Best of 2016: Visual Art

“Red is only black remembering.”
-Ocean Vuong, “Daily Bread”

Visual art gets more important to me every year. It makes its mediation between the idea and the finished product impossible to ignore. It freezes memory in all its unreliable-ness in a static form forever or it deliberately stays ephemeral. Engaging with a painting or a sculpture or an installation requires going up to it alone and letting it inside you. Even if you’re talking about the piece with someone else, the work has to be grappled with alone and you’ll never adequately explain what you see.

Got waylaid by illness and obligation so I’m both late and this is going up without blurbs but please know how much each of these struck me.

As with all of my end of year lists, everything is in Columbus unless otherwise stated.

  1. Agnes Martin, s/t (Guggenheim Museum, NYC) 
  2. Kerry James Marshall, Mastry (Met Breuer, NYC) 
  3. Melvin Edwards, Five Decades (Columbus Museum of Art) 
  4. Pipilotti Rist, Pixel Forest (New Museum, NYC) 
  5. Noah Purifoy, Junk Dada (Wexner Center)
  6. Alexandria Eregbu, The Shadow on the Ground (The Luminary, St Louis) 
  7. Martin Wong, Human Instamatic (Wexner Center) 
  8. Toyin Odjih Odutola, Of Context and Without (Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC) 
  9. Various Artists, The Sun Placed in the Abyss (Columbus Museum of Art) 
  10. Various Artists, Utopia Banished (Angela Meleca Gallery) 
  11. Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Indelible Memories (sepiaEYE Gallery, NYC) 
  12. Aaron Fowler, Tough Love (CCAD Beehler Gallery) 
  13. Shambauvi Kaul, Modes of Faltering (UT – Downtown Gallery, Knoxville) 
  14. Dennison W. Griffith, Another World (CCAD Beehler Gallery) 
  15. Richard Myers, Aberrations/Mark Mothersbaugh, Myopia (Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland)

Best of 2016: Live Music

“In Beirut, as elsewhere, to set down roots may be a far more radical strategy than to try to shape the future. If we can hear the ways in which what was lovely and light as a spring a hundred years ago remains lovely today, then maybe we can reframe things for an uncertain future. Not beauty but the conditions for beauty’s becoming. Improvisation calls on a spirit of interdependence and can only happen when you are free to move in any direction.

Recorded sound vibrates between history and pleasure. Live sound exists only in the present. It cannot linger. This is one of the reasons why sound defines public space even more than architecture. Kids jamming that week’s hit, neighbors fucking behind a thin wall, the call to prayer’s divine layer competing with traffic’s blare, the loud low boom of something blowing up – and its opposite, hilltop garden quiet.

To remember the world is to remember the sound of the world. To listen carelessly is to forget. Our lives spool down to whatever medium can recall us: wet brains, hard drives, magnetic tapes, circular pieces of plastic inscribed with tiny mountains of sound that came from bodies and moved bodies, somewhere, just in time, then running out of it.”
-Jace Clayton, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

Music has always been the art I experience most often. It’s the mechanism through which I’ve met the largest group of my friends. Music’s sent me down roads I didn’t know I needed and brought me back when I thought I’d be lost forever. I’ve done a lot of embarrassing, annoying, flailing this year in response to my own bullshit more than any outside factor and I’m sorry for anyone who got babbling or worse, steamrolled under my selfishness and inertia.

Keeping with this year’s unwanted theme of “death, death, death,” two people close to me I didn’t see nearly as often as I should have passed away. I find myself at a loss, to sum up what either of them meant to me, but I’m very grateful I saw them both one last time.

The first is Marie Arsenault who I loved immediately upon meeting she and her husband, John Wendland, at Little Brother’s – one of the many people I met through Matt Benz and the overall Sovines contingent. Marie was responsible for many of my favorite musical moments over the years. So many sets at Twangfest in a sticky early-June St Louis: keeping an over enthused mosher from leaping into my friends until my shoulder was sore during the best Supersuckers set I ever saw; Marah tapping a vein of nostalgia and possibility and tossing the mic on the floor to draw us all around the two brothers for good measure; Robbie Fulks tearing into Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” like a ravenous wolf; Paul Burch stopping time like smoke in the air on a set promoting my favorite record of his, Fool for Love; waltzing with her in the back of the Duck Room (don’t leave us yet Chuck Berry) as Chris Scruggs played a guitar solo that sounded like diamonds falling out of the rafters with BR549; the Deadstring Brothers doing the best soulful Rolling Stones rock I’d ever seen followed by the depth charge dance party of the Dirtbombs; Grand Champeen at the after hours “Twangfest Prom” doing a version of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” arranged in the style of Cheap Trick and my singing Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage” with Carl Wilson at a table. So many conversations I can’t forget even if I couldn’t remember them in the detail they deserve.

And beyond Twangfest: seeing her here in Columbus for Surly Girl Parking Lot Blowouts and Sovines reunions;  in New Orleans, drinking at Carousel Bar; at the sadly short-lived Beat N Soul where I never heard The Beatdowns and Mondo Topless sound better, and JC Brooks ripped my heart out of my chest and made me dance on it; following her travels and marveling at how much she did even after she was sick. Hers and John’s was the most fun wedding I’ve ever been to and that bar’s set fucking high – my friends love well and throw great parties. Even her memorial service was some of the most fun I’ve had all year, fun’s not a quite right word, but she was an inspiration, and she still is. I’ve been thinking about her playing “Marie Marie” every time I’ve been near a jukebox since late summer. I’ll be thinking about her when Anne and I are watching The Dirtbombs on New Year’s Eve – and thinking back to that Twangfest set where Mick Collins leaned over the audience and said, “Do you guys really know these songs?” and the afterparty where our bursting at the seams enthusiasm scared him away from the party down to the hotel’s karaoke bar.

The other was Terry Adams. One of the best writers I knew in prose and songs (his band Teenage Prayers’ record Everyone Thinks You’re the Best produced by Steve Wynn is a slept-on soul-punk classic). I met him through my pal Morgan who he moved back to Columbus for and later married. Their relationship was a marvel to me and every time I got to be around the two of them I was challenged, warmed, and filled with wanting to be better.

And those two personal examples just threw into relief the artists who meant something to the whole world. I was lucky to have gotten to see Prince, Bowie, Alan Vega (with Suicide and solo), Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Dennis Davis (with Roy Ayers in a show I still talk about). Try to see and appreciate, even if you’re just a cheering face in the crowd, people who have meant something to you over the years. And my heart breaks for the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. I never spent as much time in that kind of DIY venue as friends of mine did – that speaks to my privilege and my mainstream, middlebrow tastes in a lot of ways – but that sort of venue (here thinking of Skylab, BLD, Firexit, a number of spots in NYC) has given me experiences I wouldn’t have had anywhere else and let some of the best artists here and elsewhere grow into themselves and flourish. Yes, there needs to be a middle ground of some kind of safety, but that type of space is absolutely, 100%, vital. We’re all poorer if marginalized artists can’t find a way to burst through the gravity that pulls them down.

Locally I feel like we’re in kind of a holding pattern, not a bad thing for now. Big Room Bar, under Kyle Sowash, has amped up its booking and come into its own. It’s a great space that my number one show-going priority in 2017 is to attend more, starting with the Bash and Pop reunion in January. Ace of Cups has continued to flourish under Bobby Miller’s booking including the birth of Sick Weekend this year which was tremendous fun and promises to be a regional garage rock show we can all be proud of. Rumba, and its relationship with Celebrity Etc is hitting a groove again and while they don’t book a wealth of things I want to see I love going there when they do. The Woodlands Family got me out more than the last few years combined with a vein of funky music no one else in this town does the same kind of justice to.

Natalie’s is still going strong with shows I was overjoyed to see this year that I wouldn’t see anywhere else and shows no signs of slowing down. I finally made it to Notes and I’m happy to report the sound was fantastic, and sightlines are excellent. I should be glad to see world-class talent without fighting for a seat, but when legends like Hamiett Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and Kidd Jordan, or Francois Moutin and Jean-Michel Pilc, are playing to a room I can count on two hands, something’s wrong with the promotion. Attention should be paid to April Kulcsar who left Brother Drake as BD retooled their approach to take the focus away from shows. She was the reason the meadery was a listening room on a lot of people’s radar and while I’m interested in seeing how she sets the world on fire as a manager/tour manager/publicist for bands losing her ear and promotional tenacity was a loss for this town as a whole.

I was talking to an old friend a while ago, and I mentioned that I’m most disappointed with myself when I forget how lucky I’ve been. I’m lucky to live in this town. I’m lucky to have Anne and more great friends than I deserve. I’m lucky to have all the opportunities I’ve had. These lists help keep me in touch with that gratitude. Thank you for reading me.

  1. Amy Lavere and Friends, 09/29/16 (Murphy’s, Memphis) – “Damn these rules carved in stone. I want to smash them into pieces on the dance floor,” Amy Lavere sang on her “Last Rock and Roll Boy To Dance” like a slinky call to arms. Her rock solid bass playing with Will Sexton on lead guitar, Shawn Zorn’s jazz-inflected drumming, and guest spots by an amazing trumpet player whose name I didn’t catch, her Motel Mirrors comrade John Paul Keith and a few others. For two sets of the best elements of American music, I was transported and reminded of the way songs get under your skin and make you feel more yourself, how the right turn of phrase or chord change will shift the burn of your whiskey.
  2. The Wilhelms, 09/09/16 (1900 Park, St Louis) – John Wendland and his Rough Shop bandmate Andy Ploof performed a show in their Wilhelms duo formation the night before Marie Arsenault’s memorial. Two sets of songs that orbited around and paid tribute to the power of observation as a healing force and a way to connect. The rapturous opening number, “Fences,” served as a statement of intent, taking the chestnut of children playing in two yards and one deciding to leap off the roof into the other, overcoming the nagging voice about how easy it would be to get tangled in obstacles and fall on his own side. The rest of the set included a brand-new tribute to Marie  I’m not sure any of us in the audience could have pulled off with that preternatural grace, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love” with ink-wash almost flamenco guitar shading in the climbing gospel progression and those words about being broken and finding something to keep going on.
  3. The Jazz Poetry Ensemble feat. Kidd Jordan, Oliver Lake, Hamiett Bluiett, DD Jackson, and Marlon Jordan, 09/07/16 (Notes) – Improvisation, crafted well, has always had a direct line to a part of my brain that makes me feel most alive. Over the last few years, Michael Van Der Does’ Jazz Poetry Ensemble has brought in legends of free jazz for the Hot Times Festival to pay tribute to Kate Schulte. This year I was out of town for the aforementioned memorial service, but I did get to catch the warm-up night at Notes. With a rock-solid local rhythm section, these giants played with a warmth and a connection between each other and the audience that was almost unworldly.
  4. Thee Commons, 07/18/16 (Ace of Cups) – My favorite new find of the year, this band of Mexican-Americans deliberately take on the mantle and extend the tradition of East LA bands like Los Lobos and The Blasters. One guitar played by lead singer David Pacheco, a rhythm section that swung cumbias with hints of bachata and son fueled by plenty of punk fire, and a sax player who slashed and growled but with a line in sweetness that burnished everything. Great songs that got a Monday night of seen-it-alls dancing and laughing, lucky to be together with one another.
  5. A Celebration of Terrence Adams: Adam Schatz, Steve Shiffman and the Land of No, Teenage Prayers; 04/09/16 (Double Happiness) – Mentioned above, it speaks to Terry Adams’s talent and heart that this selection of some of the best talent in NYC, all of whom Adams played with during his time in the city, came down for a tribute show he was still here to see. Steve Shiffman’s Wilco-tinged tunes had a nice Gun Club bite like a razor in the apple. Teenage Prayers were a raw dance party as good as any I’ve ever seen in town. Adam Schatz (Landlady, Zongo Junction, Father Figures) did a set of raw collage-pop he does better than anybody working these days.
  6. Dolly Parton, 08/02/16 (Ohio State Fair) – Most of the time when you see a legend with a track record like Parton it inevitably disappoints a little. Not the case here. For over two hours with a brief intermission, she and her crack band of upright bass, piano/guitar, and guitar/mandolin/banjo along with the singer herself playing everything from guitar to dulcimer to alto sax (on a delightfully Vegas-infused “Rocky Top”). One of the great singers still at the top of her game and one of our greatest songwriters hitting every era of her illustrious career.
  7. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, 02/13/16 (Musica, Akron) – One of the best things about JC Brooks is his taste for perpetual reinvention. A fan since I first saw them as the backing band for a Numero Group soul review then first saw them do a set of their own songs at the one and only St Louis Beat n Soul I always find something new in a set of theirs. On a cold night in Akron, the new lineup featuring a percussionist and backing vocalist played without a net – almost none of the surefire crowd pleasers of their early records – and worked the ’80s sound that sometimes bogged down Howl into something spikier, with a snarling sexuality. Blue light dancefloor monsters sung by one of the great, undersung voices working today.
  8. Amy Rigby, 11/15/16 (HiFi, NYC) – I’ll never forget the first time I saw Amy Rigby, opening for Warren Zevon, on a night she announced she’d turned 40, gone through a breakup, and been dropped by her record label. I was in from the first line of “Summer of My Wasted Youth.” This 20th anniversary show for her solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife with her husband Wreckless Eric on bass and backing vocals and Doug Wygal on drums played every still-perfect tune on that record from the growling post-punk of “That Tone of Voice” to the wistfully romantic “Knapsack” into the cowbell-laced pop-disco melancholy of “Good Girls” with everything in three dimensions. Memory and the now inextricably linked, feeding one another. New songs at the end, including the advice that “We’re all going to have to hold one another” in the new world we’re facing, ended with a knives-out rendition of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” with that first line “You must leave now, take all you need you think will last. But whatever you think you need, you better grab it fast,” taunting me down Avenue A.
  9. Cory Henry, 03/07/16 (Woodlands Tavern) – Promoting his gospel-tinged The Revival, keyboardist and vocalist Cory Henry and his drummer brought the 20th century of popular music as a melting Mobius strip mixtape to us. Unexpected tunes blurred into one another, caught fire, and changed their molecular composition in front of all of our eyes. After a perfect plea to the audience to connect with what’s happening in front of us, he did a 30-minute encore that was a painting in ecstatic action.
  10. Charlie Hunter/Snarky Puppy, 05/11/16 (Park Street Saloon) – Hearing Charlie Hunter with a full rhythm section is always a treat, and his new compositions continue the streak of his last few years, getting better and better, refining to a purer space. Those same players were absorbed into the larger Snarky Puppy collective who also, for my tastes, are hitting new heights these days. Some of the schticky fillagree has been burned off, and we got a high dose of knotty, noir-inflected tunes reminiscent of early Earth Wind and Fire scoring a policier full of smoke-stained walls, double crosses, and a crumbling system.
  11. Sweet Knives, 08/10/16 (Ace of Cups) – Lost Sounds, with Alicja Trout and the late Jay Reatard, were one of my favorite bands of the late ’90s/early ’00s, and I loved everything the two of them did after. Trout’s reunion with the rhythm section and a new guitarist served as a brilliant reminder how great her songs in that band were. Even if you never heard Lost Sounds and didn’t know the classics from her new tunes, this was righteous anger framed by the perspective of memory you could scream along with or dance to, preferably both.
  12. Spanglish Fly, 11/12/16 (SOBs, NYC) – In the days after the election, it was a balm being in New York, even more than usual in the fall (my favorite season in my favorite city). The thing that gave me the strongest feeling of “I’m glad to be here with people looking at this in the same way,” was Brooklyn Boogaloo champs Spanglish Fly. In a tight hour of soulful, swinging rhythms, they included a righteous cover of “This Land is Your Land” in Spanish along with their own originals played by a crack band featuring Paula “Moist” Henderson on bari sax.
  13. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, 12/07/16 (Woodlands Tavern)  Karl Denson’s records especially with Greyboy Allstars were a staple of parties and gatherings when I was in college. His rock and roll aesthetic made him a first call to replace Bobby Keys in the Rolling Stones, and there was a beautiful symmetry seeing his band on a 20th-anniversary show at the same venue I caught Keys and band a few years ago. A look at American music through a kaleidoscope turned by a steady hand with covers like “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo,” the best version of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” I’ve ever heard with steel guitar and B-3 harmonies, and Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids” reinvented as a JBs bone-deep jam, along with rock solid originals.
  14. Brian Harnetty, 10/27/16 (Wexner Center) – One of Columbus’ treasures, Harnetty brought a new suite of his chamber music, Shawnee, Ohio, to the Wex with video. Found sound woven through Reichian cells and a simmering rhythmic intensity, this jaw-dropping performance found Harnetty breaking through to another level.
  15. Kris Davis and Craig Taborn Duo, 10/07/16 (Wexner Center) – Kris Davis, promoting her beguiling Duopoly, teamed up with one of the other finest pianists in contemporary jazz, Craig Taborn for a night of glittering, knotty improvisations and compositions. Motifs appear and disappear, splinter and flow together again, like clinging to a raft along a surging river. For pure beauty, I don’t think this show could have been bettered.
  16. Rangda, 03/16/16 (Spacebar) – Sir Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls with Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) and drummer Chris Corsano brought their refined gutter-and-stars brand of world music to Spacebar. A wild ride of twitchy dances and fist pumping abstractions, Ornette Coleman overlaid on a righteous rock three piece.
  17. Xi Xa, Alsarah and the Nubatones, and Debo Band; 01/16/16 (Drom, NYC) – Taking a brief respite from Winter Jazzfest for an annual Lonely Planet showcase, this was a reminder why being in NYC during APAP week always has unexpected benefits. Locals Alsarah and the Nubatones brought crystalline singing with subtle, insinuating rhythms, presaging their terrific record this year. Xi Xa, an off-shoot of Calexico and Giant Sand, brought scorched-earth, expansive stoner rock that fused Sabbath and Kyuss with corridos.
  18. Thor and Friends, 10/25/16 (Spacebar) – Thor Harris of Shearwater and Swans, with a seven-piece band, played a glorious, unfolding, meditative set of instrumentals reminiscent of Steve Reich. That he did it in a rock bar on a Thursday to a crowd easily half of didn’t have a frame of reference for the other work in the genre and kept the rapt attention of that audience was miraculous.
  19. 1-800-Band with The Girls!, 06/30/16 (Ace of Cups) – Al Huckabee and Polly Watson’s (Crimson Sweet) 1-800-Band deals in midwestern guitar-pop and no one’s doing it better these days. The Replacements feel like the biggest guiding light, but there are touches of The DBs, early REM, The Raspberries, and more recent bands like The Model Rockets and Superdrag. Songs that won’t let you ignore them in a mold I’ve never gotten sick of played by a band who know when to play like their life depends on it and when to wink at it because it’s all just play.
  20. Amanda Shires, 09/16/16 (Rumba Cafe) – A show that reminded me of the way Rumba can be the best room to see a singer-songwriter. Shires, promoting her righteous My Piece of Land record, brought a four-piece band with force of nature jazz drummer and a guitar player playing a rig more commonly seen with metal but getting a swing and a delicate touch out of it. Perfect for songs that recalled her time with the Texas Playboys and more contemporary rhythms, underpinning great lines like “Your fingerprints are still burned into my skin as I remember the fire and the way it dimmed, like fires will sometimes do,” or “Your eyes a shade of wonder, like if thunder had a color.”

Favorite Sets from Festivals

I’ve done a lot of talking about how I think festivals do more harm than good. In general, I’m for art – music, painting, film, theatre, whatever – being part of all of our day to day lives instead of being set aside, something we do on vacation, or we treat ourselves to out of town. But that said, there’s magic in a tightly-focused regional festival, and I was lucky enough to have some amazing moments at those kinds of festivals who do that lost horizon, world-set-apart-for-a-few-days thing very, very well. I’m not going to write blurbs for all of these, but these 20 sets hit me hard and stuck with me. From the Sovines’ acoustic set in a bowling alley delving into the country song as creation myth and their catharsis of regret full rock show, to Laurie Anderson’s tangy violin filling in for Tony Conrad with Faust, to percussion sneaking up on me around every turn on a nature trail at a quarry in Knoxville, to Reigning Sound’s and Burnt Quarktet’s dance music beyond genres, I was glad to be here for all of this.

  1. Sovines, both sets (Twangfest, St Louis) 
  2. Mary Halvorson solo (Big Ears, Knoxville)
  3. Faust with Laurie Anderson (Big Ears, Knoxville) 
  4. John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” (Big Ears, Knoxville)
  5. Reigning Sound original lineup reunion (Gonerfest, Memphis)
  6. Nico Muhly/Nadia Sirota/Sam Amidon/Thomas Bartlett (Big Ears, Knoxville)
  7. Ibrahim Maalouf Quintet (Winter Jazz Fest, NYC)
  8. Lonnie Smith’s Evolution (Winter Jazz Fest, NYC)
  9. Spray Paint (Not Horrible Fest, Cleveland)
  10. Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith duo (Big Ears, Knoxville)
  11. Quarktet Burnt (Winter Jazz Fest, NYC)
  12. Shannon and the Clams (Sick Weekend, Columbus)
  13. Anthony Braxton 10+1tet (Big Ears, Knoxville)
  14. Diet Cig (Sick Weekend, Columbus)
  15. The Lindsay (Helter Swelter, Columbus)
  16. Sex Mob (Winter Jazz Fest, NYC)
  17. The World (Gonerfest, Memphis)
  18. Giorgio Murderer (Not Horrible Fest, Cleveland)
  19. The Necks (Big Ears, Knoxville)
  20. Evan Christopher’s Clarinet Road with Hilary Gardner (Winter Jazz Fest, NYC)

Best of 2016: Theatre/Dance/Opera

“Soon it’ll stop raining and everything outside will be clean and refreshed. But not me. There’s this one thought that I can’t get out of my head. It haunts me. It’s always quietly suffocating me. The thought that my life has been…irretrievably…lost. The past is gone, it was wasted on trivialities, and the present…God, the present is too ridiculous for words. Look: here is my life. Here is my love for you. Where do you want me to put it? What do you want me to do with it? These are my deepest, truest feelings, and they’re perishing, like a ray of sunshine that’s fallen on a ditch.”
-Anton Chekhov translated by Annie Baker, Uncle Vanya

As in the other roundups, unless otherwise stated, everything on this list occurred in Columbus, Ohio. If I reviewed it elsewhere, there’s a link to the full review.

  1. Thank You for Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll (Wexner Center for the Arts) – What live performance does better than anything is connecting us all to the moment, right here in our bodies.  And in doing that, it connects us to other people. Dance goes to another level of that as it shows us the sheer amount of emotion and abstraction the human body can hold, how marvelous an instrument it is. And maybe, just maybe, even those of us who stumble more than fly can tap into buried way down beneath crusted-over routine and shame and guilt. Attendance which I called “180-proof sensual wonderment burned over a bright flame” made my heart sing and made me want to try harder. Gratitude and the joy of being together are the core of why all of us come to the theatre and this let the benefits of that gratitude flower out and wrap around us all. My heart sang and pounded at the bars of my chest watching this.  Review at Columbus Underground.
  2. Escuela by Guillermo Calderón (Public Theatre, Under the Radar Fest, NYC) – A group of disaffected young people under the regime of (never named) Pinochet gather for a New Year’s Eve discussion of strategy and general letting-the-air-out of a balloon of despair. The conceit of the characters all wearing ski masks and sunglasses so they can’t identify each other out of the lineup makes narrative sense and makes the astonishing acting even more impressive without the use of facial expressions. This takes the claustrophobic space and amplifies it while also showing the world – like the best political art, it reminds us that every action and every reaction is performed by people. Chilling and funny and breathtaking; the best thing I saw at the various festivals around APAP this year.
  3. Employee of the Year by Abigail Browde, Michael Silverstone and David Cale (600 Highwaymen presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) – Browde and Silverstone’s 600 Highwaymen troupe brought something to the Wexner Center that distilled what makes theatre so compelling but from a perspective, I’d never quite seen before. Taking on an entire life in fragments split among preteen/early teen girls as both narrator and the Greek chorus was indescribably moving to me with great songs by David Cale. This was that “putting your finger in the light socket” thing I talk about, over and over again, but in a way that brings a blanket of peace. Review at Columbus Underground.
  4. Two Trains Running by August Wilson (Past Productions) – All six of the 8 productions and readings I saw in the August Wilson Festival could have easily been on this list. Every at-bat was a solid hit for the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. But the one that hit me most was Patricia Wallace-Winbush and PAST Productions’ breathtaking look at a diner in 1969, Two Trains Running. The past and the future uncomfortably rub up against each other and hard truths about how we treat each other come with machine-gun speed and a deceptive ease. A pivotal point in the history of the black experience gets sharply-defined characters in great performances by Tony Roseboro, Vincent Mason, and David Johnson among others.  Review in Columbus Underground.
  5. Angels in America: Millenium Approaches by Tony Kushner (Warehouse Theatre) – Anyone my age with the slightest interest in the theatre got hit by Angels in America like a thunderbolt. A portrait of an America on the brink of rebirth or desolation that focused the entire sweep of history as a laser beam of white-hot emotion. That honored the dead but wrestled and fucked with ghosts and didn’t let anyone off easy. Warehouse’s production of the first part cut through even my bone-weariness after the funeral of a dear friend’s father and a very long night out with other great friends the night before. Brent Burington’s Roy Cohn and Camille Bullock’s Harper Pitt are definitive takes on two of the great characters in American theatre, but there wasn’t a weak link in this sprawling production. Review at Columbus Underground.
  6. A Life by Adam Bock (Playwrights Horizons, NYC) – A Life featured a cracking performance by David Hyde Pierce at its heart. A ruthless dissection of loneliness and how we as humans put meaning together in chance and in the banal. An ending of hope that was exactly what I needed seeing this the weekend after the election. Remarkable direction by Anne Kauffman keeps in the weirdness that someone else might have shaved off, riveting us during Hyde Pierce’s extended monolog and letting the world get turned upside down.
  7. Another Year, Another Christmas by Marie Nimier, trans. By Peter Schulman (Haberdasher Theatre) – Hollie Klem’s Haberdasher Theatre brought a US premiere of this Nimier play which shoved its hands into the chest of the dynamic of an unhappy family and showed us its blackened but still beating heart from all angles. There was some clunkiness in the translation and a few missed swings but in the month since I saw it, those have melted away and what stuck with me is its tense energy and its fire. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve wished for in Columbus theatre the last few years, and I hope this is an opening salvo to getting hit again and again. Review in Columbus Underground.
  8. King Charles III by Mike Bartlett (Playhouse on the Square, Memphis) – I didn’t get to see Bartlett’s speculative succession play on Broadway, so I was overjoyed when its first production by a regional company overlapped with my semi-annual Memphis trips. Bartlett’s project to strip the veneer of civility off everyday human interactions – so funny and righteously nasty in Cock – still has juice on the wider canvas of this work. He, and this production directed by Dave Landis prove nastiness punches differently when you bring in all of history instead of leaving it out but it still has a roll of rusty chain in its fist. Watching Charles’ sons allying against him as he struggles on how to rule was a gripping afternoon of theatre in a terrific space, I’d never gotten the chance to previously attend. Performances by Christina Wellford Scott as Camilla, Ian Lah as Prince William, and Michael Gravois as a beautifully greasy prime minister make that iambic pentameter sing, snarl, and shout.
  9. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks (Signature Theatre, NYC) – What Signature does is invaluable: seasons of brand new work and retrospectives on classic writers running parallel. This early Parks was like bathing in electricity. Her themes in hard, bright colors, not as refined as her later work but with energy to spare and drenched in deep, justified rage and heartbreak.
  10. Ada/Ava by Drew Dir (Manual Cinema, presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) – This story, told in projections, of two sisters and one’s effort to reunite with the one who dies first, was a pure macabre wonder. It understands the sadness at the heart of any classic horror story or fable and shows it to us in images we haven’t seen, and from angles, we hadn’t looked at. The thing that made me feel the most like a kid, just in awe, all year. Review at Columbus Underground.
  11. Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno (Available Light) – What you might call “Available Light Classic” was firing on all cylinders in this knives-out production of Eno’s one-man show about the cascading disappointments that make up a life and the desperate need to keep trying. Jordan Fehr gave a performance for the ages pushing and pulling against some of Matt Slaybaugh’s best direction in the confines of Franklinton art gallery The Vanderelli Room. Review at Columbus Underground.
  12. Kiss of the Spider Woman, book by Terence McNally, score by Kander and Ebb (Short North Stage) – Short North Stage continues to astonish and astound. Beyond the August Wilson Festival, they put on terrific productions of The Fantasticks and The Last Five Years but, for me, the clearest example of their stated mission was a dazzling production of one of my favorite Kander and Ebbs, Kiss of the Spider Woman. That gorgeous score finds the right vehicle in Michael Licata’s production. Licata and the cast understand the desperation of melancholy and the way oppression permeates everything it touches through like radiation. Great performances by Scott Hunt and Joe Joseph with Eli Brickey slipping down the stage on silks as the Spider Woman dropping jaws left and right. Review at Columbus Underground.
  13. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson (Short North Stage) – This early Wilson directed by his greatest working interpreter, Mark Clayton Southers, set my hair on fire. Orbiting around a supernova performance by Wilma Hatton as the eponymous blues belter, this was hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Particular shout-outs to the superb R. Lawrence Jenkins and Bryant Bentley in her band but there wasn’t a bad performance here. Truths about how humanity gets ground up in the cultural machine as much as it does in every machine are sadly as relevant today as they were in the early ’80s when this premiered and in the 1920s when it was set. Review at Columbus Underground.
  14. Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett (Roundabout Theatre, NYC) – The second Mike Bartlett play on this list, and it’s a punch in the gut. A look into the deep human capacity for selfishness – how much we owe the rest of the world and our children but also how far we go to convince ourselves we don’t. Zoe Kazan was riveting, watching her inheriting the traits of her bumbling father (a hilarious Richard Armitage) and her firecracker bull-in-a-china-shop mother (an Amy Ryan I couldn’t take my eyes off) and her struggle to overcome them.
  15. Clap Hands by Jen Rosenblitt (New York Live Arts, NYC) – I was lucky enough to see an unfinished version of this in conjunction with APAP and Rosenblitt’s language struck me immediately. Solos, by Rosenblitt and two other dancers, that intersected with other people and turned into these expressions of desire like clinging to a life preserver that might be another brick at any moment. Long sections of disjointed talk with no musical backing fractured by gnarled, glitchy techno. The Neubauten song that said “Beauty remains in the impossibilities of the body,” kept running through my head as I walked down 8th Avenue talking about this with my friend Sarah as she headed to the Whitney and I ducked into the Corner Bistro for a burger and a beer. And those images kept ringing in my head all night.

My second year as a critic for Columbus Underground. I remain humbled they publish my opinions, and people read them. And stay humbled companies want me to look at their work and talk about it. Anyone reading this who I haven’t seen yet, please drop me a line – I’m always interested in covering new work, and not everything hits my radar through regular channels. I was interviewed by local podcast 6pod4 which I’d encourage everyone to check out (at least the episodes I’m not on), and I said the most important thing I do in reviews is descriptive. If I can give someone an accurate picture of what I experienced that’s going to help someone deciding if they want to take a chance on a production or look at what a director or actor’s previous track record is. My opinion’s a part of all the criticism I do but what I most want to do is understand.

My early trip to NYC was for Under the Radar/Coil/etc so I didn’t see as many fully formed plays, but what I saw was exciting and a reminder of how rich the international theatrical community is, and I didn’t make it to Chicago, so this is a little more Columbus-centric than usual. This year I’m going to try to make Humana so I’m still balancing the outside world with what’s growing in my own backyard.

Big chunks of this year were spent trying to break out of a persistent, nagging, grayness. Wracked with fear and insecurity and boring myself. One of the best ways I broke out of that, again and again, was by seeing theatre. Watching people interact with one another, that interaction filtering through symbiosis with a live audience and bouncing back to them, and the feeling of all of us at its basest element choosing to sit in the dark together. Helped take me out of my own head and just listen to someone else’s voice. It feels like we need that now more than ever.

On the local scene, the biggest thing was the August Wilson Festival. Short North Stage, working with Pittsburgh-based Mark Clayton Southers, other companies like Past Productions and Columbus institutions like drummer-composer Mark Lomax II, the Johnstone Fund for New Music, and the Columbus Museum of Art, paid appropriate tribute to one of the greatest playwrights in American history. It was a spectacular effort that paid off every time I saw one of the productions. The rest of the Short North Stage schedule was up to its usual standards with excellent Fantasticks and Last Five Years and a delightful original Christmas show.

In a lot of ways, it’s a time of transition in Columbus. John Stefano who ran Otterbein’s theatre department retired on a high note including playing a fantastic, nuanced Tevye in Fiddler. Joy Reilly, the guiding light to many of us as critics, academics, and artists, is also off to a well-earned retirement from OSU. Geoffrey Nelson moved on to another town, leaving memories of terrific performances including in this year’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and ending a long run for A Portable Theatre which he served valiantly as Artistic Director. CAPA head Bill C0nner – a Tony-awards voter who was instrumental in saving and preserving many of the organizations that make Columbus the place it is to live – died after a long battle with cancer.

In less dramatic parts of this transitional phase, the usual suspect companies keep finding ways to navigate the new climate, engage their audiences, and fulfill their missions.

CATCO continues its ascent back to the classy work with an edge they’re known for with an excellent production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons that very nearly made this list and other rock-solid productions. Available Light, normally a home run for me as anyone who’s followed these lists for a while knows, only had one thing I loved without reservation this year. But devoting a chunk of time to community, as they did with their Columbus Voices Workshop, is never a wrong decision and they’ve got a really strong slate in the latter half of the season with You Got Older, a Clare Barron play I saw Off-Broadway that I’m really looking forward to revisiting, another edition of Next Stage Initiative that’s always my favorite theatre event of the season, and Savannah Reich’s Kilroys nominee Paradise Park Zoo I’m very intrigued by. MadLab’s commitment to developing new talent is a wonder. The actors I see again and again at their shows get better every time. And their commitment to new playwrights is always a reason to rejoice. While I didn’t love much of the work I saw, with maybe one exception I was glad to have seen it and in every case I’d watch the writer’s next play. Hopes are high as Artistic Director Jim Azelvandre goes into his second year.

The one thing I’m missing in Columbus theatre is the new. OSU’s Lab Series is marvelous as is AVLT’s Next Stage Initiative but I’m missing the intermediate stage between that incubatory level and living on its own in the world. I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last couple years about the trend of college students or expats who’d done theatre elsewhere starting a company that might only last a season or two but was a shot of adrenaline into this town. Even when they didn’t last there was new talent on all of our radars and once in a while one turned into an Available Light (nee Blueforms) or a MadLab. Haberdasher’s the only example of that kind of exciting, new voice I can think of in the last few years. Is there micro theatre someplace that I’m just not hearing about?

Thank you for putting up with me. Let’s see what comes next.

Huntertones – Live Reviewed in JazzColumbus

“The fat riff is the primary building block of Huntertones’ best pieces. The opening notes of Dan White’s “Anvil” kick off this collection of ear-worms like a fanfare. It sets the tone for the record’s road-tested arrangements…From that horn trill that opens “Anvil” to the country-tinged funk jubilation of Ott’s “Looking Back,” Live is a party record to be reckoned with. A snapshot of a band out of its chrysalis stage and spreading wings as it ascends to another level.”

Read the full review at JazzColumbus

 

August Wilson’s Fences at Short North Stage

“Mujahid Abdul-Rashid is a shining sun who makes people glow in his presence and makes the world of the play feel like it extends for miles. Slipping between a broken man, deeply believing his excuses but not letting himself off the hook more than anyone else, and the giant he was in his youth, submerged but not dead, watching him is like looking at a prize fighter. Troy’s battle with death feels physical and hyperreal throughout this play. Abdul-Rashid and Gregory have a terrific, sexy chemistry and a give and take that, at its best, rings truer to long-term relationships than anything I can remember seeing on a stage.”

Read my full review at Columbus Underground.

Best of 2015: Live Music

“Every good thing we dared in winter
arrives by springtime: a whipporwill
among the pines, a colony of memories
like muscadine on a vine double-thick
as a boy’s arm, redemption reaching
into its roots before an afterthought
steals back the sweetness. Something
lost in the rearview mirror shifts,
& here we are again on the dance floor
at the Silver Shadow; the boys & girls
reeling out to the edge of fingertips.”
-Yusef Komunyakaa, “Always a Way”

I felt a little bit like I was stuck in neutral for big chunks of this year. Had a hard time getting out to see as much music as I would’ve liked. Part of that was balancing the demands of freelance writing and a day job that kicked up a gear but a lot of it was that devil ennui. My mission for next year is to work a little harder to get out, and especially try harder to take a chance on things. The rewards are worth it.

That said, I still saw over 100 shows in some of my favorite cities and – one of the best parts of doing this review ever year – I’m reminded of how exceptionally good so much of it was. I’ve been very lucky in very many respects – I just need to get better at reminding myself of that. Rambling thoughts about the scene follow the list. Left off Big Ears Festival in Knoxville and Hopscotch in Raleigh because I could have filled the list just with sets from both of those. I saw more great music in those combined six days than most people do all year – plus ate amazing food, drank beers that don’t come up here and saw great friends.

Like everything else, all shows are in Columbus unless otherwise mentioned.

  1. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (written by Argue and Isaac Butler), 11/18/15 (BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn) – By this time, pretty much any year I get to see Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – along with Guillermo Klein Y Los Guachos and Orrin Evans’ Captain Black, one of the few wildly new big bands swinging for the fences – seems assured of a spot on this list. Argue’s writing is that strong and his team of players is a finely tuned machine. But even I didn’t expect this to wow me the way it did. A look at corrosive paranoia, and the very real roots of it, the way history will leave scars on all of us. This collaboration with writer Butler was the most successful multimedia work I saw this year and the music with some narration and fragmented video that broke my heart. As good as the other elements were, the music never ceded its primacy: from Ligeti-recalling wind quintets to intricate ’80s cocaine R&B to expansive works playing with country-inflected styling to the kind of propulsive, noir-drenched snapshots the band excels at, this was a dazzling tour of the dark corners, shattered windows, and dread-soaked cul de sacs of the last fifty years.
  2. NOTS and Raw Pony, 08/15/15 (Dude Locker) – For their 7″ release, Raw Pony, rapidly cementing their status as one of the most exciting bands in town, brought in Memphis’ NOTS cresting the wave of deserved praise for their self-titled debut, in my favorite double bill of the whole year. Boiling-over deep grooves, scuzz-caked guitars, clipped but anthemic harmonies, this was everything I wanted from rock and roll to an attentive, enthusiastic crowd on a gorgeous summer night.
  3. Robbie Fulks, 10/09/15 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – There’s some (I think) deserved gushing about Natalie’s in the round-up below but what I might have loved them most for this year was bringing Robbie Fulks back to town for the first time since Little Brothers (a private wedding gig notwithstanding). Fulks might be alt.country’s Balzac, training a razor-sharp eye on the intersection between classes and ways in which classes never get to intersect and boiling that down to the catchiest roots music you’ve ever heard. Bringing an acoustic quartet that orbited around violinist Shad Cobb, bassist Todd Phillips (founding member of the David Grisman Quintet) and a terrific young mandolin player whose name I can’t seem to find anywhere, this was one of the best, leanest sets I’ve seen in almost 15 years of seeing Fulks live. A consummate performer who will make you laugh and cry at indignity and rightly rage against shame and complacency.
  4. Brett Burleson Quartet, 01/09/15 (Dick’s Den) – One of our finest guitarists and bandleaders, Burleson’s annual shows around his birthday are an oasis in the middle of winter. Because of the punishing cold, this year’s felt like an oasis for lots of people – it was the most crowded I remember and people came to party. His working quartet – saxophonist Eddie Bayard, bassist Roger Hines, and drummer Ryan Jewell – are a well-oiled machine and they worked intricate, complex material around a set full of long pieces that got an entire bar dancing to jazz that was never dumbed down, never pandering. One of those nights where having to squeeze through rows of people to get a drink felt like a blessing and the inch of sweat-condensation on the windows felt well-earned.
  5. Maria Schneider with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, 05/02/15 (Southern Theater) – I don’t see as much of the CJO as I should because – much like the Columbus Symphony – the repertoire usually isn’t to my taste. But bringing in the finest big band composer and conductor working today, Maria Schneider, shined light on what an amazing collection of musicians Columbus is lucky to boast and how lucky we are to have a leader like Byron Stripling in town. This was 90 minutes of exquisitely deployed color and rapturous tension that’s still echoing in my head.
  6. Secret Keeper, 06/15/15 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – Mary Halvorson’s my favorite guitarist working these days, full-stop, and this duo with bassist Stephan Crump (who also appears on this list with the Vijay Iyer Trio) was full of intriguing, complex music that invited the audience to try, just try, to unpack it. Full of spidery melodies tearing and reshaping themselves, cubist looks at small gestures from every angle, hard flamenco over dry-wind arco playing, songs that feel like lava coalescing into earth. This was everything.
  7. Six String Drag, 04/03/15 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – The resurrected Six String Drag, one of alt.country’s brightest lights when that kind of thing mattered, felt and sounded better than ever. Kenny Roby’s lead vocals and rhythm guitar still perfectly mesh with bassist Rob Keller in harmonies that could rival the Everly Brothers and a band that balances raunch and delicacy like the best rock and roll. As honest and heart-wrenching as your first love and as weighted with memory and portent as growing old, to a beat that begs you to dance, their live performance of “Kingdom of Getting it Wrong” might have been my favorite five minutes of music all year.
  8. Antibalas with Guests, 11/18/15 (Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn) – I hadn’t checked in with the US’s reigning afrobeat kings in a while but something had to be good to make an impression after having my brain massaged by Darcy James Argue and they more than rose to the challenge. This final night of their Brooklyn Bowl residency found them without their usual lead singer so we were treated to a set heavier with raunch instrumentals, rarities and awesome guest singers including Quantic (leading the band on a righteous cumbia), Sarh Nguajah (from Broadway’s Fela!), and soul legend Lee Fields. If you didn’t dance until you were sore to this you should have your pulse checked.
  9. Elysian Fields, 11/14/15 (The Owl, Brooklyn) – One of my favorite bands in a 20th anniversary residency. We caught them on the night they were doing Afterlife with Jennifer Charles and Oren Bloedow backed by Rob Jost, Glenn Patscha, and Max Johnson with an assist by Max Moston. Their textured, noir-pop made for an emotional, moving show in the wake of the Paris attack with the band’s deep ties to the city of light and a packed room in their new venue, The Owl, in Prospect-Lefferts that didn’t have its liquor license yet but the heady emotions (and strong tea) were more than transporting enough.
  10. Deaf Wish with Unholy 2, 10/07/15 (Double Happiness) – Australia’s finest noise-punk band have morphed into one of the best live rock bands I’ve ever seen over a few years of constant touring. This appearance at Double Happiness was a grimy victory lap, loud and almost unhinged, and righteous. Perfect support by Unholy 2 who are going through another chrysalis period and coming out as a more three-dimensional band with interesting samples and a deeper line in syncopation.
  11. Shamir, 11/16/15 (Bowery Ballroom, Manhattan) – Shamir, R&B wunderkind, proving the hype is more than deserved. A killer small band with a woman playing the best Bernie Worrell-style pop funk keys I’ve heard in a long time, a man who was a phenomenal drummer, and a female backing singer playing with gender roles and distortion. This was an epic, sexy, raunchy dance party across sticky floors.
  12. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, 10/20/15 (Wexner Center) – As good as straight-ahead jazz gets in the best-sounding room in town. Adding the x-factor of Joshua Redman’s burnished, warm tone and his melodic writing helped push the Bad Plus into orbit with particularly fine performances out of drummer Dave King. A night that sets the bar high for anyone wanting to push the boundaries of and dig deeper into genre at the same time.
  13. Haynes Boys, 06/26/15 (Ace of Cups) – This Comfest bill – Haynes Boys, TJSA, and Poets of Heresy was geared toward a crowd a little older than I am but those were all some of the first local bands I saw when I was in High School and the Haynes Boys were the first local band I loved all the way. That too-young melancholy is given extra ballast to steer from the years that have gone past. These songs that try to make sense of that time as you leave your 20s and you realize some of your friends are sick, some of your friends are dying or already dead, where sometimes the world has a patina like a nicotine-stained encaustic, punch twice as hard now lyrics of disappointment like “I knew things were getting bad when I started to count on one of the blackouts you might have,” and “She drives me to work in the morning, I wash her dishes at night.” Catharsis never heals as long as you want it to but once in a while an hour’s enough to get you to the next place.
  14. Vijay Iyer Trio, 04/16/15 (Wexner Center) – Iyer made maybe his best trio record this year and that’s saying something. This set with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums encompassed everything from Thelonious Monk to a kaleidoscopic, gorgeously shuddering tribute to techno pioneer Robert Hood. Big tent, pulsing, quick witted jazz not hemmed in by any boundaries whatsoever.
  15. Sleater-Kinney with Waxahatchee, 12/05/15 (Newport Music Hall) – There’s something eminently satisfying when a band you loved so much as a teenager and into your early 20s reform and deliver on every ounce of promise and memory. The backdrop looked like skin being shed or a slow-mo explosion behind the three players and the blistering almost two hour set felt like burning indifference off all our eyes. Fierce, wild joy.
  16. Dave Douglas Quintet, 11/19/15 (Jazz Standard, Manhattan) – Douglas’ newer quintet finally hit a level of comfort where I no longer miss the old quintet at all. I was lucky enough to catch the first set of this victory lap at the Jazz Standard toward the end of the touring cycle for their beautiful new record, Brazen Heart, and it was everything I want straightforward jazz to be. Sexy and warm with an ease that never slipped into taking anything for granted. Douglas and tenor player Irabagon have a sense of harmony that bursts through the rafters and the rapport through the rhythm section of Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston on drums was like five undeniable heartbeats at once. Sublime.
  17. Mountain Goats, 04/22/15 (Wexner Center) – Mountain Goats keep making great records with Darnielle’s uncommon empathy and bone-deep understanding of Blake’s world in a grain of sand. The record they were touring this cycle, Beat The Champ, might be the best Mountain Goats record yet and the selections they did this time, from the mood-piece “Luna” to the easy mourning of “Animal Mask” through unlikely sing-along “Foreign Object” meshed perfectly into a brilliantly chosen setlist. The juxtaposition of songs had an arc and a swell right through a cathartic finish about why people make art, why the desire to put your mark on the world is universal, and how that ties in with a need for community with set closer “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” through the anthemic encore of “Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” “This Year,” and “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
  18. Snakeoil, 05/09/15 (Constellation, Chicago) – In a great Chicago trip full of awesome friends, terrific food, good theatre, and great music, this was the cherry on the cake. Tim Berne’s riveting chamber-jazz quintet with thorny, twisting lines woven between his alto and Oscar Noriega’s clarinet over a shifting bedrock of Matt Mitchell’s piano and Ches Smith’s drums and percussion, lit up and shadowed by Ryan Ferreira’s guitar was like nothing else I heard all year.
  19. Orgone, 08/27/15 (Woodlands Tavern) – West Coast funk band Orgone returned to Columbus to a pretty decent crowd this time who came to get down and in the five or so years since they last graced our stages they’ve only grown in power and confidence. After a great opening set by Chicago’s lean and mean funk outfit The Heard, Orgone came out with a set heavier on vocals but still a rich clinic in rhythm and power in one of the best live music bars for dancing like a moron.
  20. Weyes Blood, 01/15/15 (Cafe Bourbon Street) – Weyes Blood went with a more streamlined, song-focused approach this time, almost more Joni Mitchell and Eric Andersen. The songs were so beautiful and her approach was so immediate, within three songs I didn’t miss some of the wildness that’s been stripped away. In a room I’ve seen swallow fragility with bar noise and nervous energy, she held us all in the palm of her hand and knew exactly when to twist the knife.

 

Across the Columbus scene, 2015 felt like a year of minor changes, regrouping, retrenching. The big thing in my little corner of town is Jeff Kleinman left Ace of Cups, somebody I personally like and consider a friend who booked some fantastic edgy bands that might otherwise never have come here. It’s good for Jeff to focus on his band, Nervosas, who made one of my favorite records this year, plus that kind of a move always brings new energy and new ideas. Into that steps Bobby Miller who booked great shows all around town when I was in college and has kept his hand in the game over the years with the Slum-B-Q, Megacity Music Marathon, and most recently 4th and 4th Fest. I can’t wait to see what Miller does with the infrastructure of Ace. A similar move at Cafe Bourbon Street with Kevin Failure stepping down to only book one-offs and local musician and artist Albert Gray taking the reins – it’s almost entirely to Kevin’s credit that Bobo reclaimed its crown as the bar for rock on the fringes and Gray’s taste means that shows no sign of abating soon.

A couple new (and new-ish) venues on the South end and near West side give reason to have additional hope for those new ideas and established ideas finally getting a chance to fly. Visual art collective MINT, on Jenkins St south of Greenlawn, have taken up the mantle of Skylab, Firexit, and BLD Warehouse which was much missed with booking a lot of interesting techno, noise (including heavy hitters like Wolf Eyes) and even free jazz. Kyle Sowash, hardest working man in Columbus rock, partnered with Justin Hemminger and independent rock radio CD1025 to turn their instudio live space Big Room into the fully operational Big Room Bar with a cool bar repurposed from the Veterans Memorial stage imprinted with bands that played that storied hall, good sound, and a vibe that pleasantly reminds me of an old VFW. Sowash is already using that stability of a home base to book the the cream of the more established local rock and touring heavy hitters like Helado Negro and Kelly Hogan. People living south of I-70 who want to hear some music now have a few options to complement the fully-come-into-its-own Double Happiness. Strongwater, in resurgent Franklinton, books interesting rock into its packed schedule of parties, receptions, etc. The Walrus on the south edge of Downtown is still feeling out its identity but they’ve got a terrific stage in a beautiful bar; I’ve heard some great jazz there and singer-songwriters like Matt Munhall and Talisha Holmes have packed people in.

On the roots spectrum, Rumba Cafe’s ownership change late last year booked less I’m personally interested in but when my path led me there it’s still one of my favorite rooms and there’s already stuff on the 2016 books I’m salivating over. Woodlands’ empire grew into the satellite rooms and they cemented themselves as a force to be reckoned with, well-staffed bars that are comfortable to hang out in with great sound and a firm booking identity.

Natalie’s continued to grow and thrive. It tied with the Wexner Center for the most shows to appear on my Top 20, with three, and there were another half-dozen in strong consideration. I got a little good-natured grief for my referring to them as “City Winery with some Midwestern ‘aw shucks,'” but I stand by that – they found a way to translate Dorf’s model to bring in a new audience that might not have seen live music in years and without alienating the core, and they did it with humility, hard work, and confidence. They also support the scene to a pretty great degree, I’ve seen their owners at other shows this year more often than I’ve seen owners/bookers outside their own bar (with the exception of the aforementioned Kyle Sowash). They’re a rare venue that does everything right – the food isn’t an afterthought, I start to crave that pizza if I haven’t had it in a few weeks, the cocktails are approachable and balanced, the staff is top-notch, and sound is always fantastic. Their relationship with Alec Wightman’s Zeppelin continued to bear fruit with countless sold-out shows and even more in the pipeline for ’16 as did their work with veteran Bruce Nutt. But what’s key is the way Natalie’s uses those outside bookers to complement their aesthetic, they use it to build instead of using it as a crutch. There was a well-heeled threat from Notes in the Brewery District which opened with a booking policy that struck several people I talked to, and myself, as Natalie’s South but without the good will, the skillful negotiation of the press, the depth of its bench, or its relationships with national booking agents. I’m rooting for Notes, I think this town could support another adult venue with a slightly more buttoned-up demeanor but the way they did it out of the gate honestly didn’t make me rush to go there.

Brothers Drake might have been the success story of the year with great music finding a bigger audience than they would have elsewhere in town because booker April Kulcsar understands the symbiosis between the bar’s audience and the kind of music they can be open to – I saw big crowds getting down to things as diverse as Chicago’s scrappy afrobeat up-and-comers Gramps the Vamp, Detroit’s riotous funk ensemble Third Coast Kings, and NYC torch-song rockabilly Miss Tess and the Talkbacks. Plus, bands that crystalized in part at BD like Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons and Playing to Vapors are rocking bigger stages and sending ripples through the national touring communities.

Wexner Center focused its booking with the strongest slate of jazz I can remember and almost no ephemeral blog-rock, as evidenced by tying with Natalie’s for most shows on this top 20. I can’t wait for the jazz shows in Winter and Spring, plus the first Yo La Tengo trip to town for a set of their own music in years (Little Brothers? The Factory?) and whatever else they bring.

So what I’m trying to say is, keep your ear to the ground. Go see some shit, Columbus. The bounty is rich and the cornucopia overflows.

 

Best of 2015: Theatre/Opera/Dance

“Sometimes
they grip each other with a cry
expand into lamentations
become mist on the windows of dead houses
crystallize into chips of grief on dead lips
attach themselves to a fallen star
dig their hole in nothingness
breathe our strayed souls

Words are rocky tears
the keys to first doors
they grumble in caverns
lend their ruckus to storms
their silence to bread that’s ovened alive.”

-Venus Khoury-Ghata, Les Mots (trans. Marilyn Hacker)

 

Notes on the overall scene are after the list. Where I reviewed something for another outlet, I’ve attached a link. Unless otherwise specified, everything is in Columbus.

  1. Glory of the World by Charles L. Mee (Humana Festival, Louisville, KY) – Had a glorious day and night in Louisville with some dear friends on the way to Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival and the detour was mostly for the premier of this new Mee play, a riotous tribute to the naturalist Thomas Merton on his centennial. Glory of the World, gorgeously directed by Les Waters, uses the raw-flesh ambiguity of perception, the way we see what we’re looking for, and the way a person at the top of their game can embody all these things to different people. It’s a paean to male friendship, and the messy, beautiful complications of living in the world, full of joy and memory and mourning. The best thing I saw with a food fight and a fist fight on stage. NYC pals, BAM is presenting this staging in January right after APAP, if you can make it don’t miss it.
  2. the theatre is a blank page by Ann Hamilton and Anne Bogart (SITI Company presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) – This was the first adaptation of Virginia Woolf (To The Lighthouse) I’ve ever seen that captured everything I love about Woolf and gave me the same finger-in-a-light-socket sensation as reading her work. Threaded through by Rena Cherlouche Fogel’s narration, this guided tour through the guts of Mershon Auditorium was also a guided tour through the bones of theatre, a look at why making art matters and what makes it stick its nails in your heart. Both the most sensual, erotic evening I spent in a theater all year and something that reduced me to mouth-breathing, stumbling, childlike joy. Review at Columbus Underground.
  3. Don Quixote: A Pilgrimage by Jen Schlueter adapted from Miguel de Cervantes (Available Light) – As I chewed over the year, Jen Schlueter’s brilliant adaptation of Quixote with perfect direction by Matt Slaybaugh summed up everything I love about Available Light. An adaptation that recreates the pleasure of a text without being intimidated by it or trying to just retell the events in a way that elevates instead of diminishing the classic. It vibrates with the kind of whimsical seriousness that needed a cast this uniformly strong. Elena Perantoni dazzled doing double duty as a backpacker and as Rocinante, Sancho Panza’s donkey [the first draft of this misnamed Sancho’s companion], a very funny foil to Drew Eberly’s Panza. Her interplay with the very strong David Glover mirrored and echoed Eberly and Kim Garrison Hopcraft’s retired couple. But the core and the spine of this was Acacia Duncan’s heartbreaking character trying to reconnect with her father; without ever stating it, she gives us a look at the power of art to provide a roadmap and a toolbox to healing and the way stories change with the road you stumble down.
  4. Sweat Baby Sweat by Jan Martens (Wexner Center for the Arts) – In a more literal way than the Hamilton/Bogart, this was one of the most erotic things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Two dancers, a man and a woman, grapple with the arc of a relationship, almost never leaving contact with one another’s skin. As a physical act, the torturous, delicate, drenched slowness was astonishing, the lack of momentum as positions shift seemed to defy gravity. As bodies, seeing the occasional strain,the clenching of an ass, the tightening of a back, that sweat glistening over these two perfect people was heart-stopping. Got a little tense in my seat – in the good way – just writing this paragraph. His Dog Days Are Over was also stunning and encompassed more of the world but this played in my dreams over and over.
  5. A Little Night Music by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim (Short North Stage) – Maybe my favorite Sondheim done better than I’ve ever seen it, this production directed by Michael Licata opened a very promising main-stage season at Short North Stage. It understands the way confined motions of a waltz echo the desperate search for love and the way that search tries to navigate our own neuroses, hangups, fuck-ups, lies and shame, with even a Pyrrhic victory being better than nothing. The cast is marvelous with standouts being Mark Harmon as Frederik, Marya Spring as Desiree and Kate Lingnofski, who damn near walks away with the whole show, as the Countess.  Review at Columbus Underground.
  6. The Grown-Up by Jordan Harrison (Available Light) – Available Light cemented their keen ear to the vibrations of the larger world of theatre this year with two productions (the other appears later). Jordan Harrison was the toast of NYC theatre with his new play Marjorie Prime almost simultaneously with AVLT bringing his recent work, The Grown-Up to open the 2015-2016 season in an exquisite production directed by Eleni Papaleonardos suffused with glowing wonder. Fragmented time-slippage follows Rudy Frias (as Actor A) through his life with family, lovers, co-workers played by the same handful of brilliant actors (standouts include Jordan Fehr and Michelle Schroeder) in a lean, cohesive look at how quickly life goes, how similar the people and circumstances we surround ourselves with are, and how easily lessons are learned and forgotten. Review at Columbus Underground.
  7. Henry IV by William Shakespeare (Donmar Warehouse presented by St Ann’s Warehouse, NYC) – I missed Donmar’s previous all-female Julius Caesar so there was no chance I was going to miss this, much less miss my first chance to go to the new St Ann’s Warehouse (which is a marvelous improvement in every way, maybe the best theatre space in New York). Phylida Lloyd’s direction of this look at female prisoners staging, and finding echoes for their own lives, in an edit of the two Henry IV parts, had some issues – largely in the edit that cut a little too close to the bone getting down to two hours – but left my jaw on the floor again and again. Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is the best rendition of the character I’ve ever seen, someone who can freeze your blood with her eyes even in the back row. Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff is a fascinating, hilarious, deeply sad take on possibly my favorite character in all of Shakespeare. And Claire Dunne’s Prince Hal is a beacon of intense charisma and menace you can’t take your eyes off.
  8. Lost Girls by John Pollono (MCC, NYC) – Pollono’s play, masterfully directed by Jo Bonney, plays with a surface-simple thriller premise where a missing girl brings up the uneasy détente between a divorced couple (a terrific Piper Perabo and Ebon Moss-Bachrach). As it flips back and forth to a hotel room off the interstate with a high school couple running away (a crackling Lizzy DeClement and Josh Green) the tension draws tighter and tighter, leavened with the kind of sharp one-liners that only characters who know each other that well could land. This is a textbook case in a play that transported me out of myself and literally had tears springing to my eyes after an hour and a half with a twist that’s perfectly set up but still made me gasp. A masterclass in how to love your characters and let that love come through to an audience.
  9. Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff (Short North Stage) – As good as the wide-canvas musicals were at Short North Stage, I was most heartened at how they turned the Green Room side-space into a showcase for the kind of smaller, edgier musicals that, with a couple of exceptions (like Red Herring’s sumptuous take on Romance/Romance) don’t get any play in Columbus. My favorite of the lot was Dolginoff’s sexy and vicious Thrill Me. Edward Carignan (maybe SNS’s MVP of the year) directed this with an eye on paranoia and claustrophobia. Evan Hoffman’s Richard Loeb was a performance as sharp as a stiletto you should see coming but don’t and Luke Stewart’s heartbroken, desperate Nathan Leopold is a defining study in the corrosive quality of bad love. Review at Columbus Underground.
  10. Standing on Ceremony by Various (OSU Theatre Department) – In a fascinating touch, OSU Theatre decided to perform this anthology of short plays by some of our finest writers (including Neil Labute, Jordan Harrison, Wendy MacLeod, and Jose Rivera) about gay marriage on a lower budget meant to mimic storefront theatre and using the entirety of Drake Union instead of proscenium stages. A beautiful, sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, look at love and language directed by Jen Schlueter and Karie Miller, it was full of performances that belied their youth with standouts including Amanda Loch, Chorsie Calbert IV, and especially Bryan Arnold who broke me in the Moises Kaufman section. Review at Columbus Underground.
  11. The Christians by Lucas Hnath (Available Light) –  This is the other play I alluded to earlier about AVLT’s unerring sense in other people’s work of what’s new and what’s coming next. Lucas Hnath’s submersion into the murky depths of faith had an acclaimed run at Playwrights Horizons this fall after premiering at Humana last year, including feature articles in the New York Times, and it was given a perfect production here directed by Acacia Duncan. Underneath gorgeous semi-abstract projections standing in for the megachurch, The Christians featured heartbreaking performances from Matt Hermes as Pastor Paul and Jordan Fehr as Associate Pastor Joshua, at the heart of the schism of this church and with excellent supporting work from Ian Short, Michelle Schroeder, and especially Whitney Thomas Eads as the people caught in the middle, the real-world casualties of an idea being made real. Review at Columbus Underground.
  12. [title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen (CATCO) – In a similar move to Short North Stage, CATCO experimented this year with the smaller Studio Three for cabaret style performances that, to my mind, were largely successful. My favorite was the Bell/Bowen meta-theatrical [title of show] about why we make art and the roadblocks we run afoul of as we go on. Joe Bishara’s direction used the smaller space beautifully well and the combination of the four actors – Elisabeth Zimmerman, Bradley Johnson, Annie Huckaba and Jonathan Collura (who also dazzled in Peter and the Starcatcher) – meshed perfectly. Even with a too-long second act there was joy on that stage to spare that hung over me all day. Review at Columbus Underground.
  13. The Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Sobelle’s one-man show was a look at memory, the way we let objects stand in for feelings and the way they conjure those feelings, set in a a huge room bedecked with boxes and boxes he hilariously and conspicuously unpacked. Scenes loop around on one another in hilarious and moving ways with the best use of audience participation I saw all year. Review at Columbus Underground.
  14. In Old Age by Mfonsio Udofia (Page 73, NYC) – Page 73 is one of my favorite sources for brand new plays in NYC and I was lucky my November trip overlapped with a reading of my favorite new (to me) voice all year in a little rehearsal studio in Chelsea. In Old Age is about the purging of old demons and not letting them hang over us, as much as anyone ever can, brilliantly played out by one woman and one man. I’m sorry to say I misplaced the program sometime between then and now but this is a play and two actors you’ll be hearing about in the future.
  15. Clowntime is Over by Joseph E Green (MadLab) – A cracked-mirror Christ analogue in the persona of a sad, drunk clown Max (a fantastic Andy Batt), Clowntime follows his adventure with his two funny animal sidekicks, Susie the Bunny (Shana Kramer) and Tidy the Llama (Chad Hewitt) on the day when Max realizes the audience – God? – is no longer watching. Slapstick and one-liners and pathos on a twisted mobius strip of daily routine, this was my favorite piece MadLab staged all year and the “guest appearance” of Stephen Woosley’s Paco the Mouse might have been the hardest I laughed. Review at Columbus Underground.

I could have easily gone with a shorter epigram, Leonard Cohen’s “God bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh,” and almost gotten what I wanted to say. But the Khoury-Ghata came way closer to what I felt and what I went looking for this year. Theatre has a different grip on me than other art forms and, in a dark year like I alluded to in the visual art best of, its command of the physical and its dominion over time was a balm.

This was my first year as a freelance contributor for Columbus Underground. I’m grateful for the opportunity and hope, in some small way, I added to the conversation in town. What I’d ask of you as readers: if you see blind spots, let me know. I’m not going to like everything and I can’t see everything – I saw over 60 shows across four cities this year – but I want to shine light on corners I, and maybe local media as a whole, haven’t done a good job with yet. If you have a show I should know about, please email me at the contact information above.

The theatre scene in town feels like it’s at an interesting juncture, one of stability and flux. The new breed companies evolved into something akin to the establishment. Available Light celebrated its 10th year by changing their structure, bringing in Eleni Papaleonardos as fellow Artistic Director alongside founder Matt Slaybaugh, a decision which is already bearing fruit and I’m very excited to see the results of across the season. At MadLab, once the city’s enfant terrible, celebrating their 20th anniversary, longtime artistic director Andy Batt (whose podcast is already shaping up as essential listening for anyone taking the temperature of Columbus theatre) handed the reins to writer/director/actor Jim Azelvandre at a time they’re making some of riskiest, most exciting work I can remember. Shadowbox took some big risks this year with their massive Japanese collaboration The Tenshu (adapted from Kyoka Izumi) and while the play wasn’t a home-run it’s the kind of experiment I hope we see more of, along with their conceptual Pink Floyd history, Which One’s Pink? which I didn’t see but heard raves about. Warehouse Theatre made their return with a mix of edgy classics (including a great take on Lonergan’s This is Our Youth) and more contemporary work like Rajiv Joseph. Imagine had to relocate mid-season to the Northland Performing Arts Center and, while the Wall Street situation is depressing for several reasons, I’m excited to see what they do there and very excited to not sit on a barstool for a two-plus hour show.

In the recognized establishment there’s also some tectonic shifting. CATCO has a season loaded with new, interesting work, recently off the New York stage – accusations about playing it safe might still be apt but their higher production values are staging terrific plays no one else is doing and they look a lot more like the CATCO I knew and loved when I got introduced to theatre by old friend Doug Smith. Actors Theatre lost their Artistic Director and guiding light John Kuhn and found their season beseiged by some of the worst summer weather in a while but they came back swinging and made us all proud (and put on a great Richard III in the middle of a strong season).

I’ve had a few conversations lately about the lack of young, exciting companies making the last generation irrelevant – or at least making them work harder. I see a lot of promise in the college work in this town; Otterbein always stuns me and OSU (with their main stage productions and their fascinating Lab Series) is the strongest I ever remember it being, if a few of those folks stuck around town and made work it’d be a huge boon to this town. There are a few glimmers in that direction, most promising so far is Hollie Klem’s Haberdasher Theatre whose first production didn’t wow me but was one of the freshest voices I’ve seen in town in a while. To mangle Morton Feldman, show me that blank book, youngsters – astonish us and force us to astonish you.

I’m choosing excitement over worry, though don’t be surprised if the latter still creeps in. And I’m putting my money where my mouth is with tickets I’ve already purchased to Under the Radar and Prototype in NYC. I hope you do the same.