Best Of 2017: Live Music

“The bandleader is indicative
of nothing or everything

Depending on the day.”
-Gabrielle Calvocoressi, “In the Darkness of the House of Pleasure”

I’m pretty sure live music was the first of these lists I started 15+ years ago (any friends going back to the email list days or early LiveJournal, feel free to correct). It’s been a guiding light. It’s how I’ve met most of my dearest friends and made many of my fondest memories. Even as I grow old and share the frustration with some trappings, I’m still invigorated by a great show. Nothing else gives me that instantaneous body-and-soul charge.

I saw around 130 shows this year. After a hard, hard deliberation – getting it down from 35 was more difficult than previous years – here are twenty still gnawing at me. Rather than ranking, they’re presented in chronological order. In Columbus, unless otherwise specified.

  • Dirtbombs and Soledad Brothers (The Magic Stick, Detroit, 12/31/16) – Rock-and-roll motherfucking church. Maybe the greatest rock band of my adult life – and still my favorite outlet for the prodigious craft and imagination of Mick Collins – came back to their hometown to prove they can take the crown any time they want it. From the first crunch of their take on Mitch Ryder’s “Motor City Baby” this only let off the throttle long enough so we could feel the sweat on our skin and catch the fire in each other’s eyes. Soledad Brothers reminded me how much I dug them too with raunchy, swinging sweetness.
  • Sinkane (The Basement, 02/22/17) – Columbus expat Ahmed Gallab, Sinkane, just gets better. This six-piece version plus horns was an ecstatic trip through his beguiling new record Life and Livin’ It with a couple rearranged classics. Chants like “We all gonna be all right!” (from “U’Huh”) and wry observations like “Telephone”, welded to ornate and liquid melodies and deep grooves. Glad-you’re-alive music.
  • Still Dreaming (Wexner Center, 03/29/17) – Chuck Helm’s valedictory season at the Wex didn’t miss a single step in his jazz game. All 6 shows could have justifiably hit my top 20. This new quartet from Joshua Redman played and wrestled with the rock-solid melodies and mystery of his father Dewey Redman’s group Old and New Dreams and new work using that as a jumping off point. Four mammoth players in the service of the kind of pure dialogue jazz does better than any kind of music. Sparks flew between Redman’s sax and Ron Miles’ brass as they shot screams through with sweetness and shadowed bravura with a wishful baleful edge. All in the deep pocket of one of the best rhythm sections alive, Scott Colley and Brian Blade.
  • 75 Dollar Bill and Sue Garner (Ace of Cups, 04/04/17) – 75 Dollar Bill is a perennial favorite. It’s heartening to see this Che Chen and Rick Brown project breaking through to broader appeal. Their set dissected the irreducible DNA of music, leaning into the gorgeous impossibility of separating melody from rhythm. The opening set from Sue Garner was a reminder of the malleable nature of song. Her artful miniatures like ice stabbing into the listener’s heart and melting into a glowing, shifting, enriching light.
  • Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet (The Stone, NYC, 04/23/17) – One of the absolute masters reminding us how great he is. Brand new compositions that felt like the quaking, painful renewal of a mighty earth. The quaking, flame-kissed rhythm section of Mark Helias and Marcus Gilmore, Jonathon Haffner’s lustrous alto sax, and Smith’s singular trumpet tone ripped into this material. An artist just getting better and better.
  • LA Witch (Berlin, NYC, 04/25/17) – There’s something magical about seeing a band come to the next level right in front of your eyes and Berlin is an intimate venue that lends itself to those moments. LA Witch destroyed me on a weeknight with sticky, growling songs that felt like Wanda Jackson’s vocals over heavy shoegaze with just enough girl-group swing and garage punch to keep the floor bouncing.
  • Kris Kristofferson (Southern Theater, 05/17/17) – Watching this lovely victory lap of one of the great American writers revisit songs I never thought I’d hear live, I found myself thinking of John Berger’s writing about the poet Nazim Hikmet and Juan Muñoz. That sense that the greatest dream we can carry in this age is fraternity, of carrying hope in our teeth. It’s all there. And I might have cried like a moron.
  • Vijay Iyer Sextet (Wexner Center, 05/20/17) – This was a tribute to Chuck Helm’s cultivation of relationships. Columbus had the pleasure of watching Iyer evolve into one of the strongest conceptions in American music This sextet, underpinned by longtime collaborator Stephan Crump on bass and Justin Brown on drums, added heavier flavors of New Orleans funk and second-line into these sparkling compositions. The front line flanked steady foil Steve Lehman with Mark Shim and god-almighty Graham Haynes with Iyer at its beating heart. A flood of images and ideas that rewarded constant, dedicated attention while still being some of the most accessible music I heard all year.
  • Sarah Shook and the Disarmers (Ace of Cups, 07/20/17) – Sarah Shook and her cracking band sum up everything good about raw Americana right now. Shit-kicking dance beats underscore Shook’s characters grappling with connection and try to find a place in the world on songs like “Nothin’ Feels Right Like Doin’ Wrong”. All delivered in Shook’s intense twang, stylized but not doing an impression of any specific model. What Sekou Sundiata used to call “dance and stand still” music.
  • Priests (Ace of Cups, 07/21/17) –  Priests’ new material on 2017’s Nothing Feels Natural they were touring here was several steps beyond and this show was every single thing I want in a rock band. They kept the energy and ferocity of their early hardcore days but opened it up to other textures. One of my favorite rhythm sections working today, Taylor Mulitz on bass and Daniele Daniele on drums, danced through slinky rhythms that reminded me of the Cure, blended the Clash with krautrock and go-go, and ripped into classicist, raging punk rock, all with giddy ease. They presented a perfect backdrop for GL Jaguar’s immediately recognizable guitar and Katie Alice Greer’s sharp lyrics and intense, riveting presence.
  • Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus (Ace of Cups, 07/25/17) – This show on Anne’s birthday was a better victory lap than I could have ever dared hope from an artist who meant more to me than almost any other. Lunch, in remarkable voice and wielding her volcanic presence, led us through a retrospective set of all highlights. Backed by a crack band with Child Abuse-frontman Tim Dahl on bass and Bob Bert on drums and perfect guitar foil Weasel Walter. This wasn’t nostalgia, and it wasn’t pandering to who we used to be, it was a reckoning. It was a reminder of what still lives in those songs.
  • Greg Cartwright (Cafe Bourbon Street, 07/31/17) – One of my favorite songwriters working today, revisiting a tiny room with an old friend, Andy Robertson, and even sticking around to spin records? An evening I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to be with my friends for. A fascinating look at continuity and evolution in someone’s writing, the way work done 10 years ago takes on new textures, reflected in the light of more recent songs. A new song with lyrics “I think the devil works in a pharmacy…” that might have set a new bar for the brand of heartbreak his work owns. His set at GonerFest was also exquisite, but this was a perfect Monday night.
  • Coathangers (Ace of Cups, 08/02/17) – They were also great in a larger venue in Brooklyn in the Spring; I have a hard time believing the Coathangers ever have a bad set these days. Fist-pumping rock-and-roll with shout-along lyrics and pure, glowing adrenaline.
  • Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express (Natalie’s, 08/03/17) – Chuck Prophet is a true historian of the music who distills everything he’s learned into songs that sound like no one other than Chuck Prophet. Preoccupied with death and fighting stagnation, as on “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” and “It’s Been a Bad Year for Rock and Roll,” and my favorite, the tribute to Suicide’s Alan Vega, “In the Mausoleum.” This show made me think about rock-and-roll and its ritualistic ability to move beyond the adolescent, the creation myth also talking to us about burying our dead.
  • Sheer Mag and Flesh World (Ace of Cups, 09/12/17) – Over the last couple years, the world’s come around to realizing the self-evident fact that Sheer Mag are the best live rock-and-roll band touring. This trip, supporting their phenomenal new record, Need to Feel Your Love, felt like a victory lap and an open road. Their blend of Thin Lizzy twinned guitar riffing; crisp, stomping rhythms and post-hardcore singing from one of the greatest lead singers working, Tina Halladay, is an irresistible combination. Anyone who claims to like rock-and-roll and doesn’t love this band? I’ve got nothing for you. Up and comers Flesh World also blew me away here, extra impressive when the headliner took my head off.
  • Khruangbin and Chicano Batman (A&R Bar, 10/03/17) – Chicano Batman’s sweetly fuzzy psych-Delfonics blending with Khruangbin’s majestic low-rider R&B reconfigured as Thai lounge music. I wish there’d been more room to dance, but I was gobsmacked to see this many young people – and people I didn’t know – loving this kind of music.
  • The Bad Plus Bill Frisell (Lincoln Theater, 10/08/17) – This astonishing set brought together a group that helped define the Wexner Center’s jazz aesthetic under the great Chuck Helm and a titan who he helped give that shine to in his days at the Walker. It was everything good about both of their approaches. This paid tribute to The Bad Plus’ first iteration’s dogged determination to delve into whatever they were investigating – Ornette Coleman or Stravinsky or Milton Babbit or Sabbath – and come out feeling like themselves. And it was a fresh pair of eyes on Frisell’s fertile ’85-95 quartet as his writing came into its own but with the tools of everything he’s learned since in its execution. You could come in off the street not knowing anything about either artist or this oevure or you could come in having gorged yourself on it in High School/college and this was a knockout punch either way. Thank you, Chuck Helm. (For a little bonus, check out Helm’s writing about this pairing for co-commissioning body The Walker Art Museum, one of the best pieces ever written about TBP.)
  • Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls (Hogan House, 10/13/17) – Jon Langford’s voice gets sharper and clearer with every passing year. This new project designed for two other voices with his, Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas, with lead guitarist and harmony vocalist John Szmanski, was another take on the dark and joyous heart of America. It was a balm to be in a great-sounding and well-appointed basement (seriously, try to hit a Hogan House show, they’re fantastic hosts) with other listeners, basking in the flame of these songs on an unseasonable warm fall afternoon. Feeling like we’re all receiving “A message from the heart of the world.”
  • Man Forever (Double Happiness, 10/14/17) – This is the kind of show too big for our fantastic gallery/diy spaces but many rock clubs – with the aid of Jen Powers and Fred Pfening here, who should not be ignored – wouldn’t have booked. Kid Millions’ Man Forever was avant-garde technique and forms – played gorgeously by a band that included members of Tigue – comingled with samba and go-go and heavy, swinging rock. An electric dance-party baptism.
  • Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds (Double Happiness, 10/23/17) – If you asked me what’s good about rock? What’s good about live music? It’s all right in this show. A co-bill with NYC DJ Jonathan Toubin for Halloween had Congo’s quicksilver band in full costume going through a series of songs that touched on the holiday and songs that just reminded us all how good it felt to dance with like-minded people. Boundless joy and magic and love.
  • Mountain Goats (Newport, 11/09/17) –The Mountain Goats have grown into their show as a show, they were one of the most comfortable bands I’ve ever seen on the Newport stage. Their new record, Goths, about growing older and the way structures that once empowered us and showed us a bigger world close in around us, was a perfect spine for this subtle, intimate-in-surprising- ways show that felt like it drew us all in. My favorite icepick-in-the-heart line of all year, from “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”, got extra juice from singer John Darnielle leaning over his fender rhodes and twisting the corkscrew just a little with “There will be goodbyes by dozens. You get to practice being brave.” Like that pain is a gift. Because, somehow, it kind of is.

And, because festivals are not going away, we should celebrate what’s still good about them. My favorite 20 sets, mixed up, from my favorite festivals throughout the year. Again, all are in Columbus unless otherwise specified.

  1. Antibalas (Black Swamp Music Festival, Bowling Green, 09/09/17)
  2. ESG (West Fest, Chicago, 07/07/17)
  3. Golden Pelicans (Cheap Heat, 04/14/17 and GonerFest, Memphis, 09/30/17)
  4. Los Nastys (RuidoFest Afterparty, Chicago, 07/07/17)
  5. Screaming Females (Sick Weekend, 03/23/17)
  6. Magic Factory (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/29/17)
  7. Sweet Knives (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/28/17)
  8. Molly Burch (Sick Weekend, 03/24/17)
  9. Watu Utongo (Villagefest, 06/10/17)
  10. 1-800-Band (Sick Weekend, 03/25/17)
  11. Dana (Sick Weekend, 03/25/17 and Cheap Heat 04/15/17)
  12. The Echo Ohs (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/30/17)
  13. Bloodbags (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/28/17)
  14. Danny and the Darleans (Cheap Heat, 04/15/17)
  15. Bobby Selvaggio’s Red Rhinoceros (Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival, 08/26/17)

 

 

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Best Of 2017 – Visual Art

“That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don’t need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
Exist? ”
-John Ashbery, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Visual art is a key part of my cultural diet. One I’ve come to a little later. Even when I’m with someone at a gallery and discussing what we’re seeing, there’s a particular being-alone with a piece that lends itself to introspection and takes me to the same places as poetry.

That said, there are exhibits I gleaned the most pleasure from sitting around talking about after the fact – this year’s Whitney Biennial, for instance. I wouldn’t trade the hour dissecting it with Anne at the Corner Bistro or the hour talking about it with Tutti Jackson and Jeff Regensburger at Ace of Cups for anything, but those conversations and negotiations stuck with me long after any aesthetic charge.

These are the opposite, these 15 shows nagged at me and wouldn’t let me go.Trying to add in some photographs – what has a picture doesn’t correlate to liking it more than other work, but I’m far more likely to experiment with snapping a picture in an empty gallery than a full museum where I might be in somebody’s way. Unless noted, everything here is in Columbus.

  1. Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Unknown Notebooks (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – Basquiat is an artist perpetually extending the limits of what we know and how we understand. Just when I believe I’ve gone to that well more than enough times, I’m lucky enough to see a show or some scholarship that explodes those parameters. This was the best example in recent memory. His young notebooks as a nascent flowering of his work’s complicated relationship to text and typography, every few steps my hair stood on end.
  2. Various Artists, Gray Matters (Wexner Center for the Arts) – This shot across the bow from the Wex’s new Senior Curator Michael Goodson beguiled and staggered me. The varieties of gray gave the galleries an uncanny calm, drawing the audience into the kaleidoscopic approaches and perspectives. I made it to this almost 10 times and still didn’t get my fill. Suzanne McClelland’s Rank (Billionaires) resonated the Mike Ladd lyric “We are the size of constellations in the path of wrathful idiots” in my head whenever I wandered through it. Mickalene Thomas’ “Hair Portrait (20)” used her signature rhinestones to look at black glamor and black women in the world. Roni Horn’s “Opposites of White” like two looking pools but with concrete and glass. So much to see and breathe in and grapple with.
  3. Various Artists, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985 (Brooklyn Museum, NYC) – The Brooklyn Museum has one of the most engaging, challenging programs of any of the New York institutions. This exposed me to artists I should have known, and I didn’t, along with favorites of mine like Carrie Mae Weems. The strain of revolutionary work in this fraught period in American history was intoxicating, from Dingda McCammon’s totemic mixed-media myth-making to Emma Amos’ work on paper which put the interrogation of the image in the foreground… every medium represented and not in the way you’d necessarily expect. Ephemera from collectives like the Weusi provided context and connective tissue between the diverse artists.
  4. Alice Neel, Alice Neel, Uptown (David Zwirner, NYC) – I knew Alice Neel’s work pretty well but this collection of her time living uptown in New York burned cataracts off my eyes. An equanimity marks Neel’s work here. We feel her real desire to understand everyone she’s painting, from a “random” person down the street to more famous subjects like Alice Childress. My high off the clear-eyed and razor-edged empathy here lasted the rest of this (terrific) New York trip.
  5. Carmen Herrera, Line of Sight (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Columbus is lucky to have gotten this first exhibition of Herrera’s in 20 years right after the Whitney. This is the perfect example of someone drilling ever deeper into a language and, by the same token, language itself. Precarious and impossibly strong, how much can you say with two colors and how much can you hide? Exquisite.
  6. Hope Gangloff, S/T (Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC) – My favorite new painter. This exhibition caught my eye from the street and grabbed me by the collar. An intense desire to know her subjects that resonated with the Alice Neel mentioned above but with a perpetual-motion jangle in tune with today. Colors at play reminded me of Seurat but also the Hernandez Brothers. I loved the use of blurring. In the painting shown here, there’s a tattoo not indistinct because it doesn’t matter but drawn in the blur redolent of memory.IMG_20170421_140444.jpg
  7. Various Artists, Making Space: Women Artists and Post-War Abstraction (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – This was the big-ticket, bursting at the seams show MoMA does better than any museum I’ve ever visited. A glimpse into the depth and breadth of that amazing collection, featuring work not hung often enough. Big, bold work by Joan Mitchell and Lee Bontecou, more austere abstractions from Agnes Martin. This was an embarrassment of riches there would never be enough time for.
  8. Honore Sharrer, A Dangerous Woman (Columbus Museum of Art) – My favorite show at the revitalized Columbus Museum of Art since the new wing opened a couple years ago, and there have been doozies. This was a remarkable look at one of the great American surrealist painters who was not on my radar at all. If this touring show comes anywhere near you, please check it out.
  9. Nina Chanel Abney, Seized the Imagination (Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC) –  This show was a tightly clenched fist and an explosion. Pop art and street art iconography in riveting compositions. I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. The fuck-you our time needs, not blunted or weakened, but with a formal rigor that lent itself to diving deep and fighting to unpack it.IMG_20171109_132750.jpg
  10. Josephine Halvorson, As I Went Walking (Sikkema Jenkins, NYC) – Josephine Halvorson’s paintings remind me of Annie Baker’s plays in her attention to perfect details and dedication to turning up the realism until its surreal nature won’t be ignored. This walk her new work guided us on was full of the dread, strangeness, and wonder we should all stay in touch with. This magical, horrifying world.IMG_20171109_142249.jpg
  11. Jane Hammond, Search Light (Galerie Lelong, NYC) – Jane Hammond’s work was new to me and this gallery show blew me away. These mystical, terrifying encaustics highlighted the magic and the secret languages laid over seemingly mundane, everyday events.IMG_20170421_134508.jpg
  12. Suzanne Silver, Codes and Contingences (Beeler Gallery) – I wish I could have shown this gallery exhibit to every genre writer of my acquaintance. It summed up the fevered mind, the paranoid state, that might be the only sane approach to the current moment. The intense, desperation to control in the meticulously cataloged pieces removed from the ever sparser gallery? So much to unpack but everything suffused with sensation.IMG_20171208_144057.jpg
  13. Richard Serra, Sculpture and Drawings (David Zwirner, NYC) – Any time I get to see new Richard Serra, it’s a good month/year for me. His work is like a sauna for the soul; I feel myself sweating out toxins and anxieties buried down deep. A holy, purifying thing.IMG_20171109_132011.jpg
  14. Various Artists, Visions of India (Pizzuti Collection) – The Pizzuti Collection grows into itself and finds its niche in the Columbus market. This look at contemporary Indian art featured well-known-in-the-US blue-chip artists like Anish Kapoor and Vibha Galhorta alongside stunning work from people unknown to me like Sheila Makhijani and Jitish Kallat. I could have gone to this three more times and not absorbed it all.IMG_20170923_122438.jpg
  15. Roxy Paine, Seronin Reuptake Inhibitor (Beeler Gallery) – Back on the feelings of dread, these empty, perfect-until-you-notice-the-perspective dioramas behind glass pounded the breath right out of my lungs.

Best Of 2017 – Theatre/Dance/Opera

“…the river that goes
nowhere, that has survived the
astonishments and will never
venture close to that heat again, is
cool here, looking up at what,
looking back down, how is it
possible the world still exists, as it
begins to take form there, in the not
being, there is once then there is the
big vocabulary, loosed, like
a jay’s song thrown down when the
bird goes away”
-Jorie Graham, “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me”

This was a rough year for me personally and those choppy waters were dwarfed by the world on fire outside my window. The big positive was finally getting sick of years of attrition and making my world smaller through meanness and casual cruelty and disregard for other people’s feelings and numbing myself instead of feeling.

With some stumbles, I aggressively committed to therapy and tried other tools to try to get back in touch with the me who genuinely likes things. I won’t know until retrospect if I was successful. I hope being open about it – here and elsewhere – helps me stick with it. These exercises in looking-back are key to that: it’s an astonishing reminder of how much great stuff I’m lucky enough to experience every year. I talk about theatre as being the form of art most closely aligned with empathy for me: it’s impossible to ignore other living, breathing people on stage creating this feedback loop between artist and audience.

In the actual (ostensible) topic of this blog, Columbus theatre seemed to rebound after last year’s lull (with the huge exception last year of the August Wilson Festival that was the tide lifting all boats). Available Light, MadLab, Red Herring and CATCO mounted seasons that rank with their best work, The Wexner Center in Chuck Helm’s valedictory season imported the finest work from NYC and elsewhere, OSU and Otterbein continue to be fountains that refresh and replenish our cultural lives as well as the overall theatrical world. I still bemoan no new companies, no wildly new intensity, but in a year that included maybe my strongest theatrical trip to New York, Columbus brought work on our stages that went toe to toe with everything I saw in the Apple.

Everything in Columbus unless stated otherwise. If I reviewed it elsewhere, there’s a link to the original review.

  1. Sunday in the Park With George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine (St. James Theater, NYC) – There wasn’t much chance the best performance I’ve ever seen of my favorite musical of all time wouldn’t top this list. Director Sarna Lapine refined her approach to this play since her fine mounting at our own Short North Stage. The questions about why we make art and how we damage people around are sharper this time out and everything hums with a fresh intensity. Part of that feeling springs from the marvelous performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and especially Annaleigh Ashford. Much comes from the fact that this is the first production I’ve seen to make the contemporary act as strong as the Seurat act; even the chromolume doesn’t come off jokey. This was everything Broadway can and should be.
  2. Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu (Steppenwolf, Chicago) – This was every single thing I want out of theatre: a searing new voice; brilliant acting by Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, and Ryan Hallahan; and direction, from Dayna Taymor that gripped me by the throat and held tight. A riff on Waiting for Godot with liberal sprinklings of the Book of Exodus that didn’t require knowledge of either of those primary sources. A textbook case for using genre tools and historical references to make something undeniably about now. The cri de coeur we need that knows the value of a scalpel and a machete in ripping the skin off the oppression and dehumanization of our age. I don’t think I heard muffled sobs or riotous applause as fervent as I did at this matinee.
  3. Hand to God by Robert Askins (Short North Stage) – One of the funniest comedies to hit Broadway in years came to the Short North Stage and destroyed. Edward Carignan’s razor-sharp direction and effective use of the chimerical Green Room space created a backdrop to bring to life one of the Columbus performances for the ages: Danny Turek as meek, troubled Sunday School student Jason and his possessed puppet Tyrone. Turek’s dazzling, scabrous virtuosity meets its match in energy and intent by phenomenal performances from Kate Lingnofski, Jonathan Putnam, Barbara Weetman, and Chad Goodwin. All my Top 5 made me cry at least once, this one made me cry because I was laughing so hard. Review at Columbus Underground.
  4. Sweat by Lynn Nottage (Studio 54, NYC) – The criticisms that Sweat was a little too pat and a little too clean, too constructed are valid. But I didn’t care one whit while engrossed in this new-classic social drama. Nottage understands how people talk and she understands how that kind of little bar works. Heartbreaking performances from Michelle Wilson, Johanna Day, Will Pullen, and Khris Davis echoed behind my eyes for months after seeing this.
  5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner (Short North Stage) – My favorite play of the last thirty years, maybe my favorite play full-stop got an amazing production of both its parts from Short North Stage to close their 16-17 season. Directed by Edward Carignan and JJ Parkey with collaborative help from Dayton’s Zoot Puppet Theater. The heartbreak at the heart of the world is sometimes best expressed with fabulism and this raw, dirty, kaleidoscopic ride left me staggering down High Street and babbling at the stars. Reviews at Columbus Underground: Part 1 and Part 2.
  6. You Got Older by Claire Barron (Available Light) – Available Light presented an Off-Broadway play I liked when I saw it a few years ago in New York and improved on that production in subtle but key ways. Elena Perantoni gave one of the strongest performances I saw all year as Mae and her rapport with Verne Hendrick as her father glowed with all the weirdness and warmth of life, distilled. Icing on the cake comes from excellent performances from Eleni Papaleonardos, Kasey Meininger, and David Glover as Mae’s siblings, Danny Turek as her would-be love interest, and especially John Connor as the phantasmic cowboy in her fevered dreams. As I said at the time, Acacia Duncan’s direction “doesn’t let anyone off any easier than the material does, but everything is treated with a generosity and deference we should all envy.” Review at Columbus Underground.
  7. The Antipodes by Annie Baker (Signature Theatre, NYC) – If you want to see someone who just gets better every time out of the gate? Annie fucking Baker. This takes her hyperrealism-with-the-color-knob-turned-up-to-bleed-weirdness to another level. A workplace comedy rife with creepiness and dread – what do these people do again? – and intimations of the end of the world outside the walls. Lila Neugenbauer has the perfect sensibility for this work I could have seen 100 times and still be unpacking. Intense heart and humor without for one second slipping into sap or cliché. Astonishing performances from Josh Hamilton, Josh Charles, and especially Will Patton as the manager and Nicole Rodenburg as the one actually running this circus.
  8. In a Rhythm by Bebe Miller (Bebe Miller Group presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts– Every single thing I love about contemporary dance done in a way so accessible that anyone would “get it.” By the end of this delicious 75-minute roller coaster, connections between Nelly, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, and Leonard Cohen and Steve Reich, were not only reasonable but impossible to ignore. The wonder and the danger in trusting our bodies. Hail, hail Bebe Miller and her ensemble. Review at Columbus Underground.
  9. Samara by Richard Maxwell (Soho Rep, NYC) – Similar to the Miller, this was Maxwell at the height of his powers and a director, Sarah Benson, who pushes him and the cast out to the edge. A buddy comedy-tragedy on the fringes of the end of the world, wryly narrated by Steve Earle (who also provided spooky, dissonant music). People talk in epigrams about smaller and larger apocalypses and the crushing weight of the world but it all ends with dancing. If we can find it, there’s always redemptive dancing.
  10. Fun Home, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, adapted from Alison Bechdel. Bechedel’s autobiographical masterpiece got a perfect adaptation from Kron and Tesori and CATCO’s masterful production. Steven Anderson’s perfect direction brought the best out of this ideal cast, led by Meg Odell, Cari Meixner, and Sydney MacGilvray as the Alisons in varying ages, all grappling with her troubled father played by Peter Matthew Smith. I blubbered like an idiot here. Along with Hand to God, this is the thing I recommended to the widest range of people. Review at Columbus Underground.
  11. Bootleg Radio by Jennifer Schlueter and Matt Slaybaugh (Available Light). This new work, written and directed by Schlueter and Slaybaugh from a magpie’s nest of allusions, found notes and other work. Forged in the fire of this magnificent ensemble with especially good work from Elena Perantoni, Amanda Loch, David Glover, and Todd Eckert (who also provided choreography) this was a complicated paean to hope and connection. Available Light at their best when we need a reminder that “Maybe hope is other people.” Review at Columbus Underground.
  12. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill (Otterbein University). Otterbein gave us a new production, directed by Lenny Leibowitz of this acerbic British modern masterpiece that proved how much biting truth Churchill’s play still musters. Kara Jobe, Daria Reedus, and Isabel Billinghurst gave performances that made me see characters I thought I knew well in a brand new light. Review at Columbus Underground.
  13. Six by Idris Goodwin (Actors Theatre’s Professional Training Company, Louisville). Goodwin’s new play luckily overlapped with a work trip to Louisville and this short, site-specific performance was pure magic.
  14. Corpus Christi by Terence McNally (Evolution Theatre Company with CATCO). Evolution produced a lot of strong work this year but this magical co-production with CATCO of McNally’s transplanting of the Christ myth to the Texas coast he grew up along took the cake. Every performance here was nuanced and lovely, with special attention to James Harper’s Simon Peter, Davion Brown’s John the Baptist, David Vargo’s Matthew, and JT Walker’s Judas. In my review I said “[Director Joe] Bishara takes thirteen of the strongest actors in town and turns them loose on material that could, in lesser hands, feel coarse, too easy or cheap. The symbiosis between actors and director of tight control and letting a moment breathe makes this charming play soar.” Review at Columbus Underground.
  15. Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking by Gus Edwards (PAST Productions). The best example I saw all year of the way theatre can imply a whole life, or two, in just a few scenes and the way it gives us a look at an entire world, came in PAST Productions’ majestic slow-burn take, directed beautifully by Patricia Wallace-Winbush, on Gus Edwards’ Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking. As the eponymous guys, Tony Roseboro and Truman Winbush, Jr., find every once of nuance, getting big laughs without having to reach for them and a deep understanding of how people can still find the good in one another even as we do terrible things. Review at Columbus Underground.

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.

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.