Some of the Madison-area’s most accomplished musicians will be in town Saturday when the jazzy-folk-and-Americana duo of Mary Gaines and Chris Wagoner bring their eclectic sound to the Opera House.
The married duo has been a fixture in the local and regional music scene for more than three decades, winning awards for their instrumental and vocal talents.
Masters of various string instruments, Gaines primarily plays cello and bass while her husband stands out on violin, mandolin, lap steel guitar and more.
The couple has performed in such musically diverse bands as Harmonious Wail, The Common Faces, The Moon Gypsies, The Stellanovas and Graminy.
Performing as Gaines and Wagoner, the pair will introduce a new “electrified” string trio as their backup band at the Opera House, Wagoner told the Hub in a phone interview.
He said the trio – Shauncey Ali, Jen Paulsen and Rin Ribble – will join them for about half the show. The rest of the concert will feature Gaines and Wagoner with drummer Erik Radloff.
The new approach is designed to allow the couple greater musical flexibility.
“We were starting to feel typecast playing kitschy vintage jazz for years,” Wagoner said. “We love it, but we’re trying to get onto bigger stages and present more original music and mix it up with jazz, roots-rock and Americana. We really want to do all of it.”
Gaines and Wagoner began playing music together almost immediately after meeting in 1984, on his first day as a UW-Madison student. He had transferred from a college in Iowa, where he was born and raised, and promptly met his future wife, who was scheduled to play that evening on the Memorial Union Terrace, Wagoner recalled.
“Right away we started playing music and going to the UW music school together,” he said.
“Early on, when we were in The Common Faces, we were touring the country and went to Europe a couple times,” Wagoner added. “We were gigging hard, and we also had part-time day jobs at the same time.”
Eventually the couple was able to quit their day jobs and play music full-time.
“We were always gigging in different bands, and we’ve always taught private lessons,” Wagoner said. “It’s a lot of work and, as people probably know, it’s not lucrative, but we’re doing pretty well.”
Both have been among Madison’s most in-demand session musicians, playing in recording studios with a host of local and national artists.
It seems there’s never a shortage of projects for the couple. From 2008-13, they hosted a music and interview show called Mad Toast Live from the Brink Lounge. The show, recorded for podcast in front of a live audience and broadcast on WORT Community Radio, involved Gaines and Wagoner visiting with other accomplished musicians and playing music.
Wagoner also served for several years as president of the Madison Music Collective. He hosted and produced the collective’s Jazz on a Sunday series, which featured local, regional and national jazz artists.
The couple released a self-titled EP last summer, a six-track collection displaying their musical range, including elements of bluegrass, jazz, Americana and blues that was recorded by their friend Wendy Schneider at Coney Island Studios on Madison’s east side. It features tight arrangements with room for improvisation and the couple’s standout vocals and harmonies.
Wagoner said the Opera House show will include a few surprises, but mostly it will be singing and playing new original music and some favorites from more than three decades of making music together.
“It’s going to be a show of music and other things that kind of speak to us and that we enjoy doing,” he said. “The Opera House is such a great venue for us. We’re rehearsing hard so we can just have fun.”