Stumbled hard a few times this month but righted the ship. Still struggling with some levels of burnout but I see the light, and I’ve started some habits that are showing some positive signs. And had some remarkable feelings of normality, in all the best ways – the first weekend I had to review three shows. First writing for a new outlet run by good friends.
Seeing other friends for the first time in person since before the pandemic and good lord, it’s amazing how much energy I’ve missed from those people it never would have occurred to see every week or anything but who bring something ineffable to my life. First Pink Elephant in 18 months, coupled with returning from Gonerfest and a full week of theater reviews led to this being a little more delayed than I’d like; back to the first week of the month next month.
And this, the year anniversary of these playlists which give me more joy than I expected when I started and I’ve gotten remarkably positive feedback about. Thanks for listening. Thanks for letting me know what you think. Thanks for being here. I love you.
Any valuable experience with art – at least any art I’ve ever loved – makes you feel simultaneously more connected to the world and vibrates some string deep inside you.
Deep into a humid Memphis night, the second of Gonerfest 18, Reigning Sound – the key quartet of friends who formed in 2001 in Memphis for the first three classic records, and equally classic singles and compilation Home For Orphans, singer-songwriter Greg Cartwright, Bassist-singer Jeremy Scott, drummer-singer Greg Roberson, and organist-guitarist-singer Alex Greene, augmented by drummer-percussionist Graham Winchester, John Whittemore on acoustic and electric guitars and pedal steel, cellist Elen Wroten and violinist Krista Wroten, and Marcella Simien on washboard – opened a headlining set with the apropos lead-off track from their reunion album, A Little More Time With the Reigning Sound, “Do It Again.”
Carwright’s finely sharpened and sweetened growl poured over a crowd hungry to be with each other again and hearing Simien and Scott’s voices rise and converge with Carwright’s on the chorus’s “I really miss ya,” was almost enough to knock me down to my knees.
It’s easy to get so deep into survival mode that you wall off the pain of missing people, your people, until something knocks a brick loose and all those feelings come flooding out. For the next hour, the Reigning Sound did that for me and everyone I knew there, dancing and shouting along, and forgetting how to act but in all the best ways. Watching Greene and Whittemore shoot grins between them, the Wrotens dancing on the side of stage, Roberson and Winchester melting into one monstrous, jubilant rhythm, everything lined up and nothing let me down.
Last year was a lesson in – all credit to Anne – finding ways to mark things we couldn’t be together for, or at least not together to the extent we normally would/should have been. It was a valuable lesson in learning how do that even as I feel guilty framing any part of the pandemic in the light of my own personal self-improvement or benefit.
One of my favorite public examples of that marking was Gonerfest’s translation to streaming. Organizers Eric Friedl and Zac Ives and their crack team recreated so much of what’s kept me coming back to Memphis for ten years: I still found bands I’d never heard before; I still felt a little of that community when I checked into the zoom or in the local discord rooms I set up. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel great to be back in Memphis dancing with other people.
Other returning Gonerfest champions Quintron and Miss Pussycat closed Thursday night with an expansive, spiritual set at a right angle from what even we big fans had seen before. Since 1990, Quintron and Miss Pussycat carry a torch that illuminates a way to live on one’s own terms, to keep magic in the foreground of someone’s worldview.
Despite a long list of collaborations and communal activities – Quintron’s live reprise with the Oblivians on their raw gospel record Sing Nine Songs with Mr. Quintron at Gonerfest a few years ago was one of the most exciting rock and roll sets I’ve ever seen; appearances enlivened records and shows with fellow New Orleans travelers Galactic and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys; their Spellcaster Lounge down in Nola – but the work under their own name has been very much a self-contained unit for years.
Their last record, Goblin Alert, produced by Greg Cartwright (underlining the sense of friendship and collaboration and community that ripples through everything Gonerfest), had a fuller band feeling with Sam Yoger on a full drumkit, Danny Clifton on electric guitar, and Benni’ on vocoder and other synths. They convened the same cast, augmented by an additional woman on percussion and vocals, for a gorgeous, filthy tent revival. They expanded forms we knew and loved into cascading waves of sound, part trashy euro disco and part classic spiritual fire music as lines collaged and built, ratcheting up the intensity while wriggling away from literal meaning. It was a set that left me drenched and babbling.
The new venue sacrificed some of the “bouncing all over Memphis” quality I love so much, though the afterparties did what they could to pick up that slack – the couple we walked past but decided we were too exhausted to brave the crowds were clearly hopping – and for trying the create a safe space we could all be both distanced and self-contained Railgarten was perfect. Also, the two bartenders I mostly dealt with were fantastic, overjoyed to see the festival here, made a point of remembering my name, like they were as happy as the goers were to be around people. While I’d still like different day shows, it was nice to have headliners everyone could see from almost anywhere in the venue.
And what we missed in racing from venue to venue, the zoomed-in focus on Memphis and surrounding area bands paid off with some acts I’ve been hungry to see since the streamed version and some I might never have seen otherwise.
Optic Sink – Natalie Hoffmann from NOTS’ synth and vocal collaboration with Ben Bauermeister (A55 Conducta) on beats was every bit the cold, jagged but funky and hooky blast of fresh air as last year’s debut album. Nick Allison and the Players Lounge, favorites of mine from the stream, brought tumbling melodies wrapped in barrelhouse piano and chiming, spacious guitars for some perfect pre-sunset swaying and letting the rest of last night’s sin sweat out of your skin music.
And the biggest thing I go to Gonerfest for: bands I hadn’t even heard of before who blew me away, again, with more of a local bent this year for obvious reasons. Ibex Clone intrigued me with their chiming, abstracted twang and Cure-ish atmospherics swirled through grinding Gang of Four grooves. Snooper won the day for super young kids with a wire tight band, interesting grooves and shout-along hooks and righteous energy.
MS Paint, from Hattiesburg, put a classic wild-man singer spitting rhymes in a classic slam poetry cadence over gnarled, molten hardcore played by organ, bass, and drums behind him – my favorite discovery and left Anne and I quote-shouting “Destroy all flags and the symbols of man!” all the way home.
None of which is to discount bands I already loved or had an inkling would be good, none of those disappointed me.
Kings of the Fucking Sea united two of my favorite musicians, Sara Nelson from Little Killers – I still play their two records regularly, fifteen years later – and Poni Silver from the Ettes, as my favorite new rhythm section, behind singer and guitarist Chet Wiese. That trio also backed the great writer Sheree Renee Thomas – also recently named editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – on a moving spoken word tribute to Memphis.
NOTS played their complex, thorny songs like they were fist-pumping anthems and turned the gravel lot and open-air venue into a claustrophobic warehouse party in all the best ways. Still one of the best bands working and increasingly comfortable in their power trio mode, I no longer even miss the quartet arrangements.
Jack O – and I’ve been a huge fan through all his solo guises, especially the Tennessee Tearjerkers lineup featuring John Paul Keith – proved again that with The Sheiks he’s got a band equally comfortable with every era of his career and every genre he wants to dance through. A snarling version of one of my favorite songs from the earlier period of his solo career, “’Til The Money Runs Out” flowed into a bouncing take on the Billy Swan/Clyde McPhatter classic “Lover Please” which sat comfortably with a few gnarled Oblivians classics and a pulsing run through Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” introduced with “Next year: Gonerfest goes to college!” and featuring Abe Smith from True Sons of Thunder on lead vocals and Jack’s occasional bandmate Greg Cartwright on backing vocals.
Aquarian Blood not only completed their metamorphosis into a roughed-up, abstracted folk band that’s just as exciting as those first couple rock sides they put out but played an explosive version of that very first single with a seven-piece version that made standing in the burning sun, whiskey spilled on my suit jacket, feel like a baptism instead of a punishment.
The baptism hit in full force with the Wilkins Sisters. Reverend John Wilkins closed the Murphy’s day show at my first Gonerfest, a decade ago, and is still my favorite set I’ve ever seen. I still chuckle thinking about this man, who’d seen some things, introducing his song “Trouble” with, “Who here has seen some trouble?” then, laughing a little, “I want to remind you all that the night is young.”
Goner put out Wilkins’ second record, Trouble, last year and it was one of my records of the year. Unfortunately, the Reverend passed away from COVID complications late in 2020 so it was fitting his family – if I heard correctly, two daughters, one granddaughter, and one goddaughter – took the stage to pay tribute. Songs of his – including kicking off with a fiery version of “Trouble” – favorite songs of his like “Wade in the Water” and brought the house down on a version of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” that reduced me to a blubbering mass and a “I Been Through the Storm and Rain” that almost levitated me out of my skin.
Everything else here was damn near perfect – if occasionally loud – sipping drinks to DJs playing things from Columbus heroes Great Plains’ “Exercise” to the Hot 8 Brass Band’s “Ghost Town” (RIP Bennie Pete) to Spanky Wilson’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” crowds dancing to Tina Harvey’s bubblegum cover of “Waiting for The Man,” this was a trip that my soul needed more than I could have put into words.
Had a hard time getting going, a hard time connecting for the first half of this month: to music, to relationships, to writing. Some of that was the lingering fallout from my COVID breakthrough case, part was in response to the overwhelming, oppressive heat beyond what Ohio’s used to in August, and some was just ennui, the wall I hit after rushing too hard to get things close to a normal we might not see again without making the proper allowances for stamina and change.
But I made it through, some interactions with old and new friends, a couple astonishing shows, some mind-blowing theatre as local troupes come back, and a handful of those moments where I was playing a new record while I’m on the treadmill at the gym or walking to the bus to work and a song felt like a lightning bolt going up and down my spine. They all reminded me why I do this and what I want to be. Thanks for listening and checking in. I hope you find something to enjoy here.
As usual, keep reading below for notes on the songs.
Riding the wave of my return to New York but brought down by one of those breakthrough infections you hear about, and that colors the party we were planning to throw as I wrote this but held off a month considering the numbers as well as this playlist. The crushing heatwaves in both cities I wandered through this month also seep into the sticky party and the sweaty paranoid melancholy of this month’s selections. Hope you enjoy, as always. Continue reading for notes.
As spring rounded its bend toward summer, Anne and I took our first extended vacation since prior to the pandemic and it was a good mix of doing things, seeing both strangers and friends, and chilling the hell out. Saw phenomenal sets of Reigning Sound, Chuck Mead, and The Veldt. I think that influenced this month’s selections – reacquainting myself with the rhythm of airports, planes, favorite roads and coffee shops in beloved cities but also the surprising kind of slowed-down vacation where my usual Friday’s sort through new records was done with coffee on the porch of a beach house I’d never done before.
Columbus is returning to life and most of what has my number so far has been jazz – Randy Mather leading the Joe Diamond tribute act Rhinestone Quartet getting a packed dancefloor to the hard bop anthem “The Sidewinder” was magic. Brett Burleson leading another quartet with the great Eddie Bayard on tenor moving from one of his slow-burn ballad originals into an eye-of-the hurricane stomping take on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” almost knocked me out of my chair.
Also, as you can probably tell from the full-to-bulging nature of this list, a bounty of music to love. Continue reading for notes on the songs.
I spent April in an anxiety-ridden state of transition: a dash of survivor’s guilt, a splash of irrational exuberance, a sprinkling of always-remember-it’s-not-over-yet, and a magnum of remembering how my socialization muscles feel when they move.
May was better, even as my heart went out to friends still suffering – with a particular eye on the Hyderabad team who I work with every day and who have taken some horrific losses. Only time will tell, but I think this month’s selections reflect that. As always, thank you for reading, for commenting, for turning me onto stuff that made this list, and for being part of my life.
Netta Yerushalmy – Dance Dance Demonstration, presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts with Los Angeles Performance Practice
Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities, presented at the Wexner in 2019, was one of two or three things I still think about regularly. I’ve loved dance with the fierce ardor of a clumsy man – like watching a magic show – and a crazed metaphor addict for a couple of decades; the Wexner Center planted that seed with two shows: Savion Glover my senior year of High School and William Forsythe when I was in college.
Distant Dance Demonstration was a new work, filmed at the end of the summer in East River Park, choreographed by Netta Yerushalmy, and danced by Marc Crousillat, Stanley Gambucci, Nick Sciscione, Caitlin Scranton, Hsiao-Jou Tang, Babacar Top, and Symara Johnson. It was designed for the screen by Jeremy Jacob, with photographs by Maria Baranova, camera work by Alex Romania and Maira Duarte, and edited by Yerushalmy and Romania.
With this new piece, presented by the Wex and Los Angeles Performance Practice, Yerushalmy finds a way, with her steady crew of exquisite dancers, to not only make work in all of this but to thrive while acknowledging the hell of the pandemic and everything else going on with the world in a way that made me tear up even on a screen in my office. I can only imagine the crying I would have done if I’d been in the vicinity. It was hard not to have pangs of jealousy for the handful of assembled watchers we see in the margins.
Everything filmed from a remove kept entire bodies in focus and also nudged a reminder of the restrictions we were under – not too close, for the greater good; nevertheless, a lack, an absence. The title’s “demonstration” nodded to both the necessary and too-often-ignored-or-minimized Black Lives Matter protests and the demonstrations against the ill-advised profiteering plan to replace the beloved East River Park and its band shell for yet more ugly housing in a neighborhood so many of us loved.
The sumptuous filming uses a ‘70s-like patina of grain and discoloration and shifts from black and white to color with still photos as pop art punctuation, amplifying the drenched, saturated-in-history nature of these movements. They batter against the ugly history and dance with it, erupting with the joy of survival and connection in a way dance does better and more directly than any other form I can think of.
The framing by Yerushalmy had that deceptively easy, intoxicating manner of articulation that made interviewing her one of the great pleasures of my time writing about art. It’s an introduction that does what kept me coming back to the Wexner Center early, a handshake for challenging work that doesn’t strip away the mystery or undersell the joy and the pleasure of it.
I’m enormously thankful for the Wexner Center giving us this and profoundly regret I didn’t get to it sooner to tell more people and watch it four or five times.
As we get closer to the first little slice of normalcy – my second vaccine is coming up this week – there are reminders that we’re not out of the woods yet: horrifying statistics around the world, anecdotal evidence from every channel.
One that hit close to home for me was Saturday’s public announcement of my friend Bob Petric’s death. I probably didn’t know Bobby as well as at least 100 people on my friends’ list, but I had genuine conversations with him once or twice a week.
He was someone I thought about regularly: the sly one-liner, the big laugh when you landed, and that hand on your shoulder that reminded you he was glad to see you. When I was at a loss for what to do, getting off work or a summer afternoon, “Head down to Ace of Cups and see Bob” was always one of the best options on the table.
Before and parallel to that friendship was his presence in my life as a guitar player. I never got to see Girly Machine (I squandered a few opportunities as a kid), but I saw Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments every time I got the chance. The way he fused an almost hyperactive, polished technique to a frenzied wildness was breathtaking. There was the emotional quality of opening a nerve at the same time he compressed the entire history of the guitar and cracked the sky at the same time.
I saw a couple of TJSA shows that were shambolic trainwrecks but even those had a few minutes that affirmed I was in the right place. Far more often, they were mind-blowing. Petric’s melodic, fiery counterpoint to Ron House’s wry, cracked lyrics over a shifting series of great rhythm sections were what I’d reach to 9 times out of 10 when someone asked me what “Columbus music” sounds like.
A tangent: one late afternoon, Anne and I were at HiFi Bar in Manhattan (RIP) who had an astonishing jukebox, a precursor to the now-ubiquitous internet jukes, called El DJ. El DJ boasted a hard drive we controlled with a trackball through an interface that cross-referenced bands. One highlight of EJ DJ, for me at least, was a surprising number of Columbus acts: Times New Viking, Gaunt, New Bomb Turks, and, of course, TJSA.
As the two-for-one happy hour shifted gears, I put on “Cheater’s Heaven” off their seminal first record Bait and Switch and owner Mike Stuto lit up. “Who played Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments?” He exclaimed from across the bar, and Anne and I spent a great hour talking about Bob’s guitar, Ron’s singing, the connection between our town’s scenes. When I think about Columbus crossing the world – and there are a million stories – that’s the one I go to first.
So while this is not something I was digging, there’s never a bad time to remember our friends and tell the friends here we love them. If you’re reading this, I love you. If I haven’t told you lately, I’m sorry and I want to do better.
If you haven’t listened to TJSA, maybe the best place to start is the blistering live record from their legendary tour with GBV just released on Bandcamp:
Some other video evidence of this juggernaut at the top of his powers:
Spring feels good as it comes in fits and starts. Optimism leavened with more loss – most recently one of the best, kindest, most enthusiastic music fans I ever had the opportunity to know (and not know as well as I wish I had), Matt Bush. It’s hard to think of going back out to shows again and not seeing Matt’s face. Continue reading for notes on these songs.