"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/11/2021

My TimeHop reminded me that last year, and three years ago, I was in NYC for festivals around APAP, which is always one of the most invigorating parts of any year I work it in. 

From left: Kirk Knuffke, Gerald Cleaver, James Brandon Lewis, taken from stream and edited

James Brandon Lewis, Kirk Knuffke, and Gerald Cleaver at Arts for Art Inc, 01/06/2021

Of the overlapping black music traditions, relatively few hands dig into the fertile intersection between R&B and free jazz. Arts for Art – a storied non-profit that hosts the annual Vision Festival among other services to the culture – kicked off their 2021 with one of the finest examples of the sparks that fly when those two forms hit one another: a trio of sax player James Brandon Lewis, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

As Lewis said in the post-set discussion, “Charles Gayle and Grover Washington, Jr. both came from the same place I did, Buffalo.” This trio wove excerpts of the Bill Withers classics “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Just the Two Of Us,” the latter a collaboration with Washington and a massive hit, along with Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll Be Free” into an unbroken 45-minute meditation and exultation.

Lewis’s liquid tone and Knuffke’s sharp, jabbing punctuation aligned on deep hooks like the revolving “I know” section of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” building up the tension and exploding that feeling into a bonfire of abstraction. That jousting coiled into a mournful funeral march before clicking into a more urgent, insistent gear.

Through all of these changes, Cleaver’s drums commented and steered the ship. The one section where he slid into head knocking funk beats felt like an unexpected blast of sun cracking velvet clouds, then as soon as I grasped it, he and the trio were onto something else. 

Everyone in this trio intimately understood both musical forms and used the tropes for their cathartic power as well as misdirection. They didn’t shuffle free playing and dance music; they burned them into something fresh and personal.

Under the Radar, presented by The Public Theater

One of the brightest lights in my personal APAP – and the conduit for many of my favorite things at the Wexner Center every year – is the Public’s Under The Radar fest. This international sampling of moving, riveting performance art and theater pivoted brilliantly to online this year. I’ve checked about half of it so far and there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch. 

Best of all, these are available on demand through the 14th, at

Highlights for me so far:

From the innovative Instagram component of Rich Kids

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor

This two hander – which won a prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – featured Alipoor and Kirsty Housley narrating – with dazzling imagery the self-destructive microcosm of the idle rich in Tehran. In doing so, they draw out heartbreaking truths about the decline of civilizations, the scars of colonialism, and the blur between long-term consequences and immediate decisions. 

Full of poison-dagger lines I was still chewing over days later like “There isn’t an anthropocene that connects us, there’s a scar that divides;” vaporwave summed up as “A ghost made of bits and pieces of a past that never quite was;” and a description of Dubai as “It’s like long generations of the past returning eternally to party with them.”

From left: Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran. Taken from stream and edited

the motown project by Alicia Hall Moran. 

One of our finest American singers, plumbing the rich terrain between Opera and popular music, Alicia Hall Moran assembled a ferocious band for this, including her husband Jason Moran on piano, Reggie Washington on bass, LaFrae Sci on drums, and Thomas Flippin on guitar, alongside fellow powerhouse singers Barrington Lee and Steven Herring.

Moran drew connections between the Motown songbook and classical “art music,” giving both sides equal weight without sanding down either’s essence, and wove them into a crushing portrait of desire. An aria from The Magic of Figaro sparked off the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Sugarpie, Honeybunch.” A torturously slow “Heat Wave” was a languid blast from better seasons. A “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” drew every nuance out of that Stevie Wonder classic without bogging it down. If I see something better this year – even after theatres open – it’s been a good damn year.

"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/04/2021

Welcome back, anyone still reading this. I appreciate the kind words about the year-end wrap-up posts more than I can ever say, and I always appreciate all of you. Hoping we’re only a few months away from easing into my bending some of your ears in person, but I hope and intend to keep this up even when most of the things I love in a week are back out in the world. Keep the faith, stay safe, burn your lanterns of hope.

I started 2021 strong on the New Year’s Eve weekend with three shows that reminded me that music and storytelling are frequently social forms. Instead of making me despair at being so far away from the people I’d be seeing shows with – and the bands I’d be dancing to – it made me feel warm and close to that vibration.

Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Derry deBorja, taken from stream and edited

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, 12/31/2020

I prepped for a round of Zoom New Year’s Eve celebrations by getting dressed and dancing in the living room to Isbell’s finely tuned band’s perfect mix of rocking wistfulness, ass-shaking melancholy, soulful empathy, and hope for the world.

Isbell’s 2020 record Reunions played with cleaner, shimmering textures and rhythms than his last few and continued the more open arrangements and space for the band to make their mark started with The Nashville Sound. For many of us, even those of us who are sick of that sparkling Dire Straits guitar, those tones cut a distinct tunnel to nostalgia, and Isbell used that with a perfect set of songs about his (and our) growing up and also about living in the world now.

For someone who’s written so many stirring crowd-pleasers, I enjoyed seeing how these new songs held their own and made space in dialogue with tunes we’ve been singing along to for years. Wrapping the encore with his surging anthem to questioning and rejecting complacency, to the implacable sense we can all always be doing better, “What Have I Done To Help,” felt like a perfect hymn for the coming year. It also felt like the character’s direct evolution from his breakout hit “Cover Me Up” played right before.

The melancholy of nostalgia and longing for absent friends in songs like “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children,” bloomed in three dimensions, a reminder that memory and paying witness are celebrations even when we’re sad. The surge of the rhythm section helped keep anything – even songs in a quieter space like “Something More Than Free” – from being staid or stiff, and there was always air for the melodic flights of Amanda Shires’ violin and Sadler Vaden and Isbell’s dueling guitars to spark off one another. 

Weird as it was seeing the full Brooklyn Bowl light show cut through the shadows of their cavernous, empty Nashville outpost, this never felt like a rehearsal. Nothing seemed phoned in or rushed, nor was it too slick. This set reminded me of the promise of a great, muscular rock band on a good night. It made me hungry to be in the room for the real thing but grateful for this marker until we can do that.

Maceo Parker, Bruno Speight, and Will Boulware, taken from stream and edited

Maceo Parker, SFJAZZ, 01/01/2021 (archival from 2015)

Maceo’s horn has defined American music from the early 1960s on. I was lucky enough to see him with Prince, with Ani Difranco (in a double bill that still feels like the most fun I’ve ever seen two bands have on stage with one another), and tearing up the Scioto Mile on a ferocious free summer set. 

I’ve rhapsodized about the SFJAZZ streams for members in this space, and we were treated to an exquisite example from Parker’s 2015 NYE run. I marveled at the way Parker builds and sustains these relationships, how much gratitude he brings to this band, and in return, how tight they are as a unit, following through the kaleidoscopic range of moods and tones he calls out.

He reached back through pieces of his (and the nation’s) history in a tight hour and ten set. He briefly touched on the jazz of the booking’s name with a sweet duet on the Ellington classic “Satin Doll” as a duo with keyboardist Will Boulware. His JBs days got sultry, hard-edged workout on “Make It Funky,” featuring a flame-licked trombone solo from Greg Boyer (who he met in his days with George Clinton) and a closing tent-revival version of “Pass the Peas.”

Nikki Glaspie from Dumpstaphunk and the Nth Power kicked Parker’s classic Prince collaboration “Baby Knows” from Dial M-A-C-E-O into high gear with a crackling drum intro. She threw that same explosive energy into the slightly smoother shine of their arrangement on The Meters’ “Hey Pocky A-Way.” 

Her hookup with P-Funk bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis shone throughout the set, especially on moments like her perfect, surprising comping behind his melodic slap solo on the Parker original “Off The Hook.” The band worked just as well when the energy slipped into a simmer, especially on an instrumental cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Let’s Get It On” the let Parker show off that sweet but never too sugary tone in full undulating pillow talk mode.

In addition to shouting out the band and creating showcase spots for them, Parker even made time to shout out and thank the crew from the stage, many of them by name. That love for people lit up the band and the music, bringing a tear to my eye.

Lenny Kaye and the Lonesome Prairie Dogs, taken from the stream and edited

Various Artists, Hank-O-Rama, Bowery Electric, 01/01/2021

For the last 17 years, Brooklyn roots band The Lonesome Prairie Dogs have honored Hank Williams with a set on the day he died, making up for the Canton Ohio show he missed. This year, they marked the anniversary with a stream from Bowery Electric.

Lenny Kaye played pedal steel on almost everything. The Lonesome Horns (a trio of brass players from Antibalas led by Jordan McLean) augmenting several songs enhanced this hard-swinging four-piece core. This seasoned NYC institution tore through raging party classics like “Settin’ The Woods On Fire” and aching ballads like “Cold, Cold Heart” with equal aplomb.

A rotating set of other lead singers fleshed out the visions of Hank here, with East Village organizer and singer-songwriter Tom Clark, MC Lindy Loo, and Sean Kershaw all taking turns at the mic, along with Kaye stepping out from behind the steel for his tribute to Williams’ alter ego Luke the Drifter (from his 1984 Lenny Kaye Connection record) and the Lonesome Horns’  rotating lead vocals on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

These Bowery Electric shows always remind me of what I love most about New York, the way scenes feel malleable and overlap and this sense of “Kids putting on a show” but with the highest caliber of musicians you’ll find anywhere. Even some technical rough spots – moments where multiple singers worked together, as the finale “I Saw The Light” exposed some serious monitor problems – made this feel like home.

Best Of Playlist

Best of 2020 Playlist – Spaces

This encompasses freer-form work. I once set up two basic “things” I’m looking for in music, all credit to mentor and friend Rich Dansky for helping me get to this: either a shot of emotion, a story; or a landscape I want to come back to and explore again and again. These are some examples of the latter category I loved in the darkness of 2020.

Continue reading for notes on each piece, basically post-show cocktail talk because you’d never hear me playing 90% of these on a jukebox.

Where to buy what’s available on Bandcamp, courtesy of Hype Machine’s merch table:

Best Of Playlist

Best of 2020 Playlist – Parting Gifts

Every year I try to put together something for the artists who’ve died – frequently the last Pink Elephant, or the between Christmas and New Year’s Party we’ve thrown the last couple years, has a wide swath of these tributes. But this year felt like such a tidal wave of death it demanded a separate playlist.

The tidal wave of death didn’t spare me – two dear friends from long ago I hadn’t talked to much in years – but while I acknowledged that, it’s impossible to not also acknowledge how lucky I’ve been and hurt for my friends who’ve taken it much closer to them. Coupled with the continued out-in-the-open murderous criminality of the police and the increased (in volume, unabashedness and obviousness) indifference and vacuity of the minority rule party, it’s hard not to despair.

I believe things are going to get better because I have to believe that. I want to try harder to be part of the better. And a tiny sliver of that is paying tribute to the people we’ve lost. The person who passed away is listed in parentheses after the song.

Continue reading for notes on each piece.

Where to find what’s available on Bandcamp thanks to Hype Machien’s Merch Table Feature:

Best Of Playlist record reviews

2020 Best Of Playlist – Songs

I tried to break out this year’s playlist into a few zones to make them a little less unwieldy. What’s fun about this is it lets me make room for songs I played constantly, even if I didn’t love the whole record. Also putting these in different posts so it’s not too much to bite off.

Songs features tunes that lean a little more pop-oriented, usually with lyrics or dance beats. 

Spaces deals in compositions and improvisations that are a little more abstract and usually instrumental. 

Obviously, more than a few things could have fit on either.

Parting Gifts features people who’ve passed this year – heavier on jazz because it feels like COVID took a bigger bite out of living legends in that category, but obviously loss doesn’t miss any of us.

Here’s the first batch, mostly “songs.” For notes, basically, what I’d blather at you when I queued it up on a jukebox, continue reading below.

Merch Table Link courtesy Hype Machine:

Best Of record reviews

Best of 2020 – Recorded Music

2020 Best Of – Recorded Music (And Playlist)

Music was the single biggest balm for me in this fucked-up time. I tried to take advantage of the additional time at home to dig into records with a fervor I’m sorry to admit I’d let slip away from me for a few years. 

I heard a couple hundred new records in full and it was hard winnowing down to 40ish, even harder getting to these 20 but these felt like they glowed together when I started looking at the track I kept. I’d be surprised if I’m not still taking these out and talking fondly in a few years.

I’ll also have a couple playlist posts last week of the month with songs from each of these and other songs I loved throughout the year.

  • Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
  • Don Bryant, You Make Me Feel
  • Jerry David DeCicca, The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures
  • Kassa Overall, I Think I’m Good
  • Angel bat Dawid, LIVE
  • Todd May, Let’s Go Get Lost (couldn’t find a Bandcamp link, hit me up with one)
  • Nicole Atkins, Italian Ice
  • Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings E&F Sides
  • Jaime Wyatt, Neon Cross
  • Mourning [A] BLKstar, The Cycle
  • Ingrid Laubrock, Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt
  • Brandy Clark, Your Life is a Record (couldn’t find a bandcamp link)
  • Sa-Roc, The Sharecropper’s Daughter
  • Dave Douglas, Marching Music
  • Nubya Garcia, Source
  • Resistance Revival Chorus, This Joy
  • Quintron and Miss Pussycat, Goblin Alert
  • William Basinski, Lamentations
  • Busta Rhymes, ELE2: The Wrath of God (couldn’t find bandcamp link)
  • Joel Ross, Who Are You? (couldn’t find bandcamp link)
Best Of live music

Best of 2020 – Live Music, Sometimes Virtual

In this fucked-up year, I was lucky enough to see 35 things before it shut down in early March, in four cities. So I was trying to make good on my promise of excitement! And I still tried, even when it felt like just sitting around my house.

Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons, Sultan Room


  • Brett Burleson Quartet (01/04/2020, Dick’s Den) – It’s not always the first show of the year but Burleson’s annual birthday show is a burst of heat early in January that feels like a starting pistol and an invocation to call forth the spirit of a good damn year. This one in particular, at the end of a marathon also celebrating my friend Crystal’s birthday in the little suburb I grew up, and saying goodbye to college standby The Library with some of Anne’s best friends (including the owner Cricket who was selling it), the two sets I caught here were exactly what I needed. Seeing Burleson with a second guitar player is always a rare treat, and his duets with Josh Hindmarsh over a sizzling rhythm section were some of the most beautiful Jim Hall-style melodic guitar fireworks I could have hoped for.
  • Ryan Truesdell’s Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer (01/08/2020, Jazz Standard, NYC) – I wrote about this at some length earlier but this tribute/memorial birthday party to one of the great arrangers (and teachers, my friend Mike still talks about Brookmeyer with massive fondness) summed up the kind of warm feeling of being at an honest-to-god hang. A feeling I’ve gotten more at NYC jazz clubs than anywhere else in the world, and especially at the (RIP) Jazz Standard, a club that always tried harder than it had to and delivered in spades.
  • Winter Jazzfest (01/10/2020 and 01/11/2020, Various Venues, NYC) – For over a decade, WJF has lived up to its promise of giving out of town bookers (here for APAP) and adventurous locals a concentrated look at one of the greatest, most vibrant scenes in the world. It’s expanded to bring in Chicago and London and Brussels and hit all the major genres without feeling like it’s pandering or diluting. Catherine Russell raising her eyebrow at Steven Bernstein on the Le Poisson Rouge stage. Philip Cohran’s sons in Hypnotic Brass Ensemble tearing SOBs apart. Two old friends hugging each other in front of me during Makaya McCraven’s set and the musicians on stage in awe of their bandmates. A marathon for poet Steve Dalachinsky (one of my inspirations, reminding me how often I’d see him around shows). Every time I go, about every other year, I want to go every year.
  • Secret Planet Showcase (01/11/2020, Drom, NYC) – A punky, world music party in one of my favorite clubs (co-thrown by another of my favorite bars, Barbes). I always leave this sore and sweaty. This year was exceptional, with Daptone horn meister Cochemea leading a frenzied band of almost all percussionists, Sunny Jain from Red Baraat’s rippling spaghetti western tuba funk, the lilting melodies and beguiling rhythm of Alba and The Lions. Magic front to back.
Rock Potluck, Ace of Cups
  • Sarah Hennies and Mara Baldwin (01/12/2020, National Sawdust, NYC) – Sarah Hennies, long one of my favorite percussionists and composers, had a hell of a year with a couple of her finest records and what felt like new performances every time I turned around. This collaboration with Mara Baldwin, a violin quartet led by Anna Roberts-Gevalt, with sculptures inspired by Shaker furniture transported me and made a deep impression in a long day of magic that just kept getting better (I’d already seen the Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith dance piece, the Rachel Harrison retro at the Whitney, and Simon Stone’s Medea with only a break for dinner at St Anselm, and that was all Sunday). 
  • Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons (01/12/2020, Sultan Room, NYC) – Pianist Kris Davis is a recurring presence on these lists. She gets better and better. This live production of one of my favorite records of last year was a kaleidoscopic explosion with one of the tightest, most surprising bands I’ve ever seen – including Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Tony Malaby on tenor – in my first trip to the tight, sweaty back room of this Middle Eastern restaurant. I got to end this trip on the highest of high notes, with grooves and crackling melody dancing around my head all the way through a nightcap and a fitful sleep before the next morning’s flight.
  • Final Rock Potluck (01/18/2020, Ace of Cups) – Bobby Miller’s given me a lot of my favorite moments in Columbus music – 4th and 4th Fest, Megacity Music Marathon, the last few years of Ace of Cups booking – but maybe his most enduring impact on this town we both love is (with Shane Sweeney in the first couple years) the importing and localizing of the great Dallas tradition as the Rock Potluck. One night only conglomerations of musicians making sparks fly unlike what we’d expect from their own bands. I was still fighting fatigue- and the kind of wet, shitty day January specializes in –  but Anne and I dragged ourselves down for the last few sets of this…and Oh My God. There was so much burbling joy in this room. Bob Starker took a sax solo behind Marcy Mays on a take on the Fleetwood Mac-via-Judas Priest chestnut “The Green Manalishi,” one of the women from Snarls launching into Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” and watching new songs come out of almost thin air. We all left with some of the best memories of this tradition that will be sorely missed.
Raphael Saadiq, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall
  • Chuck Prophet (01/28/2020, Natalie’s Grandview) – Any of us who love touring music have at least a couple of stories of artists who got pushed back more than once. Alec Wightman booked Prophet’s full band, The Mission Express, in the hopes we’d get our shit together and had to cancel twice as COVID raged. But we were lucky to get the rare solo acoustic version. Classics like “You Could Make a Doubter Out of Jesus” and “Would You Love Me”, newer songs like “High as Johnny Thunders” and “Bad Year For Rock and Roll” co-existed in a set that felt like a journey. And the memory that stuck most with me is the first time I heard the song that most deeply imprinted this year for me, off Prophet’s new record, still a few months out, “Willie and Nill.” A perfect example of the kind of empathic, hard luck stories Prophet writes better than anyone, “Nilli said, ‘I had a body once, Willie you have no idea. I could make a grown man bark all night – anytime, anywhere.’ Willie said, ‘I had a lion’s mane. Now I sing at the top of my lungs till the neighbors get their broomsticks out and the cops all sing along.’”
  • Physical Boys (02/15/2020, Kaiju, Louisville) – The centerpiece of this Valentine’s Day weekend trip to Louisville – that had me miss the Theatre roundtable awards back home – didn’t disappoint but there’s a special joy getting to see something completely new. One of my favorite music rooms, Kaiju, hosted a newish Louisville band Physical Boys who played a beautiful, intoxicating mix of Stiff Records’ sharp jangle and Afghan Whigs operatic sleaze.
  • Raphael Saadiq with Jamila Woods (02/17/2020, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall, Louisville) – Raphael Saadiq followed his darkest, most personal album with a stripped-down, muscular tour that was unlike any other time I’d ever seen him. Great venue, killer sightlines, fantastic sound. My only regret was missing most of the excellent (from what I caught) Jamila Woods set.
Bria Skonberg and Byron Stripling with Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Southern Theater
  • Bearthoven (02/18/2020, Short North Stage) – The Johnstone Fund has brought more new music (contemporary classical, whatever you want to call it) in the last few years than any earlier time I remember, filling a gap I sorely missed in our musical scene. This return visit from NYC trio – piano, bass, drums – Bearthoven paired a phenomenal new Sarah Hennies (see above) composition with the bright propulsion of a Michael Gordon premiere.
  • Radioactivity with Vacation and Good Shade (02/19/2020, Ace of Cups) – It had been too long since I caught Radioactivity’s spiky brand of angular Texas punk and this three-band bill reaffirmed my faith in catchy, sweaty rock and roll.
  • Columbus Jazz Orchestra featuring Bria Skonberg (02/23/2020, Southern Theater) – I don’t keep up with the CJO as much as I should but this unseasonably sunny Sunday matinee was a shot of pure light in my veins with the group having a ball alongside guest singer and trumpeter Skonberg on great rep including Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.”
  • Reigning Sound with Venus Flytraps, Bloodshot Bill, and Alarm Clocks (03/06/2020, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland) – The last trip out of town for some culture before this all went south (well, “as,” the weekend we were up there the first confirmed Ohio cases of COVID were diagnosed in Cleveland. A reunion tour of the original Reigning Sound lineup celebrating both my favorite rock club in the country and one of my favorite record labels, Norton, was everything I want in rock and roll.
  • Amy Lavere and Will Sexton (03/10/2020, Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – The last local show before everything went to hell  – one of my favorite songwriters, Lavere, backed by her longtime partner (whose songs are coming into their own on his terrific new record this year). Their tour was shortly canceled, but I was thankful for this last glimpse before locking down.


It was never like being in a room with sweaty strangers, but the proliferation of livestreams and creative pivoting made me feel a little more connected and a little less alone. Favorites of the couple hundred shows I checked in with.

For the first few months of lockdown, Living Music With Nadia Sirota was a balm. One of my favorite violists and a key locus in the new music scene hosted a delightful show once or twice a week, bringing three or more of her pals together – from Claire Chase to Missy Mazzoli, Shilpa Ray to Nathalie Joachim, Judd Greenstein to Ted Hearne – for a taste of what they were doing and a taste of camaraderie I needed even from a remove.

Goner Records simultaneously made me miss Memphis more than ever but gave me a dose of their freewheeling spirit and impeccable taste. Their online translation of Gonerfest was the best streaming version of a festival this year, simultaneously recognizing the international spirit that makes the festival so successful and making us feel like we’re surrounded by our best friends.

Another dose of Memphis came from a weekly shot of John Paul Keith, turning the same skills he uses to keep audiences spellbound as a fine singer, a great guitarist and songwriter, and a charming raconteur toward the camera instead of a barroom. Keith’s jukebox-like memory for songs and artists leads him through delightful anecdotes and a real friendship with people logging in week after week. There was more than one exhausting Monday where hearing JPK say “Hey, Lydia,” brightened me right up – and I don’t even know Lydia.

The north flip-side of those great JPK shows came with Jesse Malin’s Fine Art of Self Distancing, alternately playing solo and his band, from his bars Berlin and Bowery Electric. Malin also ran – with Diane Gentile and others – translations of his fun tribute shows (to Johnny Thunders and The Cramps). Beyond his solid songs, just like Sirota and Keith, he understood and demonstrated what we needed most was fellowship.

Locally, Natalie’s led the way in outdoor shows and now streams, keeping up with their high standards for sound and sight. One of my favorite rooms in town that I dearly hope makes it through this. Ace of Cups got a late start, but I felt very safe on their patio with the precautions they’ve taken and the first of their streams I caught sounded great. 

Jazz clubs in New York have already noted one fallen (Jazz Standard) and are pivoting with great alacrity. Small’s Live and Jazz Gallery are both crushing it with regular, killing performances and Jazz Gallery adds conversations, happy hours, and dance parties. The legendary Village Vanguard is also putting out great sounding, great looking shows by the kind of giants who’d normally be playing to packed houses.

There are still more great performances than I can fit in and more to love than I have time for. I just hope most of these rooms I love make it to the other side and some assistance is forthcoming.

Best Of theatre

Best of 2020 – Theatre/Opera/Dance

“Are you even here? You’re a relic of a dying empire. The ghost of a glorious future that never came.” 

-Sarah Gancher, Russian Troll Farm

Salt given me at Under The Radar’s Salt


I was lucky to see about 15 shows – almost all outstanding – before doors started slamming shut. These 8 grabbed me hard and wouldn’t let go. Their memories are still burned into my brain this many months later. Photos are taken from press either given directly to me or on the company/creator’s official website.

  • Salt by Selina Thompson, directed by Dawn Walton (01/11/2020 – Public Theatre, Under the Radar, NYC) – Sometimes – and this might be my favorite part of seeing theatre and especially my favorite part of Under the Radar, I see work by a playwright who’s new to me and the voice alone burns a layer of skin off me and makes me feel both more and differently. Selina Thompson’s personal-historical-poetic dive into the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Salt, masterfully acted by Rochelle Rose, did that to me this year. I walked out babbling and as hungry for more of her work as any writing of the last decade.
  • Body Comes Apart by Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith (01/12/2020 – New York Live Arts, NYC) – This vivisection of expectations, trauma, and freedom balanced an unsparing dedication to truth with a supernova love for the world. Body Comes Apart was a physical hour of dance, and acting was a whirlwind from which I couldn’t look away. It avoided platitudes and simplification but burned with a clarity that made its unanswered questions cut even deeper. I could have seen this three times and still tried to grasp it. 
  • Medea by Simon Stone after Euripides, directed by Simon Stone (01/12/2020 – BAM, NYC) – I’m a sucker for the Greeks and I’d never seen Bobby Cannavale on stage. Something felt very fitting about seeing Stone’s ferocious, knives-out take on Euripides here in the same theatre I saw my favorite Hedda Gabler. The adaptations to the play were interesting, aided by vibrant video. My brain pinballed between the remarkable acting – Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Dylan Baker – and the wrenching image of ash falling on that pristine white stage, both stuck with me well after the next day’s flight home.
The Motherfucker With the Hat, photo by Nick Lingnofski
  • Or by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Rowan Winterwood (01/17/2020 – Actors Theatre) – Actors Theatre’s relationship with MadLab for smaller-scale indoor plays continued to bear fruit this year, even as they had to cancel what looked like an exciting outdoor season. Or was a delightful drawing room sex romp around the fascinating historical character Aphra Behn (played brilliantly by Michelle Weiser) with crackling support from Andy Woodmansee and McLane Nagy as the other legs of the triangle. Winterwood’s sizzling direction made this a hot, funny winter diversion when I needed it most.
  • The Motherfucker With the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Chari Arespacochaga (01/23/2020 – Short North Stage) – Short North Stage doesn’t always get enough credit for their dark, low-to-the-ground plays in the Green Room. Their Motherfucker With the Hat was another triumph in that lane. Arespacochaga directed it with the right mix of Greek tragedy and cage match, a stellar cast orbited around a volcanic Raphael Ellenberg.
  • The Bridge Called My Ass by Miguel Gutierrez (01/25/2020 – presented by the Wexner Center) – Gutierrez’s bilingual piece mixed puns, everyday action, and flights of fancy into something I’d never seen before. I didn’t always understand it but I was always enraptured.
The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes, photo by Jeff Busby
  • A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, directed by Michael Garrett Herring (01/30/2020 – Red Herring Theater) – There have been a few times I’ve seen a Columbus production I felt improved on New York, and this was the most recent example. Herring stripped away the ba-dum-bum sitcom rhythm that sank the Broadway version of this for me the night I saw it and made Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen glow like a bruise. All stellar performances, especially Sonda Staley’s for-the-ages take on Nora.
  • The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes by Back to Back Theater (02/13/2020 – presented by the Wexner Center) – One of my favorite previews I’ve ever written. I was so glad I held off, skipping this at Under The Radar so I could go into it cold when it played my town. A more complicated bit of metatheatre than the first work of theirs I loved, Ganesh Vs The Third Reich, but brillant and arresting. A look at how much “acting” we all do in making our voices heard and how much marginalized people have to work past just to get their voices heard, to not be seen as a monolithic interest. If this was the last live performance I saw, I went out high.


We Need Your Listening, screenshot from stream and edited

Theatre feels like a circuit between the stage and the audience, even more than music, to me. But for me, this immediate, physical art reaped the greatest rewards as companies tried to find ways to make work that still felt like theater while wholly embracing the new media. I deeply hope many of us can find ways to continue to make things accessible after we can all gather in a room again. 

It would be a true shame for these opportunities for people with disabilities or other reasons not to be part of the physical exchange of energy, to finally get a wider range of options and then have them taken away.

Things that moved and inspired me with virtual theatre:

Zoom readings run by local stalwarts Krista Lively Stauffer and Tim Browning with their Virtual Theatre Project gave me the chance to catch Douglas Whaley’s phenomenal The Turkey Men (I missed its premiere run when I was in Italy last year), revisit the terrific Red Herring two-hander Thicker Than Water, and dip into remarkable work from our astounding pool of talent.

Established companies pivoted with aplomb and grace: 

Abbey Theatre’s The Sissy Chronicles, photo provided by Joe Bishara
  • Short North Stage revisited shows they’d loved and couldn’t find space for in their schedule previously like the moving early Andrew Lippa John & Jen and the delightfully raunchy Off-Broadway hit by Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop When Pigs Fly. They also used their connections to get new material for these revivals while also building new work like Quarantine With the Clauses. 
  • New CATCO Artistic Director Leda Hoffmann met the challenge of her first season in town coinciding with the pandemic and excelled with marvelous Idris Goodwin shorts, Plays For an Antiracist Tomorrow, bringing in legacy CATCO artists as well as fresh blood, then acclaimed Julienna Gonzalez adapted her Detroit Christmas Carol into a Columbus version under Hoffmann’s direction.
  • Joe Bishara came into his own with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre giving life to exciting pieces from artists like Mark Schwamberger and Nikki Davis.
  • Red Herring provided astounding social dramas and made steps toward a hybrid experience.

The plethora of archival work was an embarrassment of riches, from American Conservatory Theatre’s take on Lydia Diamond’s Toni Stone to the Goodman’s hilarious and heartbreaking Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play.

The Elaborate Entry of Chad Deity, screenshot taken from stream and edited

The New Group, Play-Per-View, and more presented riveting reunion readings, giving new life to great plays from past seasons. I especially loved Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian, Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entry of Chad Deity, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.

I was in awe of groups that created new work from tools not intended for this purpose. Magic came from relatively straightforward narrative work like Mona Mansour’s The Beginning Days of True Jubilation, Theatre of War’s Antigone in Ferguson, and Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm. to more ephemeral work like We Need Your Listening by Velani Dibba, Ilana Khanin, Elizagrace Madrone, Stephen Charles Smith, Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane’s Come Together Revisited, and Theatre Mitu’s </remnant>.

Antigone in Ferguson, screenshot taken from stream and edited

Even in the dark times, there was still joy if you looked, and I am as grateful as ever people took on these burdens to bring it to us.

Best Of visual art

2020 Best Of – Visual Art

Vija Celmins, Met Breuer

This year was a reminder not to wait to do things – tell people you care about them, start on that project, go to that exhibit. With the other three categories I’ve used on these memory exercises for the last 20ish years, there were digital workarounds that gave me a taste of what I was missing, tiding me over. Visual Art didn’t work that way for me.

I sampled, and I’m thrilled so many galleries and museums transitioned to or enhanced their existing online presence, with exciting work from David Zwirner, the Frieze fair, all manner of things in Europe. Still, I had a hard time connecting with it. It was like flipping through Artforum to me, good to know what’s going on that I can’t see, but I never felt like I experienced the pieces.

The impetus of the Available Light motto “don’t wait” came to light. When things shut down, I was glad in ways I can barely articulate that I spent the time and money on a New York trip for APAP and trips to Cleveland and Louisville (neither of which were primarily for visual art but I worked some in) all before March. At the same time, I hesitated a month for the new Wexner exhibits, and the window slammed shut when I wasn’t expecting (and they were things I desperately wanted to see). So, as usual, whenever things open again, don’t wait. Find what you’re interested in and lunge at it.

Everything is in Columbus unless otherwise noted. Photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.

  • Various Artists, Art After Stonewall (Columbus Museum of Art) – This tracing of the aftershocks of the Stonewall Riot, through early Gay Liberation and the darkest, most enveloping days of the AIDS crisis was a monumental undertaking and the finest use yet of the CMA’s new wing. For me, one of the highlights was the prominent placement of Columbus’s role in the gay art movements being documented here, including a lump-in-my-throat wall of Corbett Reynolds, his busts, and ephemera from his nightclub and his Red parties.
  • Vija Celmins, To Fix The Image in Memory (Met Breuer, NYC) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rental and repurposing of the previous Whitney Museum never quite found its footing but presented some spectacular exhibitions. Maybe my favorite was the last time I’ll ever get to visit – they announced in June the satellite building will not reopen after lockdown – this jaw-dropping retrospective of Vija Celmins. To Fix The Image in Memory took us through luminous renderings of household objects, as though lit from within, to intricate studies of the night sky. Whispered words of apocalypse and hymns to understanding, reminding me again and again of Mary Oliver’s maxim that “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
  • Expanded Museum of Modern Art (NYC)- I’m always skeptical when something I love – even when it has problems I’ve grumblingly come to live with – changes. But my heart sang when that skepticism burned off scant minutes after walking into the reconfigured MoMA. The flow between the collection crackles and sparks conversation in ways it seemed to restrict or calcify before. The various rooms assembled by artists sizzled with panopticon energy (on my visit I especially loved the Amy Sillman). I want to get back to my favorite city for at least 100 reasons but the biggest one is to luxuriate in the new MoMA some more. 
Rachel Feinstein, Jewish Museum
  • LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Last Cruze (Wexner Center for the Arts) – LaToya Ruby Frazier is a shining, fascinating example of how an artist can pay witness, how empathy and a willingness to take a community seriously, always pays off. This look at the Lordstown, Ohio, GM plant and its workers dazzled me. I was touched watching some of the workers documented here walking through the exhibit and thought about how art institutions can serve multiple functions at the same time.
  • Margaret Kilgallen, that’s where the beauty is (MOCA, Cleveland) – My last trip to another city before lockdown found Cleveland as enriching as ever – you’ll also see it on the Live Music list – and this Kilgallen retro exploded her celebration of niche scenes and an endangered love of what’s hand-crafted and unique. A wild party and a thoughtful call to introspection.
  • Rachel Feinstein, Maiden Mother Crone (Jewish Museum, NYC) – This Feinstein survey dug deep into myth, desire, and narrative in ways that repelled easy answers and snap judgments. Huge sculptures and sparkling installations, bouncing their energy off each other and absorbing what the observes walking through the Jewish Museum had to give, then throwing it back at us, reshaped and a little more alive.
Rashid Johnson, Hauser & Wirth
  • Rashid Johnson, The Hikers (Hauser & Wirth, NYC) – Hauser & Wirth rarely disappoints me – even more so with their excellent new cafe and bookshop – and when I entered on a sunny January day for the (very good) Mike Kelley pieces, I was knocked sideways by my first real exposure to Rashid Johnson. These massive tile mosaics and collages, which reminded me a little of Jack Whitten, captured a dread and anxiety in a way I found moving but also somehow uplifting. 
  • Felix Valloton, The Painter of Disquiet (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC) – Valloton struck me as a cross between Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec and it was fitting seeing this look at his work in the same room where I really got Bonnard for the first time. Rich, narrative work, unsparing in its judgment of its characters and their desires but enraptured by them at the same time. I spent most of my time at Bemelmans after walking through this writing about it and trying to make sense of how deeply it spoke to me.
  • Burt Hurley, Loose Nuts: Burt Hurley’s West End Story (Speed Museum, Louisville) – I’m an incredible sucker for genre work before the genre is supposed to have existed. Hurley’s satire of urban Louisville assumed later comic book styles we take for granted and found its own solution to those same storytelling problems in ways I’ve never seen before.
Rachel Harrison, Whitney Museum
  • Rachel Harrison, Life Hack (Whitney, NYC) – I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little of Harrison’s work when I walked into the Whitney trying to squeeze the most into this last day of the trip but these vibrant, brutal surreal pop explosions shook me and reverberated against everything else I saw that Sunday (it makes appearances on both the theatre and music lists).
  • Various Artists, Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art (Jewish Museum, NYC) – No exaggeration: I cried four or five times doing this. This kind of tracing movements through one or more focal points is a unique speciality of the Jewish museum and this look at how a collector and gallerist can be a focal point in making people sit up and care and a linchpin of a community that didn’t really exist until she stood up and made it exist was a reminder I deeply needed at the moment. And a reminder I always need.
  • Sadie Benning, Pain Thing (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Sadie Benning’s previous exhibit at the Wex is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen in 25 years of regular patronage and these tiny images, implying film at one minute and suggesting the twists of a kaleidoscope, resisting any simplisticy reduction, beguiled and baffled me. I wished I could have seen this another dozen times.
  • Various Artists, Songs in the Dark (Tanya Bonakdar, NYC) – Tanya Bonakdar is a gallery I make a point to hit every trip if something’s up and this group show reaffirmed everything I love about its stable of artists and its curatorial practice. A look at the current fraught moment and its complicating factors without – in accordance with Brecht who it references in the title – ever making the viewer despair. Work by artists I already loved like Ernesto Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Olafur Eliasson bumped up against new to me art by Hannah Starkey and Mehschach Gaba.
  • Jessica Segall, 100 Years, All New People (SPACES, Cleveland) – This look at immigration, composed of elements Segall collected at the borders, was a tomb and a monuument to human ingenuity, our ability to rise above anytthing that would hold us down or keep us still, but also an installation drenched in stillness and the terrible price these systems would exact from us.
  • Smoky Brown and Friends, The Eastside Canon (Streetlight Guild) – Streetlight Guild, under the guidance of Scott Woods, has been the most exciting single Columbus art development in the last few years. The gallery exhibits are always worthwhile but this was special. One of the great guiding lights of local art, Smoky Brown, given a museum-quality show of work that was new even to someone like me who grew up here and thought I’d seen a lot of his work. Coupled with a selection of work from his collection. A lesson in valuing what’s around you and appreciating your friends and community.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Wexner Center


Monthly Playlist – November 2020

Another excellent month for records and I remain glad I’m doing this. I hope a couple of you enjoy the playlists and find one or two things you didn’t know existed. Next monthly hodgepodge is tentatively slated for January but I’m going to work up a playlist to go along with my favorite records of the month blog post sometime in December. Be well.

Continue reading for notes on the songs.