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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Gamma Ray Bar invites Madison to sing along

Owner and musician Kevin Willmott II brings live music, karaoke back to former Frequency space
Ava McNarney
Afrofuturist mural inside Gamma Ray Bar. June 13, 2024.

Since Gamma Ray Bar opened off Capitol Square on June 1, its purple front door at 121 W. Main St. has been a wormhole to another galaxy inhabited by music and dance. 

The combined bar and music venue is much more spacious than it appears outside, with the bar and karaoke area greeting visitors upon entering. If they’ve come for a performance, they can go to the stage in a room farther back.

Owner Kevin Willmott II is written all over the place, from the disco ball spinning above the stage to the bar covered in stickers. “This space is the place” is his slogan, and the whole establishment emanates his distinctive energy.


The space in question is versatile, intended to house regular concerts and other performances like comedy acts, along with karaoke before and after shows or on nights without live music. Willmott plans to schedule many local gigs with bigger touring acts on the weekends. 

Willmott is particularly excited about an upcoming show on June 23 featuring Greyhounds, an Austin-based “powerhouse duo,” and Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, a Grammy Award-winning Mexican-American rock band famous for their recording of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba.” Those interested can purchase tickets for this and other shows on Gamma Ray’s website.

An eclectic lineup provides something for everyone. So far, acts have included Madison comedian Nate Chappell’s live show “Nate Chappell Asks You Several Questions,” and a “Prince Birthday Party” featuring DJ Bruce Blaq, among other musicians.

Gamma Ray seeks to provide a space for larger artists looking for an intimate venue or artists who are still building their fanbase, especially younger Madison bands, Willmott said. Its capacity of 118 makes it a much-needed additional rung on the ladder of Madison venues, with some of the next-smallest at around 400.

Karaoke is another Madison niche the bar aims to fill.

“The karaoke has been the funnest part,” Willmott said. “We open the doors and start doing karaoke, and people just flood in, you know? It’s because karaoke is a monster that feeds itself.”

Owner Kevin Willmott II. June 13, 2024. (Ava McNarney)

A massive Afrofuturist mural looms over the karaoke and bar area, covering most of the front room’s right wall. The artist, Willmott’s brother William Stringfellow was inspired by the women of the South African Ndebele tribe, who painted columns like those of the mural on the exteriors of their homes to communicate with others during the apartheid period. The work centers on a white, blue and pink design representing both the transgender pride flag and Madison’s flag.

The fluorescent piece glows underneath the lights. Willmott believes it’s a destination itself. He wants it to welcome everyone into the space, especially Black people.

“I wanted you to walk in and see Black imagery and know that you’re not just in your regular space in Madison,” Willmott said.

Both Willmott and his brother are from Kansas, he said while wearing, fittingly, a Chiefs jersey. Willmott moved to Madison at 22 to work at Genna’s down the street, then spent a decade working at venues like the High Noon Saloon, Majestic Theatre and The Sylvee. 

Willmott grew as a musician throughout that time, now on guitar and vocals with nine-piece soul group Don’t Mess With Cupid. His music is what first brought him to Madison — with ties to the area, he once visited at 14 to perform at the very space he now owns. Back then, it was the Slipper Club, which became the Frequency and then BarleyPop Live.

A large part of the appeal for Willmott to take over the place was that Madison already adored it. He wants to bring back its pre-pandemic momentum.

“I was like, why should I not shoot my shot at the old Frequency?” Willmott said.

In its time, the Frequency hosted countless iconic acts, including Macklemore. Gamma Ray recently honored its legacy with a post asking fans to name their favorite acts from the former venue.

Willmott said Madison has shown Gamma Ray a warm welcome since the opening roughly two weeks ago.

“You build a room like this for so long, it’s kind of yours,” Willmott said. “It’s fun to see Madison make it theirs.”

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