“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.