Favorite Concerts of 2014…And Related Matters

Posted January 2, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Music, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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I see a lot of live music. This is the ninth year I’ve summed up my reactions to my favorite concerts for Isthmus’ website.  Here’s the longish introduction:

Maybe it was happenstance. Maybe it was the surge line of a big trend. Either way, 2014 was the Year of the Woman for the more than 60 concerts I saw.

That was no surprise with solo singers — a traditional strong suit for women. I saw great ones: Cassandra Wilson at the Dakota in Minneapolis (May 19), Roseanne Cash at the Stoughton Opera House (Nov. 21), Mavis Staples at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18), Ruthie Foster at the Dakota (Oct. 21), Alexandra LoBianco in Madison Opera’s Fidelio at Overture Hall (Nov. 23), and two more who are aspiring to greatness: Gretchen Parlato and Lizz Wright at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8).

But it was the chicks in the band who stood out. Historically, women sidemen (yup, that’s the word) were treated as novelties, save for the classical world. Today, they can be the brains and the brawn in the band.

Drummer Lisa Pankratz powered the reunion of roots rockers Dave and Phil Alvin at the High Noon Saloon (July 25). The brilliant Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen led the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars at the Capitol Theatre (Mar. 28). Esperanza Spalding looked ecstatic playing bass with jazz giants Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (Feb. 15). Hill Country bluesman Luther Dickinson was backed by drummer Sharde Thomas and bassist Amy LaVere at the High Noon (Oct. 20). The oh-so-subtle Samantha Banks drummed for Ruthie Foster. Lap steel wizard Cindy Cashdollar backed up slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth at the Stoughton Opera House (Dec. 5). And the women-led Mosaic Project at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8) featured the formidable drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the rising alto sax player Tia Fuller, who may tour with Beyoncé but plays like Charlie Parker is whispering in her ear.

The boys in the band are increasingly girls. That’s good news. I have to think it’s changing band dynamics to the better in the same way that women managers in the workplace change the valence of team chemistry.

America’s unhealed racial wounds were also on display in 2014. I felt such despair over the Ferguson debacle that I avoided most discussions of it. It all seems so hopeless. Musically, it was another story.

Some of the best music I heard on stage in 2014 was the product of artists burrowing deep into the American cultural core to reinterpret our common history. More often than not, they find white and black sounds coupled together to create a shared national music.

Jazz violinist Regina Carter explored the Library of Congress folklore collection to find the music that her Mississippi grandfather listened to, performing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18). Roseanne Cash’s extraordinary recent work has highlighted the music of her dad Johnny’s youth. Cassandra Wilson, whose parents were Mississippi educators, has made her own deep dives into regional culture. Luther Dickinson, co-founder of the North Mississippi Allstars, keeps digging deeper and deeper into the racially intertwined world of Hill Country Blues. Alt favorite Ruthie Foster’s connection to the great gospel tradition is self-evident. Country artist Marty Stuart’s loving ties to the Staples Singers is character-defining; when Pops, the family patriarch, died, daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave Stuart his guitar to keep and to play, as he did at the Stoughton Opera House (Feb. 1).

“It was like being handed an instrument of light,” Stuart told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

My touchstone for this comingling is one of the most fascinating records in American history: Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9,” recorded in 1930 by the father of country music. But this isn’t just country music, folks. This is standout classic blues, also known as “Standing On The Corner,” and features a bouncy New Orleans trumpet solo by Louie Armstrong and a two-fisted piano accompaniment by Louie’s wife, Lil Hardin.

This song is mind-blowing — and not just for Rodgers’ yodeling solo. A few years earlier he had played and sang in the foundational recordings of country music (the Bristol sessions), just as and Armstrong and Hardin played on the foundational recordings of jazz (the Hot Fives). Yet here they are — white and black musicians — recording together at a time of punitive Jim Crow laws and a music industry that followed a strict apartheid approach to marketing records (“hillbilly” was sold to poor whites and “race” music sold to blacks).

What did they talk about in the studio? How did they navigate the racial and gender chasms? Those answers are lost to history.

What we do know is that is the in the intimacy of the studio, in the moment of creation, the music was all freakin’ one. This was the real America. We find the promise of social unity in our art even when our racialized politics exacerbates social disunity.

To read about my favorite 15 concerts,  please go here.

One more thing…here are my previous roundups: 20132012201120102009200820072006.

Epic’s Long Reach

Posted December 5, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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Writing about software giant Epic Systems in its hometown is always interesting and always a challenge. The company is famously reclusive, and its former employees, who are at the heart of the Madison area’s emerging health IT industry, are afraid to say anything that might offend the powerful tech company.

In this story for Isthmus, I tease out the controversy over Epic’s noncompete policy for those expats.

The Huron Consulting Group’s announcement in April that it was buying Vonlay, a 130-person Epic-specialty consulting company, set off alarms locally when it became known than Epic had successfully intervened at the 11th hour to insist that Huron not hire Epic employees within two years of them leaving the company.

The one-year separation that Vonlay leaders observed in their hiring would be doubled for the acquiring firm. It also seemingly meant that former Epic employees who had signed an employment contract with a one-year noncompete clause when they had started at Epic would now be subject to a two-year stipulation they hadn’t agreed to.

Huron and Vonlay officials did not respond to queries, but Epic spokesman Brian Spranger confirmed that Huron had agreed to a two-year noncompete term. And then the shocker: “This is being reverted to a one-year term.” Spranger offered no explanation in his email for the reversal. “We’d rather not comment on the policy as a whole.”

There is no shortage of speculation. Most of it circles around Epic fearing it might be treading on federal antitrust laws and being accused of anti-competitive business practices.

To read more, please go here.

Epic’s New Focus

Posted November 5, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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Epic Systems, the electronic medical records pioneer, has put Dane County on the map. I sketch out four strategic moves by the reclusive giant in this Isthmus story.

Epic is the big winner in the federally subsidized effort to shift American medical care from paper to electronic records. As part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, Congress approved a $27 billion incentive program in 2009 that touched off a mad scramble to modernize health systems in the name of improved efficiency and better care.

These health systems, which involve hospital and physician networks, can be complicated contraptions, and no company was better situated to harmonize its knotty internal operations than the well-seasoned Epic, which was founded in 1979 in the shadow of UW-Madison by the charismatic computer wizard Judith Faulkner.

Epic cleaned up in that gold rush. Today, one out of two Americans have their medical records on Epic software, and revenues at the fast-growing privately held company hit $1.7 billion in 2013.

Famously insular and only occasionally open to nosey reporters, Epic declined to provide an executive to be interviewed about its recent strategic moves. But local Epic watchers, a few on the record and more speaking not for attribution (they’re reticent because Epic is feared as well as respected), see a new strategy taking hold.

To read about those moves, please go here.

Lots of other Epic stories can be found by using the search engine at the right

We Need A Generational Change In Leadership

Posted September 23, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Labor, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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I spent a lot of time in early 2014 researching and pondering how Wisconsin’s economy stagnated after rising to pre-eminence in the 1970s. Among other things, I found Wisconsin’s leadership was resolutely stuck in the past while the national economy had moved on.

[T]hose old fights define Wisconsin, economically and politically. It’s as though our leaders are historical reenactors at Old World Wisconsin. They fire their muskets and shout the old-time shibboleths. Most of this is just spectacle — not really connected to resolving Wisconsin’s precarious economic position in the 21st century. But old habits don’t easily die.

Looking back at old glories, Democrats embrace the unions. Indeed, nothing rallies the base like a pledge to repeal the union-gutting Act 10. But unions are a declining force and face a questionable future in an era when worker-filled assembly lines are disappearing. Nationally, only one in nine workers is a member. In Wisconsin, union membership plunged from 33.5% of the non-farm workforce in 1965 to 12.4% in 2013, according to the economists at the Unionstats.com website.

The future is not bright. The expanding IT field, with its mix of collaborative teams, creative work and 1099 workers, seems particularly ill-suited to old-school unionism.

Republicans, meanwhile, embrace big business, especially traditional manufacturing, and have decisively tilted the state’s tax, regulatory and development initiatives to its benefit. That’s a king-size problem. Manufacturing jobs may have led Wisconsin’s modest recovery from the Great Recession. And Wisconsin does rank with Indiana as one of the top two industrial states in the nation. But Wisconsin’s glory days of manufacturing have decisively passed.

In 1979, manufacturing and its high-paying unionized work accounted for 33% of the jobs in Wisconsin. By 2012, it was 18%, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Reality is that Wisconsin never recovered economically from the crushing recession of 1981-82. The bloody harbinger of Rust Belt de-industrialization, it laid waste to the huge manufacturing base in the eastern half of the state that runs from the Fox River Valley through Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha and out to Janesville and Beloit.

I make the case that we sorely need of a generational change in leadership. Both the techies and the Millennials are the sort of pragmatic idealists Wisconsin needs.  You can read a lot more here. Also, posted below is a related piece that ran in the same issue of Isthmus.

Who Speaks For Tech?

Posted September 23, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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So if Wisconsin is trapped in yesteryear politics and economics, as I argue in the story posted above, the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is the exemplar of this thinking.  Here’s how I began this related piece, also in Isthmus:

This is a problem.

The state’s most powerful business voice has conspicuously little contact with Wisconsin’s rising technology industry.

Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce, which claims more than 3,500 businesses as members, brags that “the success of the WMC government relations team in projecting and accomplishing a proactive business agenda has been second to none.”

Well, yeah. On the surface, WMC has never been stronger. The support WMC has thrown to small-government, pro-business Republicans has paid off big time, to say the obvious.

Wisconsin has a Republican governor, a Republican Assembly, a Republican Senate, a Republican-favoring Supreme Court and a Republican-dominated congressional delegation.

But critics say that WMC’s success is mostly in pursuing a savvy political agenda — not a savvy growth agenda. And the group’s legislative wish list tilts heavily to helping Wisconsin’s legacy manufacturers. The problem: These venerable corporate citizens usually burnish their bottom lines by adopting strategies that emphasize tax avoidance, lessened regulatory costs and dampened labor costs.

Do they add new jobs to the payroll? Not so much.

To read more, including how the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has embraced the tech industry, please go here.

When Politics Wasn’t So Nasty

Posted September 16, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Politics, WisPolitics.com

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I’ve written before about Gov. Pat Lucey remaking the Wisconsin Democratic Party and overhauling state government.  I jumped at the chance when WisPolitics.com asked me to cover a memorial service at the Capitol honoring Lucey’s accomplishments. Here’s a chunk of it:

…[I]t was Tommy Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor, who seemed to capture the moment and draw the biggest applause. He started his speech by saying: “I’m a Republican.” Then pausing for dramatic effect, he added, “Pat Lucey was my friend.” 

In a booming, passionate talk, Thompson explained how he identified with Lucey because they were both Irish Catholic boys and the sons of small-town Wisconsin grocers. He said he kept Lucey’s official portrait hanging in the governor’s office, even though fellow Republicans were puzzled by it. 

“I kept the picture there, because I believed in the man. I wanted to show people the value of bipartisanship,” he said. 

Thompson, like Lucey, achieved some of his most important legislation through a politically divided Legislature. 

“It was the government of a different time, and it accomplished so much,” he said of the Lucey years. “These were civilized days when you could have friends on the other side of the aisle.” 

Democrats and Republicans could battle all day over a legislative proposal, he said, “but then we would go out for a steak and a beer.” 

The Capitol today is marked by “the politics of destruction,” Thompson said, “Pat Lucey never believed in that, nor did I.”

To read more, please go here. 

This Startup Could Be Big For Madison

Posted May 22, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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MdotLabs, the fraud-fighting startup that detects faked page views of online advertising, captures a lot of what’s good about the Madison tech scene. Co-founder Timur Yarnall moved his internet company here from New York in 2005 because he liked the Madison action. His partner, Paul Barford, is a tenured professor in UW-Madison’s Computer Science program and the co-teacher of CS’s groundbreaking entrepreneur class. Their company, founded in mid-2013, has an office in Palo Alto, but expects to keep its main office  in Madison because the town is so deep with code-writing talent. What could be better?

Well, that MdotLabs strikes it big and becomes a major player in the Madison economy. It could happen, observers say.

 “Anytime someone can develop a heavy technology solution to a complex problem that has large market opportunities, that interests us, and that’s what these guys have done,” says John Philosophos, whose Great Oaks Venture Fund is one of the startup’s seed-stage investors.

Philosophos sees online ad sales fraud as “a massive problem,” but also puts his finger on MdotLabs’ challenge: The industry may not be ready for reform. For some, scammery is simply a cost of business. And paying for it might even seem easier and cheaper than subscribing for MdotLabs’ validated data. Besides, he muses, are the ad agencies prepared to tell their national brands how much money they’ve wasted paying for robot-generated page views?

….

Zach Brandon, president of the tech-minded Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, says MdotLabs is a local startup to watch. He sees it as a game-changer in a lucrative industry. He compares MdotLabs’ potential to that of Exact Sciences, the local biotech company that is piloting a noninvasive test for colorectal cancer. He even compares its potential competitive position to Epic’s with electronic health records.

“I think MdotLabs could be not just a success story,” says the chamber chief, “but the creator of a new employment base in Dane County.”

To read more, please go here.


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