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)
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