“I am not going to get in,” was my first thought as I veered around the corner to see The Frequency and a line of eager attendees extending halfway down the next block for Snake On The Lake. As the queue slugged forward, I realized that this was going to be more than a free Whitney/Hoops/Carroll/ Trophy Dad show. Friday night, The Frequency had served as an epicenter of Madison’s rock scene.
After successfully entering the venue, I realized just how much care had been put into this event. The stage was set with a hand-drawn SOTL poster dressed with an octagon of Christmas lights. It felt like I was at the biggest basement show in Madison—partly because of the humidity, but mostly because of the intimacy that had been cultivated by WSUM.
I say WSUM, but there was really one specific person who turned this event from an affordable festival into a labor of love. Karolina Barej, WSUM’s music director and booker for SOTL, presented this festival with the pride and joyous relief of an artist realizing her vision. She introduced each band with a myriad of facts and quips, playing such an integral role in the festival’s operations that bands were personally thanking her on stage, without a single mention of WSUM or WUD. Full disclosure: Barej is my friend, but I would be writing these words of admiration regardless. It was apparent to each person in that room that none of this would be possible without her work.
Trophy Dad capitalized on this atmosphere by playing a classics set for the initial crowd. There was something almost narrative about it, as if this night would stand as the conclusion to an entire generation of Madison music. DIY show veterans sang along to songs like “Trichotillomania,” while wide-eyed freshmen took in the faces and sounds they’d be hearing throughout the rest of their college experiences. It had all the triumph and nostalgia of a reunion show, only this time it was friends and fans who were reunited.
Gentle indie rockers tend to either sink or swim when it comes to massive, rabid crowds. Hoops fell into the latter category and played out of their minds. They understood that this show was not a show, but a festival: a place for a community to unite and rejoice over quality music. Their sound filled whatever space was left in the tiny venue and resonated with the condensed audience. Head bobs evolved into dancing, cheers into hollers and just another rock show into a bona fide music festival.
There was a definite disconnect between Carroll and the festival, which I’d accredit to their age. They had the potential to take advantage of the feverish hype of the new semester and festival attitude, but instead played like they were opening at a small bar. Which is funny, because that’s exactly what they were doing. But Hoops, who were much closer to the crowd in age and background, tapped into
the magic of the night. Carroll glossed over these details and played a fine set, though one has to wonder what would’ve happened if the band trashed their formalities and got swept into the madness of the night.
As I was entertaining this thought, Whitney seemed to be realizing it on stage, for better and for worse. It was clear that lead singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich was trashed, the kind of trashed that would be spelled with five “S”s and two “D”s if I wasn’t required to use AP Style writing. He asked the crowd for tequila shots and, at one point, cryptically said, “You get to see this show for free, but you’ll still pay the price.” My interpretation of this quote is that Ehrlich believed that he had the right to slur and fumble because the crowd didn’t pay for the show which, if my reading was right, is a pretty gross thing to say to your fans. Musically, they were tight—every song begged to escape the small space of The Frequency by rattling and amplifying what little space there was. In the end, the soulful tunes were so great that their gaffes slid away in the collective consciousness of the crowd.
Given the massive lines and success of this year’s SOTL, I wouldn’t be surprised if WSUM upgraded to a bigger venue for next year. And while this would mean bigger bands and attendance, I can’t help but feel that something would be amiss. The Frequency’s tiny space cultivated a fervor unlike any other venue in Madison. Combined with the care and love from Barej and WSUM, this year’s show became truly a unique moment in Madison music history.