Theo Katzman of funk group Vulfpeck came to Madison March 8 for the first time since 2013, playing a near-sold out show at Majestic Theatre in support of his recently-released album “Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe.” Katzman and the show’s opener, Rett Madison, had incredibly dynamic performances that at one point or another made the audience think, laugh and cry. Katzman’s incredible stage presence kept the audience engaged and interested for his entire set.
Rett Madison (or “Rett Madison, Wisconsin,” as she declared herself for the night) opened the show with a jaw-dropping performance, showcasing her stunning songwriting and powerful voice. The first song she sang was “One Year,” an a capella song that immediately caught the crowd’s attention, followed by a number of songs exploring topics like commitment, her sexuality and her mother’s death. Accompanied only by a guitar, Madison’s incredibly strong voice commanded attention from the entire venue, all while seeming entirely effortless. Madison also took time to tell a few humorous stories from her mother’s funeral, lifting the mood from the beautiful songs in her mother’s memory.
Katzman came to the stage and started the show with his album’s opener “You Could Be President,” an empowering song imploring people to “throw your punches and have no hesitance / follow hunches in spite of evidence.” The song was the first of many times in the performance for the band members to show off their own skills, with Lee Pardini (Dawes) and Katzman soloing.
Later in the show, Jordan Rose (Joe Louis Walker), Joe Dart (Vulfpeck) and Trevor Menear (Dawes) also had chances to boast their talents. Dart, who has developed a cult following of sorts, through his prodigious playing with Vulfpeck, was subject to rapturous applause after all of his fills and solos, not undeservingly. Dart’s playing, both on the album and on stage, gave an extra layer to the group’s clear musical prowess that begins with Katzman’s songwriting. Similarly, Menear’s guitar added tasteful and impressive licks to improve on the already-stellar playing that Katzman has on the album. Katzman discussed what the incredibly talented members of his band can bring to the show when I interviewed him over email before the show.
“We hone the arrangements together, everybody suggests ideas and we really work to make the live performance of the songs into its own distinct experience,” Katzman said. “I never want to just ‘play the record.’ Arranging the songs in the context of a show is an opportunity to make something distinct and special for the live setting.”
One of the show’s most emotional moments came when Katzman recounted how he wrote “Darlin’ Don’t Be Late,” a somber song from the new album. Katzman discussed how it came to him in an instant a number of years ago while chatting with his sister, who was in the audience at the Majestic Sunday. The story centered around his sister’s mother and their very punctual father, hence the name of the song, who had both recently passed away. The song featured Katzman on the piano for one of only two times during the show, and it was clear that the song had a very important personal meaning to him, especially with his sister in the audience. The crowd knew that they were watching something special and everyone in the room felt an immediate relationship with Katzman, which he told me was something he takes pride in.
“Huge venues like Madison Square Garden and Red Rocks have taught me how to perform to large crowds, and how to (hopefully) make everyone in the crowd feel like there's an intimate connection between us, even though the venue is huge,” Katzman said. “Now when I play a rock club, even if it's just a few hundred people, I feel like I'm able to bring the energy of the huge venue to the small room.”
Katzman’s closer for the first set, “Plain Jane Heroin” off of his 2017 album “Heartbreak Hits” was arguably the high point in terms of the show’s energy. The song builds very gradually, starting slow while showing off Katzman’s incredible lyricism. By the end of the song, the band was putting everything they had into their instruments, with Katzman practically jumping around the stage and Rose nearly knocking his cymbals over on each beat.
To end the whole show, Katzman returned to the piano for the closing song off of “Modern Johnny Sings,” fittingly playing “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The song discusses that even if things don’t necessarily end the way we hope, eventually, everything will all turn out alright. Throughout the concert, he didn’t make any overt political statements but came the closest while prefacing this song, saying that though society might not exactly be how we’d like it at the moment, everything will end up okay. Many of his songs are imbued with this passion and sense of meaning that are hard to come by in today’s popular music scene, and this concert only proved the sincerity of this intention.
“I am a pretty sensitive and passionate person, so I guess that just comes out in my songwriting,” Katzman said. “When I sit down to write, my goal is to channel something through the writing process that feels exciting, compelling, intense and honest in my own self. If I can do that, then there's a good chance that other people will feel those things in the music as well. That's how I think about it.”