening for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. They’ll be joined here by Madison’s own Seasaw, who just put out a killer new album titled Big Dogs in September.
Kurt Vile and the Violators
The Sylvee, Dec. 20
Since leaving The War on Drugs (a band he was a founding member of) in 2008, Kurt Vile has dropped a whopping eight albums. Just in the last couple years, the gauzy guitarist has put out a high-profile collaboration with Courtney Barnett called Lotta Sea Lice in addition to his own Bottle It In this year. Vile is an expert at making hangout music — the kind of ambling, stream-of-consciousness jams that make the perfect soundtrack for everyday malaise. I, for one, have spent many afternoons cranking out #content while awash in the swirling guitars of “Bassackwards” and “Rollin with the Flow.” But don’t let the slacker thing fool you; the prolific Vile is one of the hardest working guys in indie rock.
Crystal Corner, Dec. 22
If you’ve read this site before, you know how we feel about the weirdos of Wood Chickens. If you haven’t, we love them. Their latest album, Well Done!, is one of the most fun listens you’re bound to find this year. At this show, the boys are hosting a Christmas rager featuring two local groups of rippers: the hardcore punks of Black Cat and dancier-but-still-punk-as-fuck Treatment.
Majestic Theatre, Jan. 5
Nick Woods is on a mission to melt your brain. His prolific punk act, Direct Hit!, has released three concept albums since 2013, covering subjects from apocalyptic cataclysms to drugged out fear and loathing. This year’s Crown of Nothing – the Direct Hit!’s second for legendary punk label Fat Wreck Chords – sees the Milwaukee quartet returning to familiar themes of heaven and hell, as well as the pros and cons of nihilism. Trust me, it’s good fun. They’re playing here as part of Wisconsin Punk Fest, which also includes The Hussy, Avenues, Coasting and Gender Confetti.
Majestic Theatre, Jan. 12
Madison’s music scene seems to be dominated mostly by indie rock bands, so it’s always interesting when a rapper breaks through. That’s the case with Trapo, the young emcee who scored a profile in hip-hop bible XXL in 2016 at just 18. His latest EP, the jazzy, east coast-influenced Oil Change, dropped earlier this year. Here, he’ll topline the Wisconsin Hip-Hop Fest, which also includes Bird’s Eye, Lucien Parker, CrashPREZ, Sincere Life, Chris Jewson, and Broadway Muse.
High Noon Saloon, Jan. 17
Full disclosure: I’m head over heels in love with Charly Bliss. I had never heard the New York “bubblegrunge” crew before catching their set opening for Death Cab for Cutie this fall, but once I did I fell hard. Their 2017 debut Guppy has quickly become one of my go-to albums. Anchored by Eva Hendricks’ distinctive vocals (which sound kind of like Tommy Pickles of Rugrats fronting Weezer), songs like “Percolator” and “Glitter” sound tailormade for teen comedy soundtracks. And speaking of, here’s a fun fact: guitarist Spencer Fox is a former child actor who was the original voice of Dash Parr in The Incredibles.
Them Coulee Boys
Majestic Theatre, Jan. 19
Though they’re headlining the second night of Wisconsin Bluegrass Fest, Them Coulee Boys aren’t strictly bluegrass. The Eau Claire four-piece counts artists ranging from Trampled By Turtles to Titus Andronicus as influences, bringing a ragged punk spirit to their folk music. And joining them here is Madison’s WheelHouse, maybe the only band playing anywhere in town this winter who makes their own whiskey. Other artists on this bill include Feed the Dog, Chicken Wire Empire and Monsters of Grass.
The Sylvee, Jan. 26
Have you heard Room 25, the universally acclaimed debut album of Chicago rapper Noname? If not, stop reading this and listen to it. It’s just over a half-hour long and is more spoken word than rap, mixing Noname’s poetic flow with a jazzy backbeat. The artist born Fatimah Warner is a true polymath, gifted with equal talent as a rapper and singer and a concrete creative vision many young artists lack. Noname makes hip-hop that’s inclusive by design, drawing in everyone who comes to it. And we’re all the better for it.
Gregory Alan Isakov
Capitol Theater, Jan. 27
Even without the whole “music thing,” Gregory Alan Isakov seemingly has it made. When he’s taking his indie folk on the road, Isakov grows vegetables and medical cannabis on his Colorado farm. He’ll take a break from life on the farm to play here with Good Old War, a Philadelphia folk-rock act who began their life as an emo punk band called Days Away.
High Noon Saloon, Jan. 30
Like Charly Bliss, King Tuff is another artist I hadn’t heard before seeing him open for another band (in this case, Father John Misty). And I’m glad to say I’m much better for it. The artist born Kyle Thomas is an endlessly eclectic performer, careening from lo-fi garage rock to psychedelic heaviness, as much Black Sabbath as he is Black Lips. But King Tuff likes to go big, too — his live show is a true spectacle, replete with crazy costumes and charming stage banter. He’s a rock star for people who don’t like the concept of rock stars.
The Devil Makes Three
Majestic Theatre, Jan. 31
It’s astonishing to me that The Devil Makes Three formed in 2002 and not 1922. They’re something of a musical time capsule, playing a form of Americana that mixes bluegrass, ragtime and old-time into a sound that’s very much modern (the band’s three members are all veteran of the Santa Cruz, California punk scene). For further proof, their latest album, Chains are Broken, was produced by Ted Hutt. Hutt’s other credits include records by The Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphys and Lucero, three bands that have found great success mixing classic sounds with modern aesthetics.
Dillon Francis + Alison Wonderland
The Sylvee, Jan. 31
Dillon Francis has been a star DJ for years, working to popularize the moombahton genre, itself a fusion of house and reggaeton. But now Francis is trying his hand at acting, starring in comedian and memelord Jack Wagner’s web series Like and Subscribe as a Hollywood manager for the YouTube era. The pivot won’t stop Francis from making you dance your ass off here. Helping him accomplish this is Alison Wonderland, an Australian EDM star who notably collaborated with The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on her debut album Run.
Post Animal + Ron Gallo
High Noon Saloon, Jan. 31
Post Animal explores the heavier side of pop, often culminating in a sound that’s like Black Sabbath jamming with Steely Dan. The Chicago psych rockers heavily recall the latter on the infectious “Ralphie,” a song I cannot stop listening to for the life of me. They’ll be joined by Ron Gallo, a Philly native who treats his garage rock like an art project. Case in point, he followed up his acclaimed 2017 debut HEAVY META with, uhh, a comedy rock EP about the monotony of being in a band? Fuck it. Let’s party.
The Sylvee, Feb. 1
A lot of people love to decry the state of country music on the radio, hemming and hawing about cutoff jeans and jacked-up trucks. A lot of it is warranted, but not all the country on the radio is bad. Just look at Kacey Musgraves. Three albums into her career, she is undoubtedly the biggest iconoclast on country radio. An outspoken feminist, her lyrics typically cover topics from the genre’s traditional heartbreak anthems, as well as touchier subjects like LGBT rights and recreational weed (a topic quite a few people in this state may care about). In a genre marked by an almost assembly line-like approach to manufacturing hits, Kacey Musgraves is as real as it gets.
High Noon Saloon, Feb. 4
This will be Vundabar’s third trip to Madison in just over a year. And I’m glad they seem to enjoy our company so much, because we sure do like them. I mean, how can you not? The Boston trio’s third album, Smell Smoke, is a meditation on death, and though that sounds heavy, it’s not. Vundabar manages to turn their macabre subject matter into a catchy collection of garage rock jams. After all, death is inevitability. Why not have some fun with it? And if you get there early, throw your hometown support behind Madison’s own Slow Pulp, a rising indie punk act that recently relocated to Chicago.
Too Many Zooz
Majestic Theatre, Feb. 12
Too Many Zooz is another band that made up their own genre tag, in this case “brass house.” In this instance, it’s very accurate; the New Yorkers combine dancehall thump of house music with saxophones and trumpets. And while *pushes glasses up* technically the sax is a wind instrument, we’ll give them a pass for inspiring so many people to stop arguing about semantics and dance. Just remember to stretch first, nerd.
Majestic Theatre, Feb. 14
Besides having an awesome name, Mandolin Orange is a pretty awesome band, too. The North Carolinian duo delivers a modern take on roots music using the modern pop they grew up on to inform their downhome sound. And it’s a sound that’s won them legions of fans, as well as bookings at vaunted festivals like Austin City Limits, SXSW and the Newport Folk Festival.
The Sylvee, Feb. 20
The are three constants in this life: death, taxes, and the enduring popularity of Dropkick Murphys. The long-running Boston punks always manage to find an audience, whether it’s through Martin Scorsese movies, Red Sox games, or telling our outgoing governor to go fuck himself. Another reason could be that they put on an incredible, high-energy live show that never fails to throw the crowd a few curveballs. For example: I once saw them in Chicago, and they brought Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews onstage to dance an Irish jig. And buddy let me tell you, it’s a good thing he’s sticking to hockey…
Majestic Theatre, Feb. 22
If Dr. Dog’s psychedelic take on folk rock doesn’t sufficiently convince you of their strangeness, here’s a fun factoid about the band: All of their members — current or former — and friends of the band are given a nickname that starts with the letter T. Singer Scott McMicken is “Taxi,” for example, and former guitarist Andrew Jones (a licensed attorney) is “Trial.” Strange, yes, but as long as Taxi and the boys of Dr. Dog keep making such great, easygoing music, they can call themselves whatever they want. And be sure to catch openers The Nude Party, another wild psych rock outfit in the vein of Post Animal or King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard.
Young the Giant
The Sylvee, Feb. 23
Young the Giant’s Sameer Gadhia is one of my favorite voices in rock music. His elastic vocals pinball between a delicate falsetto and commanding tenor, which create a rougher edge for the shimmering tendencies of his band. In many ways, Gadhia is indie rock’s version of Steve Perry, full of stage presence and unparalleled singing ability. Now if you excuse me, I’ll be psyching myself up by listening to “Crystallized” on repeat for the next three months.