"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/30/2020

The weirdness continued unabated in this season with distant Thanksgiving – which itself has problems, like everything in American society birthed in blood and torture and the positive feelings we’ve imbued it with come partially despite that history and partially resting on the pedestal of it – but I found things to love and hope you did too.

Probably the last of these for a while; my plan for the next four weeks is to put up my best of the year posts.

Patti Smith, taken from stream and edited

Music: Patti Smith, presented by Fans.

Weeks from the 45th anniversary of her landmark record that broke so much open for so many of us, Smith reminded me of her unique blend of the intimate and the expansive and took me to the church I desperately needed.

Accompanied by long-time collaborator Tony Shanahan and her daughter Jesse Paris Smith, Smith led us on an hour trip through highlights of her catalog, including readings of a new piece and a delightful chunk of Year of the Monkey, and one cover, a beautiful read of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” (with a nod to its own 50th anniversary and Young’s 75th birthday) that highlighted its fragility.

Smith found new contours, new crevices between the notes, new facets to shine her light of today through on songs she’s played thousands of times. “Dancing Barefoot,” dedicated “to the women” crackled with benediction and absolution; “Pissing In a River” circled its prey, building up to the incandescent flare-ups of “Come on, come on” and “What about it?”

The opening “Grateful” from maybe my favorite of her records, Gung Ho, set the tone – “Ours is just another skin that simply slips away” for a sunny afternoon of true gratitude, radical acceptance and taking stock, without blindness. That song faded into the righteous incantation: “Throw off your stupid cloak; embrace all you fear. For joy will conquer all despair in my Blakean year.”

She introduced “Southern Cross” with “This is a song about remembrance; it’s a song about life, really,” and more than anything else, this set reminded me that all remembrance can be, should be, must be, a celebration of life.

Music: Jason Moran’s Bandwagon at the Village Vanguard.

I’ve never been in NYC around Thanksgiving – not a parade guy – but I’ve always been jealous of many traditions for the locals, including that full week stand of the Bandwagon at the Vanguard. 

There are a handful of shows that burn into my memory and I still recall with surprising clarity Jason Moran on piano, with Nasheet Waits on drums, and Tarus Mateen on bass, blowing the top of my head off at the Wexner Center in 2003. With no exaggeration, those 90 minutes blew open what I thought jazz could be, it expanded my parameters for thinking about music. I was vibrating with excitement when I walked in – having been a fan of the records for several years – and I could barely hold my molecules in one gravitation field after.

In the ensuing 17 years, I’ve seen all three of them multiple times – Winter Jazzfest and Big Ears, back at the Wex and late night at Jazz Standard – but never quite managed to catch another trio set. So even through a screen from miles away, I almost cried.

This was the music of conversation, argument, emphatic declaration, at the highest possible standard. Jittery, powerful abstractions melted into standards like “Body and Soul.” They paid tribute to the legendary Geri Allen with one of her classics “Feed The Fire” and they tore into a greasy honky-tonk stomp. This was the kind of music that made the world make more sense and made gratitude swell up in me.

Music: Maria Schneider’s Orchestra at the Jazz Standard.

Another of those legendary jazz Thanksgiving traditions is the great Maria Schneider leading her Orchestra at Jazz Standard. This would have been her 16th year on this week at the Standard, and with possibly her best record Data Lords released so recently, I’m overjoyed she found a way to mark the occasion.

She put together a limited run stream of clips of her band from the past couple years – including trying out some of the dark, knotty Data Lords pieces like “CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” – outtakes from the studio sessions, and a Zoom conversation capturing a little bit of the all-important “hang” that happens whenever that many musicians gather.

Like the Moran, I almost cried a few times. These perfect solos rising out of this massive, inviting but awe-inspiring architecture. The band breathing as one and fragmenting into the night’s sky or a city street.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/23/2020

From left: Alan Broadbent, Sheila Jordan, Harvie S. Taken from stream and edited

Music: Sheila Jordan Trio at Smalls Live

I’ve waxed rhapsodic here about Smalls constant creativity and persistence to bring musicians together to play. In the last few weeks, they’ve carefully and strategically brought in small audiences and I almost wept hearing – from my kitchen, many miles away, missing New York in a week where Timehop reminds me I was at least three of the last six years – the great Sheila Jordan celebrate her 92nd birthday in this storied club.

A direct line to Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, and Charles Mingus – one of few left – Jordan took us to school with this survey of the great American songbook and this reminder of the glory of following one’s interests, wherever they land. 

Backed by her longtime bassist Harvie S and New Zealand native Alan Broadbent, two of the most sympathetic vocal-accompanists alive, she reminded us how ineffable, fleeting, and indelible beauty can be in song. Definitive, forged in years of experience, versions of “Autumn in New York” and “I Concentrate on You” were highlights in this delightful rain of gems.

Theater: </remnant> by Theatre Mitu, directed by Rubén Polendo.

What’s memory mean to us? How do we piece these fragments together? Where does religion fit? How do we survive war? How do we stay connected with ourselves and a collective humanity? Cacophonies of voices and images fracture and coalesce in Theatre Mitu’s </remnant>, presented with New York Theatre Workshop, burning fragments into my brain.

This riveting exploration of memory – including memory as a feeding trough for trauma and the evolution of PTSD over the last century-plus set a high bar for these new digital hybrids that still felt like theater, that I was in the dark with other people even if I couldn’t see them, and with the fiery immediacy of something happening now even with the degree of editing and post-production visible.

Seth Parker-Woods (foreground) with members of Seattle Symphony. Taken from livestream and edited

Music: For Roscoe Mitchell by Tyshawn Sorey, performed by Seth Parker-Woods and Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Anyone with evening a passing glimpse of my taste over the years knows I’m an unabashed admirer of Tyshawn Sorey’s work as a drummer and composer. He continues a streak of astonishing large-format pieces with an astonishing cello concerto, For Roscoe Mitchell, performed by the Seattle Symphony.

The dazzling piece conjured Mitchell’s luminescent compositions without using any of his moves directly. Played beautifully by the orchestra and soloist Parker-Woods under the baton of David Robertson, I don’t even have words for how grateful I am for this remarkable series from Seattle Symphony in these trying times.

"Hey, Fred!" dance theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/16/2020

Russan Troll Farm – From Upper Left, Haskell King, Ian Lassiter, Greg Keller, Danielle Slavick. Provided by TheatreWorks Hartford on their site.

Theater: Russian Troll Farm by Sarah Gancher, directed by Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson, presented by Theatreworks Hartford and TheatreSquared in association with The Civilians.

I still miss being in a theater, crammed around my fellow audience members, breathing as one, with an uncommon fire. But watching theatre artists – new jacks and veterans alike – mold today’s tools and limitations into beautiful things that feel like theater even split over different rooms. 

I saw one of my favorite examples of this 2020 alchemy this weekend. Long-standing champions of the new The Civilians teamed up with Fayetteville, Arkansas’ TheatreSquared, and Connecticut’s Theatreworks Hartford for a dazzling, incendiary romp through Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm.

Subtitled “A Workplace Comedy,” the play zooms in on a St Petersburg office to follow a team of trolls sowing discontent and confusion among Americans through Twitter. Former journalist Masha (Danielle Slavick) joins the established dynamic of laser-focused Egor (Haskell King), stunted throwback Steve (Ian Lassiter), and erstwhile artist Nikolai (Greg Keller), in the shadow of the manager: Soviet throwback Ljuba (Mia Katigbak). 

Gancher understands this low-level almost-tech job’s dynamics: the infighting, the jokes, the sourness, and sweetness. A vibrant scene of intense, flirtatious volleying between Slavick and Keller captures the adrenaline of being good at something, even something that feels both futile (from the inside) and evil (for those of us looking in), and Russian Troll Farm is littered with scenes this good. 

Gancher and her cast understand how similar the American and Russian psyches are but filter the characters through their environment’s specifics. Lassiter – recently very good in Gold’s uneven King Lear – has a ball playing the lusty, coarse Steve, bouncing off Slavick’s Masha and King’s brilliant, understated Egor. They create a world that feels like those little rooms for those of us who’ve done call center work or similar and makes us question how much of what we did for those hours and those years was just as morally questionable.

Directors Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson found ways to impose their stellar cast on one another with trickery that doesn’t lose its amateurish afterbirth completely but uses the seams we can see to its advantage. When Katigbak, in a heartbreaking soliloquy, says, “Are you even here? You’re the relic of a dying empire, the ghost of a glorious future that never came,” it snaps into sharp focus that we’ve been seeing ghosts all this time.

Russian Troll Farm was a triumph I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.

Bill Chats: Screenshot taken from livestream

Talk: Bill Chats – The Future is Present: A Casting The Vote Project. Bill T. Jones in conversation with Charlotte Brathwaite, Janani Balasubramanian, Justin Hicks, and Sunder Ganglani.

Bill T. Jones, through his New York Live Arts in association with Bard University, hosted a delightful, recharging conversation with four of the people behind The Future Is Present, a group running workshops at the intersection of performance and collective action.

It’s invigorating watching these ideas of what an artist means or even can mean bounce between people of color who came up in wildly different scenes, at different levels of outward acclaim and success. Jones said, “When I started in the art world, they said, ‘You wanna make art, make art. You want to do politics, do politics.’ And I thought the we was political…Trying to get to a ‘we’, many artists head for the door when that happens. An artist is trying to close the gap between this internal space here and the rest of the universe, and an artist finds a language, a form that lets them do that.”

That resonated deeply with me, who grew up steeped in the kind of late modernism Jones helped define before me, but I was enraptured by the way the younger people he’s talking to centered other people in the lens of their own languages. For instance, Justin Hicks said, “Even transcribing what [young people] want changed the ‘we’. I know lots of artists who don’t trouble themselves with the questions I do,” and “The concept of potential is much more important to us than certainty.”

After Jones posted the question “What are your dreams” to the panel, Sunder Ganglani said, “It’s not easy to imagine one’s self into a world in which you want to live. We have hopes, though,” and Janani Balasubramanian riposted, “You asked that question about certainty – I don’t think this project hinges on certainty, it’s actually present with discomfort, difficulty, and experimentation which is being cleared away in our society, through science, through catastrophe, through violence. In that space of clearing is a process of collective experimentation: sometimes difficult, sometimes joyful, sometimes both. I want to get to a place where people can verb it. Can ‘future’.”

Watching this clear-eyed group articulate a future worth fighting for and creating, while acknowledging the ambiguity it comes with, gave me more hope than anything I’ve seen, read, or heard, in quite a while. As Balasubramanian said, “Future making is about speculation but also about closing that gap between what’s speculative and what’s material – if we’re demanding something of the future, we’re demanding it of the present…Young people don’t need our encouragement for world-building.”

Theater: The Self-Combustion of a 30-Something-Year-Old Chet or, Icarus Tries to Catch the Sun by Keenan Tyler Oliphant, presented by New Ohio Theatre

Oliphant uses the raw material we all know about beautiful and damned Chet Baker and gives it new, molten life with Nicholas McGovern as the seductive wreck in a tiny apartment, old film clips playing on the wall like memories written on skin.

McGovern brings this his utter, unshakable commitment in the life Baker committed himself to, his ability to see magic where it confronted him – a gorgeous reverie about Charlie Parker “rising above us on corrupted wings,” snatches of songs – and his role as a self-identified truth-teller. His Baker is deep in the throes of “poetic self-destruction,” there to “remind [the audience] what it’s like to be awake.”

Somehow, in the crucible of this Zoom so intimate it’s like we’re eavesdropping these words distill into a hard crystal as the liquid boils off and they snap with the hard, sweet rhythm they need – with invaluable assistance from Jacob Robinson’s sound design. The text grows so large and thin we can see through it to the desire behind the words we’ve all heard too many times; the desire that’s all that matters here.

In lesser hands, this raving, this disappearing-ink last testament, could have been laughable, a plywood cartoon. But here it felt like that perfect tune on the jukebox as you order that one last drink you know you shouldn’t have.

"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/09/2020

Celebratory French 75s in the Saturday sun

Some deeply needed good news came out on Saturday and there wasn’t much better than playing classic Kenny Gamble, Spinners, Funkadelic, and Dirtbombs off our porch, bouncing between the sunlight and the champagne and friends. I hope we all remember the lesson that this success isn’t it and we keep working, but part of that work is rest and celebration. I found some art to love in that uncertainty before the news.

Darius Jones and band with singers and conductor at Roulette, taken from stream and edited

Music: Darius Jones: We Can Change This Country! presented by Roulette

In a time of perpetually scattered attention, I needed Darius Jones’ sweeping composition broadcast from one of the temples to new music that’s helped ground my life: Roulette from NYC. 

Inspired by the James Baldwin essay of the same name, Jones assembled a riveting quartet of Cooper-Moore on flute and banjo, Tanya Kalmanovitch on violin, Sean Conley on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums, and a who’s who of the best vocalists working in jazz, new music, and the avant-garde today: Gelsey Bell, Amanda Ekery, Jean Carla Rodea, Sara Serpa, Amirtha Kidambi, Yoon Sun Choi, Aviva Jaye, Charlotte Mundy, Fay Victor, Stephanie Lamprea, with heartbreaking film work from Laura Sofia Perez, under the baton of Darcy James Argue (whose sadly-even-more-relevant Real Enemies got a brilliant digital makeover from Cal Performances last month).

Darius Jones and his players/singers meet our tumultuous times with a steely gaze and a combined intensity and integrity. Wisps of shadowy flute melody and skittering drums surf on and get subsumed by wordless vocals, chilling laughter and sheep noises. Collaged snatches of dialogue reminded me of Rauschenberg and Nina Chanel Abney. 

We Can Change This Country! honors the Baldwin essay as a furious representation of a specific, unapologetic point of view, but avoiding the artless reportage that kind of polemic can get mired in. Jones uses all of his power as one of our finest composers and reed players to sculpt with the fire we’re living in and the fire it inspires inside him.

Jones moved me to tears when these voices, all held to the light with their distinctive facets and juxtaposed without smoothing the transitions, rose together on chants (most prominently “Vote him out”). More than any specific message – though the message is clear – that power when we rise together resonated through the bones of this piece and the blood of its viewers. I’m still unpacking this monumental work but it’s one of the finest things I’ve seen in years.

Mic Harrison and Don Coffey Jr, taken from the stream and edited

Music: Mic Harrison and the High Score at the Bijou Theatre

Friday night found me in touch with one of my favorite singer-songwriters in one of my favorite rooms. Anne said, as we were watching, that Mic Harrison is the perfect example of why someone would be in a scene. A vital utility player who stepped into two legendary Knoxville bands: classic unit The V-Roys (as they transitioned away from being The Viceroys) and powerpop juggernauts Superdrag, for the last 15 years Harrison has put out one classic, crisp record as a leader after another. 

Harrison’s properly celebrated his latest, Bright Spot, in this 100-year-old theater with a barbed-wire-tight version of The High Score including his Superdrag collaborator Don Coffey Jr on drums, for a stream that sounded as good as I’ve heard that room sound and I’ve been in every corner for most of my favorite Big Ears Festival performances. 

Harrison and the High Score doled out meaty, lithe roots-rock featuring some of the biggest hooks Harrison has ever written – the gang chorus on “Used to Be Somebody” was an arrow struck right into my chest – and soulful slow burns like the aching “Back to Knoxville.” He also took time to highlight songs by guitarists Robbie Trosper and Kevin Abernathy. 

By the time they slid into the encore with Harrison’s classic The V-Roys Beatles homage “Sooner or Later,” there were tears in my eyes.

Joel Ross and band, taken from livestream and edited.

Music: Joel Ross’ Good Vibes at Berlin Jazzfest

Joel Ross is killing it this year: he released one of my favorite jazz records, in a crowded field, earlier this fall; he was a highlight in the mind-blowing Makaya McCraven show I was lucky enough to see at Webster Hall in January; he’s brightening so many other artists’ work. 

While it’s never the same as being in the room, Berlin Jazzfest did a spectacular job partnering with Roulette (mentioned above) for paired sets from both shores. Ross and his band wove intricate magic, undulating conversations, burning dialogue and cut-crystal ballads, tossing between the immaculate melodic bass lines of Kanoa Mendenhall through the intertwined lines of Ross’ vibes and Jeremy Cohen’s piano into Brandee Younger’s harp, Immanuel Wilkins’ alto and Jeremy Dutton’s gravitational pull drums. This was the perfect thing for me to hear right before the election got called.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/02/2020

Backyard Firepit with friends

Had a harder time connecting and concentrating this week, but some time with friends helped and I still found a few unalloyed joys.

Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, promotional photo from Signature Theatre’s website

Theater: The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz reunion reading presented by Signature.

Suzan Lori-Parks was probably the first contemporary playwright I loved with the same fervor as the classics I grew up with. I read Topdog/Underdog at least a dozen times before getting my mind blown with CATCO’s visceral production in 2004 and I’ve been a rabid fan ever since. Most recently, I saw a riveting revival of her Death of the Last Black Man in 2016 right after the last election.

It gave me immense joy to revisit that work with a reunion of that cast under the same director, Liliena Blain-Cruz. Parks uses rich mythic language to revisit the death of the play’s eponymous black man, from different angles and with different emotional beats, and in doing so opens up and celebrates his life over and over again.

It felt as urgent in 2016 as it was when it premiered in 1990, and seeing it four years later with peril out in the open, shoved in the faces of those of us who might have had the luxury of looking away before, was a gorgeous volcano of our shared pain and joy.

Mountain Goats, screenshot taken from livestream and edited

Music: Mountain Goats, presented by Noonchorus

Both full-band streams – the second was Thursday the 29th – from a studio in North Carolina to celebrate the release of their excellent Getting Into Knives record find John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats continuing their hot streak creatively and releasing the pent-up energy we’re all feeling at not being able to live the life they’ve grown into.

That Faulkner line about the only subject worth writing is man in conflict with himself and Mary Oliver’s line about paying attention as our endless and proper work always come to mind when I think about the Mountain Goats. He melds those impulses together and finds, in that conflict, in that attention, a way to celebrate. 

Both shows hit the wild extremes of emotion Darnielle crafts so well, and his brilliant use of the push-and-pull of a set list. The first stream, on the 22nd, was riddled with highlights. He paired two songs off Transcendental Youth, the gut-punch of shame in “Cry For Judas” with that terrible ambiguity wrapped in a sunny singalong hook, “Long black night, morning frost – I’m still here but all is lost,” sets us up for the celebration and encouragement of “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”: “Find limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day, and stay alive. Just stay alive.” 

The second was full of highlights – a simmering “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”, a joyous, raging “Foreign Object” but two moments near the middle of the set still haunt me a couple days later. The low-at-the-heels vignette “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” hit this perfect note of devastation in the synchronicity of text and singing with “Ray left a message thumbtacked to the door. I don’t even bother trying to read them anymore,” and then this pause weighed down with regret that’s as bleak and beautiful as the “Scuse me while I disappear” on Sinatra’s best version of “Angel Eyes” or the stutter into smoke on Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops”. Not long after that, on “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” he delivers “My love is like a powder keg” with no wink or any bravado, it’s the perfect distillation of a character with nothing left to lose or offer but an earnest truth.

The encores – if you can call them that here – both ended with the closest thing he’s produced to a hit, the perennial, everyone-finds-their-meaning perfection of “This Year.” The first show followed it with another classic climax, “No Children” with jokes from the band about how odd it is to play it without people screaming along “I hope you die, I hope we both die.” The latter went into the more subdued “Spent Gladiator 2,” about shrugging off the expectations of a life and learning to live with them, finding some last bit of defiance in the throes of exhaustion.

Playlist record reviews

Monthly Playlist – October 2020

Man, this was a great month for recordings. There’s also far more stuff that is a contender for my year end list that didn’t make this – my rule for instrumentals is they have to work with the larger song-based contexts, I’ll almost never drop a fifteen minute movement of an extended minimalist suite in here; it never feels like it works.

Like most autumns, I find myself drawn toward the reflective and the melancholy even a little more than usual. I tried to keep this from being monochromatic but time and you will tell. Thanks for listening. Continue reading for notes on each song.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 10/26/2020

Fall is benefitting from more seasoning to groups trying to make work in this difficult time and time to adjust to the new tools and circumstances. Almost like a real October, I was excited by more than I had time to fit in even if more of it was on my own couch. This week does not look to let up. What are you all enjoying?

Music: One Night Only, an annual fundraiser for the Jazz Arts Group

I don’t go to the Columbus Jazz Orchestra as often as I probably should, but every year brings a reminder of what a stellar organization we’re lucky to have. As the current director – great trumpeter, damn fine bandleader, and one of the best cheerleaders for jazz or any music any city is lucky to have – Byron Stripling said in his introduction, Ray Eubanks created a fantastic nonprofit that’s benefiting this city with its relationships with touring artists, composers, and soloists and especially its world-renowned education program.

Usually this great event either falls on a Pink Elephant Friday or when we’re out of town so taking part delighted me – and the execution warmed my heart. It’s hard to beat a house band like the Bobby Floyd Trio. They provided muscular and delicate support to Stripling on swaggering classics like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Fruits from the educational arm of JAG provided highlights throughout the program. Floyd played jubilant, three-dimensional organ behind young phenom Micah Thomas (who I saw bring the house down in a CJO performance with John Clayton and Joshua Redman and has a debut album collecting raves this year) on “Maple Leaf Rag.” 

A tight quintet of Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra alums who are setting local stages on fire these days, including George DeLancey and Reggie Jackson, tore through Hank Marr’s epic late-night anthem “Greasy Spoon.” Another nod to Columbus history came with vocalist-on-the-rise Sydney McSweeney blowing the roof off on the Frank Loesser standard “Never Will I Marry,” whose definitive version came from legendary Columbus diva Nancy Wilson.

This was a stunning reminder of the beautiful jazz scene nurtured in this town, where it stands right now, and will be whenever we come out of this and can all be together.

Music: Tuesday Communing: Musicians for Marquita presented by Third Man Records and Moving Forward by the Public Theater.

My favorite season still drenches me in a little taste of the Fall FOMO. With that, I flipped back and forth between two streams that epitomize what music and theater can do at their best, a sense of community, connection, and transcendence.

Third Man Records in Nashville threw an old-school telethon, replete with cheesy counting board, phone bank, and an enthusiastic host in Cocaine and Rhinestones host Tyler Mahan Coe, to benefit Senate candidate Marquita Bradshaw.

Between raising over $15,000, they packed these three hours with a dazzling cross-section of current Tennessee music, poetry, and comedy. Standards and classics made an appearance, including Kathy Mattea’s nuanced take on Tom Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This,” Steelism’s gorgeous pedal steel-driven instrumental cover of “People Get Ready,” Logan Ledger’s stirring read of “Walk Through This World With Me,” and Lolo’s epic “Ooh Child.”

Hip-hop, probably the most prominent genre people my age and younger associate with Tennessee, showed up strong, including the fun, disco-tinged instrumentals of Memphis’ IMAKEMADBEATS, an excellent tune from Daisha McBride, and others. I regret not catching the name of the first act – drop it in the comments if you were more on the ball? – another instrumental hip-hop act started the evening off with one of its highlights: a cut-up of Bradshaw’s speeches interwoven with toffee-sweet-and-crunchy synth lines and stutter beats.

One highlight of this was the proximity of the artists, and the leveling the telethon interspersed superstars like Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift, or Margo Price with lifers like John Paul Keith – who brought the house down with his topical “I Don’t Want to Live in a World Like That” – freak-folk stalwarts The Cherry Blossoms and the duo of John McCauley and Vanessa Carlton.

These artists rubbed (virtual) shoulders with on-the-rise acts like the singer of Thema and the Sleaze, Caitlin Rose (who I’ve been a massive fan of since The Stand-In and her new song “We’re Only Lovers and They’re Only Lies” made me even hungrier for a new album), Caroline Spence, and Birds of Chicago.

Everything about Musicians for Marquita was so charming and so well done that I felt a pang when I flipped to the other good choice that evening, but I got rewarded when I did.

It’s a rare year when The Public doesn’t make my year-end list – this year’s going to be no exception with some stellar stuff from Under The Radar in January. Their more polished benefit was full of sincere gushing – from stars like David Hyde Pierce, John Leguizamo, and Phylicia Rashad – we all feel in our hearts.

The Public also made time to acknowledge what we’ve lost in time and gathering, with a lovely song from The Visitor (which was in rehearsals when the order came down) and a preview of Under the Greenwood Tree, which would have revived its 2017 production for all of New York at the free Shakespeare in the Park series.

The music was less the focus here, but everything was brilliantly done, including Antonio Banderas and Laura Benanti’s duet for the ages on A Chorus Line; Sting with “Practical Arrangement,” a witty ballad from his own Public-aided musical The Last Ship; and a heart-wrenching closer I missed the performer’s name on, from a musical adaptation of Disney’s Hercules, with the echoing line “Though it hurts to be human, count me in.”

Music: Marcy Mays and Colin Gawel at Ace of Cups.

Pulling along that thread of “count me in,” went to see my first live music (aside from a few songs for Anne’s birthday the Stockweliots’ back yard) since the shutdown, on the patio of the last bar I was in before everything closed (and the home of the most shows I’d seen before lockdown), Ace of Cups. 

It was slow going before local hero Kyle Sowash stepped up to book some shows on Ace’s patio and this went a long way to provide a template for safely throwing shows for intimate crowds in these times (I’ve also heard very good things about Natalie’s efforts in this direction). We caught two great friends who also did a lot to represent Columbus music to the outside world in the mid-’90s. 

Marcy Mays, Ace owner and one of my favorite Columbus songwriters, opened with a set of raw magic on her electric guitar, backed for about half of it by veterans Andy Harrison on guitar and bass (doubling on sound) and Sam Brown on drums. Mays hit Scrawl classics like “Please Have Everything” (which she announced was inspired by the late D. Boon) and “Your Mother Wants to Know” along with tunes by her more recent bands like The Damn Thing and a blistering song by her underrated hard rock juggernaut Night Family (featuring what Harrison called “a dose of cock rock ridiculousness” on a perfect over-the-top solo).

Gawel picked up Mays’ smoking gauntlet, and gave us one of his best, most focused solo sets in recent memory. Opening with new material could be a risky move with as beloved a catalogue as his, but his opening gambit, “Sensational Things,” was as good a song as he’s written, finding a sweet spot in the kind of paean to finding peace and stability that’s even harder to write than it is to live. Most of the other new songs were also winners, especially “Standing On the Rocks” with a big, infectious hook I still have in my head writing this the next day.

Gawel filled the rest of the set with Watershed crowd-pleasers including his tangy Kinks riff “Small Doses”, “Mercurochrome”, and aching ballad “Over Too Soon” and highlights of his Lonely Bones/Bowlers’ work with “Superior”’s undeniable hook and the cajun shuffle “Chemotherapy.” 

He also sprinkled some brilliant covers through the set. “Over Too Soon” turned into a humid version of one of the best Replacements’ songs, “Swinging Party.” An appropriately caustic version of The Kinks’ “Property” prompted “God, I have to do something sweet after that.” And his encore started with a righteous version of Columbus rock godfather Willie Phoenix’s “Hey Little Girl,” returning Sam Brown to the drums.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 10/19/2020

David Murray Trio, screenshot taken from livestream and edited

Music: David Murray Trio and William Parker’s In Order to Survive Quintet

Free jazz holds a special place in my heart, no other music quite makes my nerves vibrate the same way. Like so many other traditions, William Parker’s fabled Vision Festival pivoted to online, and I was lucky enough to find out about it in time for the last day which featured two titans. 

David Murray and William Parker were both gateway drugs for me. Murray, I think I discovered through Zach Bodish making a suggestion at Singing Dog Records in high school or early college, Parker I learned about through John Corbett’s Extended Play (if there’s a Virgil to my journey through music fandom, it’s probably Corbett). For the last 20+ years, seeing them in places like The Iridium, The Stone, the basement of CBGB’s, I’ve always found something new and refreshing from these wells.

Murray’s new trio of Luke Stewart on bass and Ronnie Burrage on drums, painted supple, sinewy backdrops for Murray’s gorgeous tone. He’s refined the vocal, gospel-tinged attack and warm, organic melodies feel lived in without sacrificing their surprise. There were righteous shouts, low whispers, and a tangle of melancholy and joy in an extended weaving-together of songs by California friends of his. 

Parker’s In Order to Survive Quintet, one of my favorite of his smaller groups, did what they do: built universes out of engaged empathy and conversation. Rob Brown’s alto and James Brandon Lewis’s tenor jousted and danced, leaping into space and setting up landing pads for the rest of the band to play with. Parker’s thick, unmistakable tone seemed to create many centers of gravity at once, Gerald Cleaver’s chunky, melodic drumming and Cooper-Moore’s precious-stone-mosaic piano built towers for the music to run through.

Mary Halvorson, taken from livestream and edited

Music: Thumbscrew, presented by Roulette

I’m sure I’ve told this repeatedly in blogs but I still distinctly remember the first time I saw Mary Halvorson, playing in Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant at Bowery Poetry Club on a stuffed art rock bill that turned me onto so many other great bands – Dr. Nerve, The Zs, Friendly Bears – I was there to see my pal Mike Gamble play in Mike Pride’s great band Snuggle/Stencil but Halvorson’s playing was the main thing I took away with me into the night. 

I saw her two months later in one of Gerard Cox’s invaluable series, a duo with violist Jessica Pavone, at the much-missed ACME Art Company, cementing my fandom; she’s been one of my very favorite guitarist’s ever since. That rabid fandom still burns just as bright 15 years later.

Halvorson’s career is marked by immaculate taste, in her playing and in collaborators: the long-running collective trio Thumbscrew with bass player Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara is emblematic of this wide-ranging taste and approach.

To celebrate Halvorson’s 40th birthday, she and Thumbscrew played a gorgeous, riveting retrospective set at Brooklyn temple to the avant-garde, Roulette. It’s a tribute to the magic of improvisation and the intricate, organic writing of the trio that catchy cells of melody melted into rivers of cracked sound; mosaics slipped out of my grasp and new secrets blossomed in another light; wine-dark cascades parted to reveal silver melodies.

This was everything I want out of improvised and jazz-based music, and shows an artist with no signs of stopping. I hope to follow Halvorson’s guitar for another 30 years.

Nesba Crenshaw and Ro Boddie, taken from livestream and edited

Theater: Far Away by Caryl Churchill, directed by Cheryl Faraone, presented by PTP/NYC

Caryl Churchill has long been one of my favorite playwrights, but I’d never seen her 2000 short Far Away so this excellent streaming production from PTP/NYC was more than welcomed from me.

Far Away takes a variety of looks at a civilization crumbling, with Harper (Nesba Crenshaw) trying to explain to her niece Joan (Lilah May Pfeiffer as a child) and keep an unsteady balance with Todd (Ro Boddie) who also has a complicated relationship with Joan as an adult (Caitlin Duffy). 

Faraone gets excellent performances and masterfully turns up a simmering heat that belies the distance of zoom. Every one of these four cast members knows how to shift from absurd, almost surreal details hinting at their grim reality, into bright humor, and a tenderness bent and twisted by a life lived under a heavy shadow. Far Away is a beautiful tonic that reflects our tumultuous moment – despite being written twenty years ago in a different darkness – that never inspires despair even as it acknowledges the storm.

"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 10/12/2020

Bethany Thomas and band, screenshot taken from livestream and edited

Music: Bethany Thomas album release show, The Hideout

The Hideout is another of those clubs I mentioned in an earlier column trying to convert itself to a subscription model for subsistence in these keep-away times. And while I’m rooting for every single place (and person) I love, I might be rooting the hardest for the Hideout. 

It’s not the first club I went to in Chicago (that would be Schuba’s or The Empty Bottle) but it’s the place I’ve had the best batting average of life-altering shows, happy hours, and the place that most feels like Chicago to me. It’s not really a trip if I don’t darken that dance floor at least once.

That feeling flooded my bones with this week’s release party for Bethany Thomas’s triumphant rock record BT / She / Her. I learned about Thomas with Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls project. Once I picked my jaw off the floor, I dug deeper and found she’s representative of so much I love about the intertwining, us-against-the-world, everyone-together scene in Chicago. She’s worked with so many people I’m a massive fan of including JC Brooks and Robbie Fulks and set their world-class theater scene on fire in classics like Into the Woods and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

This first taste of her work as a songwriter and bandleader cracked my rib cage open. With a tight five-piece band that could go anywhere she led them, spread out on the floor for appropriate distancing, she unfurled what would be hit after hit in a just world. The snarling, volcanic Cramps riffs underpinned the righteous declarations of “I’m Not Sorry and I’m Not Scared.” “De-Escalator” took a slow-burning, taunting waltz dripping in drama worthy of classic Marc Almond, “You can’t walk this line forever” burned right onto the back of my skull. 

“70th Long Song” dragged a castanets-keyed Spector-style stomp by its collar into the here and now. “Walls + Ceilings” builds from haunting Led Zeppelin/Fairport Convention-style rolling acoustic guitar into a crashing tidal wave. She plays with classic Thin Lizzy/Aerosmith guitar dueling and drum triplets on the infectious “Smoke” and haunting soul cries the expansive, cinematic “The Waves.” 

There wasn’t a weak tune here, maybe my favorite new artist of the year.

Kris Davis, screenshot taken from livestream and edited

Music: Thelonious Monk Birthday Celebration – Helen Sung, Kris Davis, and Joanne Brackeen at SFJAZZ.

SFJAZZ pulls another astonishing set out of the archive for their Fridays at Five series. This, the night before Monk’s birthday, from one of their recurring Thelonious Monk tributes a few birthdays ago, linked three exemplars of contemporary jazz piano for a night of deep fireworks: Helen Sung, Kris Davis, and Joanne Brackeen.

The direct collaborations – two pianos were on stage at all times – dazzled me most. Sung and Davis teamed up on an expansive, rich, and twisting “Blue Monk.” That tune was the first taste that got me hooked, the song where I knew I was listening to Monk, this was what everyone was talking about, and I fucking love it present tense. So I have high expectations. Similarly, high expectations played into this because Davis might be my favorite my-age-or-younger piano player, she’s blown me away for a lot of years in a lot of rooms as anyone who’s read a best-of of mine can attest. This soared right through the membrane of those hopes, as maybe my favorite version of the tune burst before my eyes.

The finale on “Straight No Chaser” with Brackeen at one piano and Sung and Davis four-handing the other, took that chestnut into the wild flights of invention that only happen when a great artist grapples with material they love on the same level. 

That love also bubbled out of a brilliant mosaic version of “52nd Street Theme” by Davis. For a heart-stopping “Rhythm-a-ning” by Brackeen, she reminded us of her first-hand experience with this history, “Did anyone ever see Thelonious Monk? He danced on the bandstand,” and, grinning, reminded the room of her playing the tune with Freddie Hubbard in the early ‘80s, “I thought I should play the melody this time,” instead of leaving it to a horn.

A phenomenal set of some of the finest compositions of the 20th century played as well as we’re likely to ever be lucky to hear. And a reminder to do what we can – and agitate the powers that be – to make sure temples to culture like this survive these times along with us.

Joanne Brackeen and Kris Davis, taken from livestream and edited
"Hey, Fred!" books dance live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 10/05/2020

Talk: Virtual Bodies: Bill Chats – Ricardo Montez, Bill T. Jones in Conversation with Ricardo Montez, moderated by Joshua Lubin-Levy

I’ve been trying to stir in some more talks and workshops into the weekly diet of internet consumption, the same way I try to keep a rotation of weightier books and comfort food books. I struck gold this week with a conversation between the choreographer/organizer Bill T. Jones and professor/writer Ricardo Montez, sparked by Montez’s new book Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire.

Jones’ early work is inextricably tied to the vibrant early ‘80s New York downtown milieu that captivated my peer group 15-20 years later and still feels fresh, striking, and full of life. Particular attention often focuses on Jones’ collaboration with his friend, the painter Keith Haring – the famous photo of Haring painting Jones’ nude body adorns the cover of Montez’s study.

Their conversation ranged from the intersection of race with abstraction, Jones reminiscing about the small number of black artists playing at The Kitchen in that era (“George Lewis, Douglas Ewart, maybe Bebe [Miller]”), and the need for irreverence and engaging with your own time.

Jones balancing his role as an elder statesman and a survivor, a witness, always inspires. Reflecting on his transition into his current roles and what keeps him motivated, he mused, “Do you still believe in beauty, Bill?” and sang a snatch of the standard, “Have I Stayed Too Long At The Fair,” his famous collaborator/companion/muse Arnie Zane’s favorite song.

There were so many lines here that struck me like a molten nail into grey flesh. Of the iconic cover image, he said, “Do I have the guts to do anything like that anymore? Can I be generous like that?” Jones described his goal as “How can I find the fervor of my Mother’s prayers in formalism?” And the thing I’m thinking about nailing like a thesis above my writing desk, his provocation to Montez, “Artists should always be in the face of academia saying, ‘You think you can capture this butterfly?’

John Hiatt and Lilly Hiatt, taken from the livestream and edited

Music: John and Lilly Hiatt, presented by Topeka

John Hiatt and his daughter Lilly have crafted catalogues of songs that dig as deep into the joy of connections and the reason we live as anyone else I can think of. Joy and pain aren’t discrete objects and neither are community and self for either of them. Hiatt’s career, at least since his ‘80s comeback Bring The Family is littered with gems, songs that make people want to sing (I promise, if your town has a bar with music back, someone is covering “Memphis in the Meantime” right this second). 

And especially with her last two records, Lilly is keeping him on his toes. As John said in this stream, “She just writes these amazing songs that make me try to keep up.” Their easy camaraderie, affection, and respect made this livestream deeply comfortable and exciting at the same time; that layer of familial affection didn’t create tension, but it also didn’t smooth out this classic guitar-pull style show.

Songs aren’t mirrors and they aren’t autobiography but it’s hard for a fan to not read a little of that even for those of us who are text essentialists. In that spirit, the father and daughter – who have been open about their struggles – singing together on two of the finest songs ever written about recovery moved me deeply. Lilly’s “Walking Proof,” the title track of her beautiful new album, had John’s authoritative and sweet growl rise to join hers on the chorus’s plea for acceptance and connection: “I could tell you that it’s easy but that wouldn’t be the truth; If you ever need to call me, well, you know there’s walking proof.” 

Later in the set, John’s anthem to those same materials of life, “Through Your Hands” shot into the stratosphere with a light injection of Lilly’s wry harmony as they danced through “And you ask, ‘What am I not doing?’ She said, ‘Your voice cannot command. In time you will move mountains. It will come through your hands.’”

They each had eight songs in the main set, with a two-song encore. John closed with the closest he’s written to a standard, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” that still jerks tears free when I’m not expecting it. With all the connotations of thirty years in our hearts and being covered by so many people, that sets a standard for the other encore.

Lilly met that energy with “Imposter,” a slow-burn highlight from her breakthrough Trinity Lane about her famous father. I loved “Imposter” before it finished the very first time I played it and I’m still beguiled by its ferocious empathy and its delicate power, its rock-solid sense of perspective even through its whip-crack shifting. It accomplishes an impressionistic, all-angles-of-a-perspective feat that makes me think of “Famous Blue Raincoat;” it’s one of the great songs of the 21st century so far.

Music: Jose James with Taali at Le Poisson Rouge

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for every venue I love to make it through to the end of this and watching with interest as they create alternative models to live. Without being privy to the finances of these places, I’m most heartened by the subscription efforts, treating a venue a little like public radio until we can pack in and buy beer. 

The big one here is Smalls which shows up in this column regularly but with October 1st, another of my favorite venues, Le Poisson Rouge in lower Manhattan, launched with an exciting slate that goes a long way to capture their diverse, open-ears booking. Saturday, I caught jazz singer Jose James (who also had Harlem Stage release the archived recording of his dazzling tribute to Billie Holliday to Youtube this week) with an opening set by Taali.

Taali’s spacious and incisive synth and vocal sculptures captivated me. She roamed from her finely wrought originals – “I’ll Meet You” haunted me with its sliding descent through the hook “I will take you home,” – to well-chosen covers. The latter included a lovely Regina Spektor piece, a mesmerizing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” that sounded like melting ice slipping off scaffolding onto concrete and slipping away into fractal patterns and steam on its way to return to water, and a gorgeous multi-tracked vocal on a Jewish hymn she introduced as “The song my parents walked down the aisle to.”

James brought a crack band to that stage I love so much to celebrate a 10th anniversary reissue of his breakout sophomore record Blackmagic. “Code” featured crisp keys from Big Yuki and a burst of acidic guitar by Marcus Machado before he broke down the repeated line “Don’t forget what my name is,” with a jazz singer’s improvisational excitement, a slam poet’s sense of digging up everything a word means through repetition and a DJ’s Burroughs cut-up sense of rhythmic possibility. The rest of the record got the same careful treatment, slow-burn ballads and dancefloor smashes and intriguing riddles.