As is tradition, I submitted my top records of the year to Agit Reader. I wrote about my #1 and the site’s #9 – Pillars by Tyshawn Sorey, a new benchmark for mixing contemporary classical/new music and improvisation, in this post: http://agitreader.com/wp2/the-agit-reader-top-10-of-2018/
11. IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance 12. Lea Bertucci, Metal Aether (reviewed for Agit Reader) 13. Jlin, Autobiography
14. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen is a Reptile 15. Neko Case, Hell-On 16. Brian Fallon, Sleepwalkers
17. Cecille McLorin Salvant, The Window 18. Motel Mirrors, In the Meantime (Half of the singing-songwriting core of this band, John Paul Keith, also put out an exquisite solo record, Heart Shaped Shadow whose songs dotted every time I had people over to dance, but this was the one that kept me up at night) 19. JD Allen, Love Stone 20. US Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion, “The White Album”
“The difference between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children.” -Audre Lorde, “Power”
The two soul-enriching elements best delivered by performance, empathy for others and the feeling of community, have never been more needed by me personally and by the world. In a year of extreme highs and fucked up lows, a year where I often didn’t know whether I was coming or going, theatre and dance were the balm they’ve always been – and more.
Having an outlet and hearing from people who were reading and listening and interested in digging deep meant more to me than I can say and I hope I did justice by what I saw. This year was the hardest in memory to whittle down a top 15 from the 60 shows I saw. There was more good work in a wider range of styles than I could take in. Mostly spread between New York and Columbus, I didn’t make it to Chicago and I couldn’t work plays into the handful of Cleveland trips. As always, everything is in Columbus unless stated otherwise. All art is provided by the artists/companies for promotional purposes, either sent to me directly or from their site.
Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and Other Works by John Bernd,conceived by Ishmael Houston-Jones and co-directed by Miguel Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones, adapting choreography and text by John Bernd. (Danspace, NYC) – This highlight of a particularly stuffed-with-joy APAP could have justified the cost of a winter NYC trip all on its own. Dance is one of the most alive, immediate artforms – we all know the body – and one of the most dazzling for its presentation of what the body can do. This work of memory, combining texts and choreography and compositions from the artists’ friend John Bernd (a tragically early AIDS casualty) reasserted how alive this work is and raged at the loss of its creator simultaneously. I wrote about it at more length here.
2. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by Alice Birch (Available Light) – In a year where Available Light hit it out of the park repeatedly with work no one else does better, this raw, mesmerizing Alice Birch play was first among equals. Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction balanced thoughtful abstraction with intense physicality and every performance showed me something new or painfully reminded me of something I already knew. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
3. Andrew Schneider, Youarenowhere (Wexner Center) – There’s a certain joy in seeing something that uses tropes you know in such a fresh way it feels completely new. This Schneider piece was a heartbreaking magic show: a virtuosic solo performance, the best science fiction grappling with alcoholism since The Man Who Fell to Earth and a chaotic jumble of the glitching, out of sync nature of the modern world glued to a beating heart. More images that haven’t left me since January than anything else I saw all year.
4. The Realistic Jones by Will Eno (CATCO) – This deceptively simple Will Eno fable about two couples named Jones was a perfect example of the beautiful, human storytelling CATCO brings to the table at its best. Bishara’s direction unwrapped this for the audience like a gift without pandering or trying to sand down the weirdness. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
5. The White Album by Lars Jan and Early Morning Opera, adapted from Joan Didion (Wexner Center) – A righteous performance by Mia Barrow at its core charged and illuminated this powerful adaptation of one of the finest American essays. A look at all the ways telling shapes the life and the stories grow into themselves. The accusations this wasn’t dramatized enough had some merit, but it’s probably not surprising hearing those words was as much of a shot in the arm as I needed.
6. Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman (Short North Stage) – My favorite Sondheim on a visceral level, Assassins, received a gorgeous technicolor-nightmare production at Short North Stage featuring razor-sharp direction by Gina Hardy Minyard and a cast that’s hard to imagine being bettered. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
7. Pursuit of Happiness by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper (Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Under the Radar, NYC) – Nature Theatre of Oklahoma have a knack for taking things we think we know and making sure we really see them. This look at America through the lens of the Western in collaboration with En Knap, blows up our treasured (or sneered-at) myths about America into a hilarious, grim Grand Guignol cartoon.
8. Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth (SRO Theatre); Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine (Gallery Players) – These two shows are high water marks for the ability of the musical to shine a light on our worst, most craven tendencies and point to the hope of self-realization. Great direction – Kristoffer Green for Company and Ross Shirley for Falsettos – casts, and musical direction gave a new coat of paint on these fabulous scores and sent me out into the night thankful for my town and mulling a lot of things over. Reviewed for Columbus Underground: Company and Falsettos.
9. An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Available Light) – This Jacobs-Jenkins play was one of the most acclaimed and controversial Off-Broadway hits in recent years and the Available Light production was a marvel, directed by Matt Slaybaugh and with a for-the-ages performance by David Glover at its heart. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
10. [PORTO] by Kate Benson (Available Light) – Benson’s [PORTO] was a sharp and funny look at the complications and dangers of trying to live in the world, to stake out a place for yourself without treating others badly. Note-perfect direction by Eleni Papaleonardos and a phenomenal cast including standout performances by Elena Perantoni and Michelle Weiser, made this terrific play an experience that was impossible to forget. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
11. Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore (CATCO and Evolution Theatre Company) – These CATCO and Evolution collaborations always bear fruit and this gripping take on Whitemore’s classic dissection of Alan Turing, directed by Joe Bishara, was especially soul-enriching. A riveting performance by Ian Short as Turing and Dave Morgan as Dilwyn Knox, particularly Morgan’s horrifying soliloquy about compromise, knocked this over the fences. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
12. Étroits sont les Vaisseaux by Kimberly Bartosik/daela (Wexner Center for the Arts) – This dance piece, named for a mammoth Anselm Kiefer sculpture, took a look at a couple on a shifting, melting landscape of intimacy (danced by Joanna Kotze and Lance Gries). When I interviewed Bartosik for a preview she said her goal was to find that emotional, dramatic space without being dramatic or emotional and this succeeded in spades. Every subtle gesture, every undulation, felt charged and fraught without being obvious or over the top. This ripped my heart out and used it for a shadow play.
13. White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleilmanpour (Available Light) – This piece travels the world, speaking for its author Soleilmanpour, forbidden a passport because he wouldn’t serve in the military. It takes what could be a parlor trick, a play the actor hasn’t seen before the curtain comes up, and (with the careful facilitation of Eleni Papaleonardos) turns it into a fable about complicity and compromise. In the middle of a very long day – that started with a phone call from the day job at 4:15am – this shook me to the core. I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the talk-back but I stopped twice on the mile walk home to text friends about this; I just couldn’t not talk about it.
14. Our Country: The Antigone Project, Conceived and Devised by Annie Saunders and B. Wolff (Under the Radar, NYC) – This was a beguiling, complicated intermingling of memory and myth, childhood and America. Created based on taped conversations between Annie Saunders and her brother, and starring Saunders and Max Hersey, and with direction by Wolff that merged a deep empathy with not letting its characters off the hook, it was as immediate and accessible as a house on fire but so hard to nail down it would have required many, many viewings to exhaust.
15. Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell (Roundabout Theatre, NYC) – This British import featured a volcanic Stockard Channing at its center as an art historian who just published a summing-up memoir that’s roiled her family. With a supporting cast led by a terrific Hugh Dancy and Megalyn Echikunwoke and strong direction by Daniel Aukin, despite an ending that pulled its punch too early, this was a haunting look at the costs for women in pursuing success.
“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” -Mary Oliver
This has been a year of incredible highs and incredible lows, the latter all self-inflicted. Wearing myself so far down I was susceptible to a week in the hospital with pneumonia. To spraining an ankle so hard I was in a boot for two weeks. But one thing that always helps center me, that lights and maintains the fire called wanting to go on, is attention. And no cultural activity centers me more, nothing puts me in my place, nothing bows the strings in my soul like trying to focus on visual art.
And I will say this in all three posts but the best macro-gratitude exercise I undertake every year is keeping track of what I see/listen to (I need to be better about tracking what I read) and going over it at the end of the year. I took in around 75 exhibits this year and narrowing it down to 20 was hard. I am, always, very, very lucky.
Anyone else sparked by this or who bothers to read these, I appreciate you . Drop me a line, let’s talk about what we both saw or what I’m an idiot for leaving off. Everything here is in Columbus and any photo is taken by me unless stated otherwise.
1. Mickalene Thomas, I Can’t See You Without Me (Wexner Center for the Arts) – I can’t think of an artist who better epitomizes taking all of art history and synthesizing it into a voice utterly, unmistakably hers, than Mickalene Thomas. The bounty of riches presented with I Can’t See You Without Me was like tapping into a deep vein and realizing it’s full of stars: completely personal, in touch with the world (and worlds behind the world) and full of monumental, magic beauty. Everything I love in art was in this show and while I visited it five or six times, I regret not seeing it seven or eight more.
2. David Wojnarowicz,History Keeps Me Awake at Night(Whitney Museum of Art, NYC) – Dispatches from one era when the world was on fire still shone brightly in this dazzling retrospective of one of American art’s foremost poets of ecstasy and rage.
3. Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – I still remember the first time I saw one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, at my first Whitney Biennial. It was an eye-opening reminder of the power of repetition to unlock a world and a potent mix of serenity and discord. I came to love the permutations of her varied work over time, most prominently in a stuffed, ranging retrospective at the Whitney. but this hyper-focused touring show was a concentrated dose of the mix of sensations that first drew me in.
4. Kerry James Marshall, Works on Paper (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – An epic-scaled domestic scene in panels fragmenting it like a comic strip and also recalling large Renaissance triptychs, was surrounded by other drawings in this tight, sharp show of an artist who only gets better.
5. Various Artists, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and Weapon (New Museum, NYC) – This ferocious trip through depictions of gender ended a January New York trip on a head-spinning succession of high notes, including Ulrike Muller’s jagged abstractions, a dazzling Mickalene Thomas video collage. This summed up everything I love about the New Museum when it’s clicking, work within the last 10 years – without cheaply valorizing youth – that summed up and exploded 40 years of the institution. A good sign for the future of the Wexner Center as the curator of this spectactular exhibit is the new director to succeed Sherri Geldin as director.
6. Hilma af Klint, Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim, NYC) – This hypnotic, transfixing, spiritual show cemented another contender for an originator of abstraction and opened my eyes to a voice I knew almost nothing about. A paean to the magic of drilling down into oneself with specific instructions not to show most of her work until 20 years after her death, working on instructions from spirits she communed with through a seance group. You couldn’t write af Klint’s story in a way that seemed believable but the art was as accessible as layered and elusive.
7. Michael Rakowitz with Amber N. Ford, M. Carmen Lane, RA Washington, and Amanda King with Shooting Without Bullets Youth Photographers; A Color Removed (SPACES Gallery, Cleveland) – Rakowitz in collaboration with a variety of local artists created an assemblage of the color orange, underlining the irony of trying to blame the deaths of children on the warning color or lack thereof. And it was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen in my life. A quiet temple to absence, loss, and rage.
8. Mary Corse, A Survey in Light (Whitney Museum, NYC) – I walked into the Whitney that sweltering July day knowing I loved Wojnarowicz, steeped in him since I was a teenager. I had no such knowledge or preconceptions of Corse and her deceptively simple canvases pulled my breath right out of my body. Working with the most fundamental element not just of painting but of sight – light – she made me look at it in a different way that recalled the meditative work of so many earlier artists but was still like nothing I’d seen.
9. Eugene Delacroix, Delacroix (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC) – This presentation of one of the old masters I knew the least about was refreshing in a way art of that vintage doesn’t usually affect me. The breadth of his literary influences and the wide range of stylistic techniques were dazzling; a self-portrait casting himself as the main character in Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor led me to dub him the creator of the cosplay selfie. And it was not just the Musee de Nancy frame that led me to say, and my companions to repeat the rest of the weekend, “Delacroix is lit.”
9. Charles White, A Retrospective (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – Another artist I wasn’t as familiar with as I should have been, a 20th-century American, this selection of White’s work was the perfect thing to see upon first arriving in the city. Enormous, dazzling, powerful and rich with the contradictions and terror still reverberating through the fabric of daily life. Almost impossible to take in but refusing to let me go, demanding and not letting me off the hook.
10. Various Artists, Inherent Structure (Wexner Center for the Arts) – The Wex hit a home run with this vibrant look at the ways contemporary artists continue to suck the marrow out of traditional concerns of abstract painting while tweaking and subverting it. One of the best-arranged exhibits I saw all year, where every corner I turned revealed something else about what I’d seen and what I was about to see without pandering to the obvious. Artists I already loved like Amy Sillman illuminated a gateway toward those I knew less (Angel Otero) and those completely new to me (Channing Hansen).
11. Carolee Scheenman, Kinetic Painting (MoMA PS1, NYC) – This expansive retrospective, going back to the ’50s, was a lesson in how not to weaken in rigor, in curiosity, in feeling. Scheenman did almost everything and did it all with blinding heat and depth that continually revealed itself. Shaming and inspiring and astonishing.
12. Marlon de Azambuja and Luisa Lambri, Brutalismo-Cleveland (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – Another piece in the fantastic Front triennial, this collection of local materials in an iteration of de Azambuja’s ongoing series investigating Brutalism paired with Lambri’s photographs in something that was unsettling and perfectly in keeping with its surroundings (not just the Breuer wing of the CMA but Cleveland itself).
12. Phyllida Barlow, Tilt (Hauser and Wirth, NYC) – There was no shortage of art I saw this year that grappled with the way we in more privileged vantage points have realized the world doesn’t sit on its axis as comfortably as we once thought. Very little did it with the same arresting punch as British artist Barlow. A queasy circus singing a melody in its own voice, a voice that haunts me weeks later and I want to hear more of. Seeing the nods to Brutalism in these pieces transported me to the de Azambuja earlier on the list and the way those two artists of different nationalities exhibiting in different cities and different seasons spoke to one another in my head was a tribute to trying to see as much art as possible.
13. Sarah Lucas, Au Naturel (New Museum, NYC) – There’s a recurring theme in what shook me this year: artists I damn sure should have known better. Sarah Lucas epitomizes this, storied career as a sculptor I mostly knew as a name, one of the Young British Artists, with Hirst and Emin. This intense, witty, beautifully vulgar retrospective was everything I want art to be – speaking not just truth to power but a specific, personal, idiosyncratic truth.
14. Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture (Cartier Foundation, Paris) – Most of my first trip to Paris was spent doing exactly what you’d expect – the Louvre, D’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, Shakespeare and Company, wandering boulevards, drinking wine, all spectacular. So I was surprised by how affecting I found this show of a visionary Japanese architect. Breathable open spaces that feel like the future; echoes of ’70s science fiction movies like Silent Running but also evocative of the flowing purity of a Basho line or the meditative canvases of Agnes Martin. I wanted to live here. Paris, sure, but also inside these models.
15. Cyprien Galliard, Nightlife (MOCA, Cleveland) – I’ve been a fan of Galliard’s since the Wex showed his photographs but I’ve never been as enchanted as by the swirling dive into the after-dark of this video installation. Rodin’s The Thinker shattered by a bombing (the version in Cleveland), a tree planted to celebrate Jesse Owens also in Cleveland, fireworks over the site of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where Owens, shuddering plant life around Los Angeles streets, all throbbing to a looped sample of the Alton Ellis classic Blackman’s Song, the original chorus of “I was born a loser” melting into the re-release of “I was born a winner.” I could have stayed there for hours
16. Martha Rosler, Irrespective (Jewish Museum, NYC) – Martha Rosler’s acerbic retrospective at the Jewish Museum was the kind of fresh air and reawakening to the atmosphere of terror around us I needed. Steeped in language and sharply aware of the limitations and obfuscations of every vocabulary, this was as immediate and accessible as a slap in the face but also layers upon layers.
17. Susan Phillipsz, A Single Voice (Tanya Bonakdar, NYC) – Phillipsz is the master of the subtle, disorienting environment and one of the finest artists at using sound in a gallery setting. An installation with film of a violin player playing a snatch of score from a Karl-Birgir Blomdahl opera, with 12 speakers bouncing the violin tones through the room and surrounded by canvases caked in salt and named after the Lachrimae. Defying description and intoxicating at the same time.
18. Jennifer Packer, Quality of Life (Sikkema Jenkins & Co, NYC) – Packer achieves a balance of the intimate and the explosive that’s unlike any work I’d ever seen. These breathtaking canvases all had an interiority that I found beguiling, coupled with potent colors and surprising juxtapositions that grabbed me by the collar and forced me in off the street.
19. Ernest Withers, A Buck and A Half A Piece (Brooks Museum, Memphis) – Everything at the Brooks Museum this trip reminded me why it’s a must-stop in Memphis, the Jaume Plensa work very nearly made this list. But that slice of Memphis photographic history on the main floor wouldn’t let me go. Withers was a master at documenting cultural life (like the photo of Rufus Thomas and Elvis Presley above), civil life (with arresting images of the civil rights movement like the SCLC conference) and day-to-day “ordinary” life the way we should always see them: as parts of the same fabric, not discrete plants grown in their own pots.
20. Various Artists, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life (The Tate, London) – It’s no surprise Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were massive to me from the moment I was first aware of them; so seeing this retrospective on their home turf in my first trip to London was amazing. But more than that, this retrospective accomplished the tricky feat of showing these names as the nucleus of a burgeoning movement without overly inflating or denigrating the lesser-known student works. It painted the kind of picture that normally I’d have to buy the catalog to come close to.
“Hear a song from a band that saves you” -Ashley McBryde, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”
I understand the intrinsic dangers of ranking subjective art but I grew up loving this kind of list and I occasionally enjoy reading back over them. I saw over 100 shows this year and another 20 could have easily made this. I still found most of my nourishment in little rooms – and a big one or two – hearing something loud blast my face or something so delicate it made me shut my damn mouth and lean in. Everything is in Columbus unless stated otherwise.
Cory Henry and The Funk Apostles (Le Trianon, Paris, 05/02/2018) -Photo is from the Columbus show at Skully’s which was also damn good and where I got much closer to the action. I was already a fan, of Snarky Puppy and Henry’s gospel-tinted solo work and familiar with his ability to hold an intimate crowd rapt. But this still felt revelatory. Not only has Henry broken through to making some of the richest funk music around, colored by classic Stevie Wonder and Willie Mitchell productions without being a throwback,. As I wrote for JazzColumbus, “No one stopped moving for the entire 90 minutes they were on stage. Like every great bandleader, Henry believed in himself and his team enough to let every member shine. The unit stretched songs and vamps out into uncharted territory without falling into slack jam-band clichés. Every tune walked the line and exploited that sweet tension in coming together and falling apart, dark-hearted duende wrapped in a glowing love for the world.”
Mourning a [BLK]Star (The Summit, 07/27/18) – I ended a long week of celebration, centered on A’s 50th birthday, with a solo trip into the night climaxing with one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen. Cleveland’s Afrofuturist soul band Mourning a [BLK]Star hit their stride this year with two spectacular records and the set I saw epitomized a band leaning into their power with intense focus. Layered, surprising harmonies, thick grooves, edge-of-a-switchblade horn charts, all in the service of truth that cracked my chest open.
3. Nicole Atkins with Ruby Boots (The Basement, 08/16/18) – I’ve been a fan of Nicole Atkins for years but as much as I loved her earlier work – “Girl, You Look Amazing” is still on every playlist I make where I expect dancing – Goodnight Rhonda Lee felt special. This tour made a forest fire out of that love. It was as close as I’ll ever get to seeing Patsy Cline in her prime – not in any sense of imitation but in the sense of someone finding that perfect crossroad between country and torch song. Any time you can stand that close to a flame this bright and this warm, take it.
4. Marah (Mercury Lounge, NYC, 01/13/18 and Hogan House, 04/20/18) – In the early 2000s, Marah reaffirmed my faith in rock and roll more often than any other band. I got to see the reunited version, with Serge Bielanko back in the fold, and they still did it. Better yet, I got to see them in both modes, acoustic and full-bore raging electric machine. The latter had the benefit of being at one of my favorite rock clubs in one of my favorite cities, à propos for the anniversary of If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry. One of the quintessential New York records of this century at one of the last-standing LES rock clubs from that era, it doesn’t get much better. I wanted to hug everyone. Then I got the songs-forward acoustic version at one of my favorite short-lived venues, Hogan House, those two voices and two guitars and complicated love (between the brothers and for the world) inches away from me. It doesn’t getmuchbetter.
5. Mickalene Thomas/Teri Lyne Carrington (Wexner Center, 10/04/18) – Mickalene Thomas’ canvases always dazzle, look for more on the breathtaking exhibit on the art list, but I was not expecting this foray into multimedia performance to blow me away. Thomas manipulated footage and abstract images behind a laptop to a score by the great Teri Lyne Carrington, also on drums. One of my favorite trumpet players working today, Ingrid Jensen, and an astonishing turntablist I couldn’t find the name of for all my googling rounded out this muscular, delicate quartet. Mesmerizing, throbbing repetition and ecstatic release, a reminder that the cut-up technique doesn’t have to be academic and that deep attention to history and desire should underpin all world-building as much as they did here.
6. David Byrne (Rose Music Center, Huber Heights, 08/11/18) – The last time I saw David Byrne was the weekend after 9/11; easily one of the most potent, emotional shows I’ve ever seen. Everyone I talked to about this tour said “American Utopia is something special,” so I took a chance on letting something compete with those memories and I was so glad I did. Byrne is a lesson in continuing to follow every curiosity and pulling every thread as hard as you can. As A said, “That’s the 66 I want to be.” His use of downtown choreographer extraordinaire Annie B-Parsons dovetailed with the first time I’ve ever seen wireless amplification used to what I think should have always been its purpose: a rock show put onto a plane without being tethered to stacks of amps (or, thanks to its drumline qualities, a trap kit). This freedom was parlayed into an intense respect for sound and content instead of settling into a parlor trick. The most dazzling spectacle I’ve ever seen in a rock show but simultaneously mammoth and human-sized and crushing, as evidenced by my tears in the upper rows on the final encore, Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.”
7. Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days (Wexner Center, 02/24/18) –This year had the final half of Chuck Helm’s last season at the Wexner Center and the first half of Lane Czaplinski’s. This show was a perfect example of the former. When Helm first saw, and brought, O’Farrill to Columbus as part of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls project, he took care to single out the young trumpeter and now brought O’Farrill’s cracking project as a leader. When I spoke with him about the impetus for the project, O’Farrill spoke for a while about the inspiration he gains from film and the intense, cohesive, nuanced pieces they brought spoke to that influence. Atmospheres that gripped me by the color and threw me around with every piston in the muscular engine firing.
8. Various Artists, New Black Eastside Songbook (Short North Stage, 03/14/18) – Poet/curator/organizer Scott Woods conceptualized and provided titles for a six-song suite collaboration with exemplars of black art in town for something righteous, moving, and true. His expansive genre tastes and clear eye for the world, as it is and as it should be, guided this project. Woods pulled together our best musicians and gave the freshest, most accurate perspective on the town I’ve grown up in. Ogun Meji Duo, featuring our finest composer in Mark Lomax II and my favorite saxophone player Eddie Bayard, absorbed and tossed back Columbus’ rich jazz history (destroyed like so much else with the very deliberate placement of the interstate) on “Welcome to Bronzeville.” Paisha’s barbed satire on “Things to Do in Black Columbus” and Jordan Sandridge’s cri de coeur “Rahsaan Rollin’ in the Dirt” and the acid commentary of Krate Digga’s electronic suite “Blight Privilege” all grabbed me by the collar. Counterfeit Madison’s “Olde Towne Beast” was the best, most focused song I’ve ever heard from her: rich and textured and throbbing. I had tears in my eyes as everyone convened for the finale “Bulldozing the Ave.” The best – bar none – example of what Columbus is capable of was on that stage (and the encore performance at Natalie’s).
9. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams (Woodlands Tavern, 02/28/18) –This duo, sansrhythm section, with resumes encompassing Broadway and Bob Dylan, Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles and Little Feat, served as a reminder of the beauty and breadth of roots music. Wrenching originals like “The Other Side of Pain” and “Save Me From Myself” held their own with stone classics like the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild,” Carl Perkins’ “Turn Around” and gospel traditionals “Samson and Delilah,” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Campbell’s flexibility and empathy as a co-writer shone in songs he’d written with both Julie Miller and William Bell, and their voices sounded like they were born to make music together.
10. Thumbscrew (Village Vanguard, NYC, 07/22/18) –This collective trio of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, put out two phenomenal records this year, Theirs and Ours, along with serving as the backbone for Halvorson’s art-song project Code Girl. Thelastnightof their week atthe mother church of jazz wasa reminder ofhow far you cantake forms andhowmuch beauty you can plow withan ensemble who know and trust eachother. Rare telepathy that glimmered like juggling flaming knives in ever-more complicated patterns but also brought it down to the simple joy of ballads.
11. Reigning Sound with Miriam and Nobody’s Baby (Alphaville, NYC, 07/21/18) – Greg Cartwright may be the best songwriter of the 20th century (see his high placement on the best sets from festivals list) and his Reigning Sound project, 20 years on, is the best showcase for his variety of moods, riffs, and mots juste. The current line-up with the Jay-Vons backing him doesn’t play very often these days so this Brooklyn show was a treat. Betraying no rust, they proved they can kick up a dance party and reduce you to tears, sometimes in the same song. Opening was my first chance to experience Miriam Linna’s (The Cramps, The A-Bones) new project Nobody’s Baby and it was exactly the kind of sassy, joyous homage to the music she grew up loving you would hope, featuring a crack band including Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Daddy Long Legs’ Murat Atkurk.
12. Curtis Harding (A&R Bar, 04/04/18) –No one’s making better revved-up soul-inflected rock music with a sexy groove than Curtis Harding. Promoting his stunning Face Your Fear record, he set the staid confines of the A&R Bar on fire with songs you couldn’t help dancing to, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. One of those shows that send me back out in the night happy to be alive and a little in love with everyone sharing that experience with me.
13. Kronos Quartet – A Thousand Tongues (Wexner Center, 01/25/18) – This live performance of longtime Wex visitors/commissioners Kronos Quartet accompanying Sam Green’s (an artist with his own extensive and fruitful relationship to the Wex) documentary about them was a summation of all the magic they’ve brought so many like me over the years. A victory lap and a reminder how much gas there still is in the tank.
14. Deaf Wish (Spacebar, 09/04/18) – Twisted catharsis with a side of fist-pumping doesn’t sound much better than Australian noise-rockers Deaf Wish. Over the years (since first seeing them at Gonerfest in 2011) they‘ve streamlined their sound sacrificing none of the beautiful weirdness at its core. This was one of the best rock bands working, at the height of their powers, giving me that rush I got from Sonic Youth when I was a teenager without ever sounding like an imitation.
15. Marisa Anderson with Sarah Louise (Ace of Cups, 06/28/18) – There’s no better practitioner of solo guitar than Portland’s Marisa Anderson. She plays the electric guitar as though it’s a conduit to the hidden truths of the universe. A stylist who’s synthesized every great voice on her instrument and come out with her own sharp and beautifully nasty twang. The second appearance of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” on this year’s list, which could be the universe trying to tell me something. Sarah Louise’s beguiling opening set reminded me of ’70s British folk and drew me in with its curiosities and complications.
16. Mwenso and the Shakes (Rumba Cafe, 09/08/18) – New York’s Michael Mwenso brought his virtuosic, gleefully unpredictable band (part cabaret revue, part ’70s funk extravaganza, part postmodernism at its zenith) to town in one of the purest expressions of fun I got in a club all year. They kept the wildness of their jam session roots while translating that vibe into a show that made sense to an audience. Charisma to spare and earworms that burrowed into my head for days.
17. Ashley McBryde (Bluestone, 11/08/18) – There isn’t a finer practitioner of Mellencamp-style roots-rock and Patty Griffin country today than Nashville’s Ashley McBryde. Leading her crack six-piece band through a set heavy on her new record Girl Going Nowhere, but with room for already-classics from her debut like “Bible and a .44” and “Luckiest SOB,” she led a class on opening your arms to an audience without pandering. She opened with “Livin’ Next to Leroy” and its crushing opening lines, “Three doors down, there’s tinfoil on the table,” and led us on a journey of lyrics as finely observed and chiseled as a Michelangelo sculpture but with every bit as much concern for the bounce and flow of the music.
18. Zonal and Moor Mother (Corsica Studios, London, 04/26/18) – Techno Animal cohorts Justin Broadrick (Godflesh) and Kevin Martin (The Bug) have reformed under the name Zonal. When a show of theirs was a possibility on my first ever trip to the UK it was a no-brainer and their murky, abrasive, bass-drenched techno is more potent than ever. The x-factor on the middle of the set was Philly poet-rapper Moor Mother who, from her first line “There are no stars in the sky,” teased a rainbow of colors in the viscosity of the music and made whole lives visible in the fire she breathed.
19. Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Stuart’s Opera House, Nelsonville, 10/08/18) – Will Oldham is an inspiration in a lot of ways for me. A polymath, unmistakably devoted to the craft of his songs, who never takes himself that seriously. His unfailing curiosity toward putting his songs into various contexts both keeps him interested and shines light on possibly unexplored textures in the original. This small tour featured chamber-music arrangements with violin and cello, a three-piece horn section, a backing singer/duet partner from the opening band, and the prince playing very little guitar. “I See a Darkness” had a muscle-y gospel punch and “The Way” was recast as a powerful statement of intent, a line in the sand.
20. Amir El-Saffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble (Lincoln Theatre, 10/10/18) – One of my favorite trumpet players returned with his expansive, roiling Two Rivers Ensemble and with a special guest: El-Saffar’s teacher (and one of the great maqam singers in the world) Hamid Al-Saadi. This was perhaps the finest religious music I’ve ever heard, obliterating any description and leaving me staggered.
I’ve got that persistent festival fatigue like everybody else. Art should be part of your life, to the extent you can make it one, not a destination vacation or a cattle call. That said, I hit several and saw sets that were as good as anything, that made me want to go for 12 hours, gorging myself, and those should be acknowledged.
Algiers (Big Ears Festival)
Nicole Mitchell – Art and Anthem for Gwendolyn Brooks (With Jason Moran) (Winter Jazzfest)
David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot (Big Ears Festival)
4. Greg Cartwright (Gonerfest) 5. Susan Alcorn (Big Ears Festival) 6. Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die (Winter Jazzfest) 7. Pierre Kwenders (Cleveland Museum of Art, Summer Solstice 8. Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem (Big Ears Festival) 9. Jason Moran and Milford Graves (Big Ears Festival)10. Marc Ribot’s Songs of Resistance (Winter Jazzfest) 11. Roscoe Mitchell – “TRIOS” (Big Ears Festival) 12. Sarah Manning (Winter Jazzfest) 13. Harlan T. Bobo (Gonerfest) 14. Evan Parker’s Rocket Science (Big Ears Festival 15. Bloody Show (Gonerfest)16. Tyshawn Sorey Trio (Big Ears Festival) 17. Oblivians featuring Stephanie McDee (Gonerfest) 18. Craig Taborn Quartet (Big Ears Festival) 19. Diamanda Galas (Big Ears Festival) 20. Ethers (Gonerfest)
This is the time of year when performance slows, when companies lean towards the family-friendly, and those of us who think too damn much about arttuck into making lists. On which note, look for my live music list and records soon, theatre and visual art at the end of the month because there are things on the NYC agenda that could be contenders. But before you surrender to that warm egg nog stupor, there are two thorny, fascinating pieces this weekend to add a little bite and a second thought to your tidings of good cheer.
I saw Available Light’s production of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleilmanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit in the last night of its first weekend at Wild Goose, at the end of a day that started at 4 am with a work testing call. I wrote a preview for Columbus Underground, interviewing facilitator (and AVLT Artistic Director) Eleni Papaleonardos and three actors in this project, so I was already excited. Public mea culpa, I apparently accidentally spelled Eleni’s name Elini in the article and missed it until just now. One of my favorite artists in Columbus, I should always get her name correct.
I left the theatre stunned. Even as exhausted as I was, the uncomfortable identification between actor the playwright’s unfiltered voice, the sense of watching a beacon from far away and having to decode its signals. The humor and the audience participation and sudden shifts into abject bleakness and rage all had a profound effect on me. I didn’t stay for the talk-back because my complicity and I needed air and sunlight, but I stopped at the taco truck and messaged a friend about it for twenty minutes. I don’t want to give much away but if you can tolerate random audience participation, do not miss this. Some of the best actors in town performing a sui generis experience.
The other must-see this weekend is a poetic dance work from Detroit-based artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Séancers. I conducted a fascinating interview with Kosoko for Columbus Underground which left me hungry to see this work. In it, Kosoko said, “I also find art is a way of communicating with an audience, so we know that we’re asking the same questions as it relates to our humanity and ways of being in the world,” Kosoko said. ”We’re going about it in different ways, but I think those core inquiries are certainly present in all of us. That proposal invites the audience, piques their interest enough to venture into the room and come on this journey with me.”
This work received amazing press from the New York Times, in which Kosoko said, “The creative work for me is a catalyst to engage in dialogue and critical conversation. That’s really what I thirst for, to be part of a larger conversation.” Art in America called it “powerful interrogation of the way whiteness restricts and confines and fails to provide ways out.” In a solid year for dance and theatre at the Wex, this promises to be another high point. Get out there, try to open yourself up, especially if, like me, you easily get overwhelmed and beaten down this time of year.
Every holiday is really about the passing of time but I’m a particular sucker for days that explicitly honor time. Case in point: the Summer Solstice. As the local Community Festival drifts away from me as a demographic (there’s no bitterness there: events should change or they wither and die) there’s been a rising of other options that sing with summer’s sticky sweetness.
Megan Palmer (June 21, 2018, Dick’s Den)
One of my favorite singer-songwriters, bandleaders, and artistic expats, it’s always a joy when Megan Palmer comes back to Columbus. The nights at Dick’s Den are extra special because it’s where she first bowled me and so much of this town over. The gloriously loose – on stage and in the crowd – late set we caught at that home reaffirmed that power.
Palmer still puts together a righteous, crack band whenever she’s in town, including usual suspects guitarist Brett Burleson, longtime vocal foil Jen Miller, and drummer of all trades Jimmy Castoe. That selection of players highlights the beautiful, quicksilver quality to slip between genres and times, tying everything together with her voice. Over the years, Palmer’s sharpened her lyric writing into one of the finest examples of open-hearted empathy without that understanding ever turning to weakness or a mealy-mouthed exercise in “both sides.” At the same time, her melodies grew looser and harder to define, amplifying their shimmering quicksilver qualities and leaving more space for other players.
Burleson’s fills attacked the same “problem” as Luther Perkins but approached them in a surprising, refreshing way. At one point, on one of my favorite of her older songs, “Please Don’t Come Back,” it clicked that the arrangement took Bob Wills as a starting block then opened to embrace everything Wills influenced in the idiosyncratic wing of the 20th century’s popular music including Willie Nelson and even a little Ornette Coleman. This music was washing my face in the fountain of life (or as Tom T. Hall said, the morning dew).
Cold Sweats and This Moment in Black History (Happy Dog, Cleveland, June 22, 2018)
Every few years, Cleveland gives the world one of the greatest rock and roll bands we’ve ever seen. Currently holding the crown – though I’m not discounting there could be a bunch of kids I haven’t see yet – is Bim Thomas’ crowning achievement Obnox. One of my all-time favorites also features Bim, on drums, This Moment in Black History. I hadn’t seen them in probably six or seven years and in the periodic reunion we saw at the Happy Dog to kick off our flying Cleveland weekend.
Hooky, vibrant, righteous, full of intertwining hooks and sticky grooves. The kind of late night dance floor riot most of us search for from dancefloor to bar room and back. Opening, Cold Sweats from NYC did a modern take on post-hardcore with lacerating guitar and a swinging bounce that got the crowd dancing.
Summer Solstice 2018(Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, June 23, 2018)
Anyone who wants to throw a museum fundraiser should look to the Cleveland Museum of Art. A and I went about five years ago and had a blast, including spontaneously running into American treasure Baby Dee. The next year it sold out at the member presale and has ever since.
This year I finally bit the bullet and got a membership and I’m pleased to report every change they’ve made since made it better. Manageable lines, reasonable (for a benefit) drink prices, and splitting the bands between (mostly) live acts on the terrace and (mostly) electronic in the atrium for a better dance floor, we were here for four hours and I loved every minute of it. There’s a special magic in ducking in from a sweaty dance floor and realizing you’re the only two people in a room full of Van Gogh and Cezanne. Or you’re in a politely humming crowd grappling with Danny Lyon’s photographs of the human and aesthetic cost of gentrification or Kerry James Marshall’s massive, encompassing woodcuts.
Moroccan electronic artist HAT (Hatim Belyamani) wove music out of film footage shot by his collective, remix ←→ culture, remixed to highlight the individual cultures they were taken from and into something spine shifting and hip-swaying. HAT made it impossible to ignore the cultural building blocks that gave birth to these pulsing club tracks and worked it into something easily graspable and that resisted being nailed down. His work echoed the Brutalismo-Cleveland exhibit upstairs by Spanish artist Marlon de Azambuja which also used locally sourced materials to comment on brutalism and society.
Yemen Blues was one of the finest dance bands I’ve ever seen. Led by Ravid Kahalani, the six piece band wove funk and salsa together with traditional North and West African melodies in a refreshing, wild party. Hello Psychaleppo came at traditional music, the ecstatic Syrian music Samer Saem Eldahr grew up with, with a similar mix of reverence for the original and delight in reinvention that kept the dancing audience in the palm of his hand. Pierre Kwenders blew my hair back, he’s one of the greatest soul singers I’ve ever seen. He and his quartet cooled it down a little and turned up the level of sexy as they closed the night with a blend of Congolese rumba and the current wave of stiletto sharp, introspective R&B
“It’s hard to fight torpor.” That line popped up in Paul Schrader’s much-anticipated return to non-franchise filmmaking First Reformed and, to mangle Bob Dylan, both “rang true and glowed like burning coals” while I watched the film with my pal Rob. The movie wasn’t an official “thing I dug,” more “thing I’m glad I saw for the interesting nougat when it got out of its own way.”
But what spoke to me was the questions it posed about the point at which we’re no longer worth forgiveness; the way shitty means of coping build up and rust over for us like dumping Pepto Bismol in a glass of scotch (one of my favorite gross-out images from the film); and how difficult it is to break out of a rut before we’re ground just that smooth.
Lighter load this week because much of it was catching up with old friends, in town for the Origins Game Fair and elsewhere. The bookend photos come from these long nights of laughter.
Brett Burleson/Josh Hindmarsh/Doug Richeson (Dick’s Den, June 13, 2018)
The tradition of turning a Wednesday over to one artist for a residency at Dick’s Den is one of my favorite things in this town. In a no-pressure setting, someone can worry over new material, reform old collaborative groups, work with people they don’t usually, bring friends up on stage, or do all of these. That tradition is a prism refracting the light of everything I love about Columbus and especially everything I love about the nexus that is Dick’s Den when you get an artist with the kind of ranging tastes in material, style, and players as Brett Burleson.
Brett Burleson and Josh Hindmarsh have a tradition of playing gypsy jazz songs – and other tunes in that style best known for Django Reinhardt. Wednesday, they rounded the trio out with Grammy-winning bassist Doug Richeson. Jazzcolumbus impresario and great friend Andrew Patton and I stopped in expecting one round and half an hour of pleasant entertainment. I staggered home at 1:30am after two full sets. Picking my jaw off the floor.
Richeson’s expansive warmth provided the perfect backdrop for those two guitars and the handful of guests. It was immediately easy to see why vocalists kept the bassist in demand, including Tony Bennett. In that same spirit, the word that kept springing to mind for everyone on stage was conversational.
Burleson almost reminded me of Keith Richards here, his unshakable rhythm shifted from a straight up-and-down in line with the period they recalled through something more organic and modern, teasing textures from Hindmarsh’s leads and occasionally unfurling solos that were shocking in their grace and concision.
In the full, proper Dick’s spirit, unannounced guests enlivened the proceedings. Michael Kahn, on his way from another gig, brought his soulful soprano. He painted with glowing color, in step with the other three musicians but drawing them out into the less-chartered water. Local DJ, promoter, and singer-songwriter (as Whipped Dream) Laelia Delaney Davis sat in on vocals for the Gershwins’ “S’wonderful” that balanced lushness and restraint like a cool breeze on a sticky evening.
The trio-plus ran a gamut of classics in the style. Their take on Reinhardt’s own “Minor Swing” that felt like a beautifully restored piece of clockwork. Their “Take the A Train” vibrated the room with a propulsive bounce. Their Monk was a sensual, spiraling puzzle. The originals held their own against these time-forged tunes because nothing was played with a preciousness; again and again, we were reminded this was neither museum nor mausoleum.
Coming Up: Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (Valleydale Ballroom, June 22, 2018; tickets here)
When two riders of the river of American music, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, teamed up a couple years ago it was one of the most no-brainer collaborations most of us could possibly imagine. These two share an encyclopedic knowledge of everything roots music, marrow-deep empathy for people, and a love of sharing stories.
Their first collaborative record features a couple excellent new originals – including the title track, like a couple of winking outlaws filling out a declarations form at the border – and more of the stunning interpretations they’ve both become more known for over the last few years, giving classics an intensely personal spin. Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee – Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” features one of the most aching melodies of the 20th century played for maximum impact. Lloyd Price’s R&B classic “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and the Memphis Jug Band’s “KC Moan” get lusty juke-joint treatments that take Gilmore’s high lonesome voice into new terrain with some of Alvin’s best guitar on record.
Both of these artists have a storied, special relationship with Alec Wightman’s Zeppelin productions. Alvin’s appearances at the Valleydale, especially, are always something special. If you’re in town, don’t miss this.