A Music Melting Pot

Oct 24, 2008

For a mid-sized Midwestern city, Madison attracts lots of national touring music acts. One of this year’s biggest coups was securing O.A.R. for the November 1 State Street Halloween celebration Freakfest. It’s an indication that national and local acts together make Madison a music melting pot.

Brimming with a wealth of small venues that allow for intimate music experiences and an enthusiastic, committed fan base—all set amid a city whose size is perfect for generating extensive word-of-mouth buzz—Madison has been able to cultivate a strong independent music scene that often falls under the radar. Madison possesses a magnetism that attracts independent bands from all corners of the country, and these bands can’t seem to get enough—many return to Madison year after year to grace audiences with their presence and mingle with fans, feeding off the energy of the city and people.

“There is a lot of energy there; a lot of intelligence there,” says Stephen Kellogg, vocalist and guitarist for Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. “All the things we really value are rich in Madison—enthusiasm, intellect.”

Kellogg says Steven Kellogg and the Sixers fans rely on word-of-mouth to spread their music and Madison provides an ideal setting for that. “[The city] is like the ultimate size,” he continues. “Enough people to have vibrancy and energy, but also small enough that word can spread.” Stephen Kellogg (vocals, guitar), Kit Karlson (bass, keys, tuba, accordion, vocals) and Boots Factor (drums, mandolin, banjo, vocals) of Steven Kellogg and the Sixers have played in Madison at least six times in the last three years alone, with their most recent show at The Majestic on Oct. 16.

The Massachusetts band, which is celebrating its five-year anniversary, draws its lyrics from a rich emotional palette, exploring the intricacies of love, loss and personal experiences. These reflections are embedded in feel-good melodies that range from catchy and upbeat to mellow and earnest. Their most recent album, Glassjar Boxer, released in July 2007 feels familiar, but fresh and heartfelt, but playful. Kellogg has a cherished personal connection to Madison, since it is the place where his grandparents fell in love. His grandfather, whom he calls his hero, was once a professor at UW–Madison. He’s the inspiration behind many of his songs.

O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo also has a personal link to Madison: part sense of comfort, part sense of nostalgia. He says the band has been playing in Madison for a long time and each time they come, they feel at home. All of the band members attended Ohio State so the Big Ten college feel of Madison satisfies their longing for their own college years.

“We find comfort in Madison,” says DePizzo. “It feels like a familiar place—like hanging out at a buddy’s place.”

O.A.R., which stands for Of A Revolution, consists of Marc Roberge (lyrics, vocals and rhythm guitar), Richard On (lead guitar), Benj Gershman (bass), Jerry DePizzo (saxophone) and Chris Culos (drums). The band produced their first independent record The Wanderer in 1997 while still in high school. Over the next six years and with two more albums under their belt, Souls Aflame (2000) and Risen (2001), O.A.R. sold over 300,000 CDs independently before scoring a record deal with Lava Records in 2003.

Fast-forward to January 2006 and the self-risen quintet sold out Madison Square Garden for the first of two times, a testament to their rapidly growing and devoted fan base. O.A.R.’s music is all about fun, energy and versatility. The band has ventured far and wide stylistically over the last twelve years, and every facet of that journey is apparent in their latest studio album All Sides. True to their character, their lyrics share stories, recollect memories and embody experiences. On this album, O.A.R. has experimented with a vast array of instrumental combinations that pull from a diverse pool of influences—from poetry to encounters with the U.S. troops—all serving as a backdrop to Roberge’s wonderfully raspy voice. O.A.R. will be the headlining act at this year’s State Street Freakfest celebration on Nov. 1, which DePizzo says will be “like a walk down memory lane.”

“People to People”

While the city of Madison certainly has characteristics that make it desirable for independent bands, perhaps the biggest driver of this music scene is, in fact, the people of Madison. Chad Stokes, lead singer and guitarist for the band State Radio and former member of the band Dispatch, speaks about the unique balance between the residents and universities here.

“Between the colleges and the people who live here … there seems to be an amicable understanding between the two,” says Stokes. “It seems to flow pretty well—you don’t really see that in other towns.”

State Radio is a Massachusetts trio comprised of Chad Stokes (guitar, vocals), Chuck Fay (bassist) and Mike Najarian (drummer). Their music blends energized rock-meets-reggae beats with lyrics that ooze with provocative social and political commentary. Year of the Crow, State Radio’s latest album released on Feb. 5, 2008, addresses the genocide in Sudan, a failing economy, torture of prisoners and corrupt politicians—all with passionate intensity. State Radio never fails to overlook Madison in their national tours and this year was no exception—they played at the High Noon Saloon on Oct. 2. Stokes says it is the people of Madison that keeps the band coming back year after year.

“People are laid back and seem to enjoy themselves,” says Stokes. “They are pretty good-natured overall and I think they tend to think for themselves which is good.”

Throughout its career, State Radio has prided itself on its organic independence and has been unconcerned with radio play or major record labels. In order for a city to embrace independent music Stokes says, thinking independently is key.

“I think it goes along with what I was saying before; about not buying into what the mainstream’s trying to force-feed you, but doing things because you know it’s what you believe in, rather than what you are told to believe in,” says Stokes.

Augustana bassist Jared Palomar only has positive things to say about the fans he has encountered in Madison as well.

“All of the college kids were very nice,” says Palomar. “It was a very warm and inviting experience,” referring to Augustana’s previous time in Madison—February of last year. Palomar says their music was really well received by concertgoers and the fans seemed to be having a good time. Augustana, a San Diego-based quintet, draws off of influences like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bob Dylan and The Band, Bruce Springsteen, the Counting Crows and Lucinda Williams, all of which sophisticatedly peek through in their own music. Members Dan Layus (vocals, guitar, piano), Jared Palomar (bass, vocals), Justin South (drums), Chris Sachtleben (lead guitar, mandolin, lap steel) and John Vincent Fredericks (piano, hammond b3, vocals), have fused their raw musical talents with candid and sensitive lyrics in their newly released album Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt. The album, released on April 29, is a musical anthology of the ups and downs of relationships.

Augustana will play at the High Noon Saloon on Oct. 29 and Palomar says they are looking forward to coming to town. Expect the unexpected, because according to Palomar, their show is all about mixing it up. “We have a show where we try to change it up as much as possible,” says Palomar. “We use lots of different instruments and just have a good time on stage, which translates to the audience.”

Message in the Music

Seeing as though Wisconsin is a swing state, many of the bands passing through Madison these days seem to have underlying political agendas as well. Bands are using their voice and influence to convey issues vital to the upcoming election. State Radio is passing through many pivotal swing states on its “Taking Back the Country” tour (their Oct. 2 stop in Madison was part of that tour). Prior to the concert, the band held a vice presidential debate viewing party with the members of the band. Before the opening act, a large screen displaying the debate was set up above the stage where attendees could watch. Stokes and State Radio are pushing for participation in the upcoming presidential elections. “First and foremost, we want people to vote—to not take our democracy for granted,” says Stokes. “We’re encouraging people to vote because we definitely want people to just get involved—whether they vote Democrat or Republican—but also, inform themselves enough so that they can make those decisions depending on their own set of beliefs and not necessarily on their parents or their teachers…” O.A.R. is connected to environmental issues and Madison will be the first stop on their “Campus Consciousness Tour.” On this tour, the band will be partnering up with the environmental group Reverb to raise awareness about the environment and promote environmental sustainability on college campuses throughout the country. “We are trying to raise awareness about environmental issues—about trying to cut back our carbon footprint—and provide research and education for greening efforts,” says DePizzo.

A Local Spin

While independent bands come to Madison from near and far, a vibrant local music scene exists right within arm’s reach. Madison has a vibrant underground network of local musicians who play together and feed off of one other—and Jentri Colello is the “it” girl these days—a gem in a box of undiscovered musical treasures.

“Since I started playing music in Madison, I have gotten most of my influence from my peers,” says Colello. “I have a lot of people around me who play music and they show me that it is not impossible."

Colello mentions local musicians Blake Thomas, Josh Harty, Jeremiah Nelson and the Blueheels as some of her biggest influences. Colello, who grew up in Madison and is now a senior studying art and environmental studies at UW–Madison, is the voice behind a four-piece folk-meets-indie rock band comprised of herself, Josh Harty (electric guitar), Tony Messinger (bass and keyboards) and Phil Feutz (drums). She cites the influence of indie rock bands like the Cold War Kids, Radiohead and Wilco, and older musicians like Ray Charles and Neil Young in her own music.

“A lot of it is kind of dark and moody,” says Colello. She has played gigs at local venues such as Café Montmarte, the High Noon Saloon, The Majestic and The Frequency, and says that one of the beauties of Madison is the ability to book shows easily, leading to more exposure.

“It is pretty easy to get shows around here,” says Colello. “It has a little to do with who you know and a little to do with how ambitious you are." Colello signed a contract with the management company Indefinite Entertainment last spring after meeting UW–Madison senior Jesse Daniels, one of the partners of its music division, in one of her art classes. Daniels recognizes the collective music community that thrives here.

“On the surface there are many major acts that tour through Madison and play at large venues such as The Orpheum,” says Daniels. “After meeting Jentri, I learned there is a unique music scene comprised of independent artists typically from across the Midwest.”

Daniels says Colello is a significant part of this scene, playing at local bars frequently and followed by a very committed fan base. “From an outsider’s perspective, these artists seem to know each other well and even appear to fuel each other’s creative side,” says Daniels. “The result of which are some very amazing songs by a number of talented musicians.” Colello will open for Yael Naim at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Oct. 25 and will be playing a show at The Majestic supporting Loudon Wainwright III on Nov. 16.

Did you know that O.A.R
Stands for “Of A Revolution”?
Was formed in Rockville, MD in 1996?
Recorded and released their first independent record (The Wanderer, 1997) while still in high school?
Has sold over 1.4 million albums?
Has performed for over 1.3 million people?
Has sold out Madison Square Garden in New York City twice (Jan. 2007 and 2008)?
Was named as one of Performing Songwriter’s Most Influential Independent Artists of the Past 15 Years (2008)?
Has a new album called All Sides that debuted at #13 on Billboard's Top 200?
Will be this year’s State Street Freakfest headlining act (Nov. 1)?

Some insight from O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo:
Q: What are your expectations for Freakfest?
Well the name is Freakfest so we are expecting that. I’m expecting crazy—a lot of energy and a lot of fun—and a lot of screaming from the audience.
Q: What can Freakfest concertgoers expect to see at your State Street show?
High energy, material spanning our entire career, some news songs—we are adapting them, and adapting old ones as well. Expect a lot of fun—we have been having a lot of fun with our tours lately and it will carry over to this tour as well. You can't lie to an audience, they can see right through that.
Q: The mayor and Freakfest committee said they worked hard to find an act that would be enjoyed by a wide range of audiences. What is it about your music that makes it appealing to many different types of audiences?
There is no rocket science to our music. It is whatever feels good. Listening to it will allow you to just enjoy yourself—and put things that may be bothering you aside for the moment.

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