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