Best Of live music

Best of 2020 – Live Music, Sometimes Virtual

In this fucked-up year, I was lucky enough to see 35 things before it shut down in early March, in four cities. So I was trying to make good on my promise of excitement! And I still tried, even when it felt like just sitting around my house.

Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons, Sultan Room


  • Brett Burleson Quartet (01/04/2020, Dick’s Den) – It’s not always the first show of the year but Burleson’s annual birthday show is a burst of heat early in January that feels like a starting pistol and an invocation to call forth the spirit of a good damn year. This one in particular, at the end of a marathon also celebrating my friend Crystal’s birthday in the little suburb I grew up, and saying goodbye to college standby The Library with some of Anne’s best friends (including the owner Cricket who was selling it), the two sets I caught here were exactly what I needed. Seeing Burleson with a second guitar player is always a rare treat, and his duets with Josh Hindmarsh over a sizzling rhythm section were some of the most beautiful Jim Hall-style melodic guitar fireworks I could have hoped for.
  • Ryan Truesdell’s Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer (01/08/2020, Jazz Standard, NYC) – I wrote about this at some length earlier but this tribute/memorial birthday party to one of the great arrangers (and teachers, my friend Mike still talks about Brookmeyer with massive fondness) summed up the kind of warm feeling of being at an honest-to-god hang. A feeling I’ve gotten more at NYC jazz clubs than anywhere else in the world, and especially at the (RIP) Jazz Standard, a club that always tried harder than it had to and delivered in spades.
  • Winter Jazzfest (01/10/2020 and 01/11/2020, Various Venues, NYC) – For over a decade, WJF has lived up to its promise of giving out of town bookers (here for APAP) and adventurous locals a concentrated look at one of the greatest, most vibrant scenes in the world. It’s expanded to bring in Chicago and London and Brussels and hit all the major genres without feeling like it’s pandering or diluting. Catherine Russell raising her eyebrow at Steven Bernstein on the Le Poisson Rouge stage. Philip Cohran’s sons in Hypnotic Brass Ensemble tearing SOBs apart. Two old friends hugging each other in front of me during Makaya McCraven’s set and the musicians on stage in awe of their bandmates. A marathon for poet Steve Dalachinsky (one of my inspirations, reminding me how often I’d see him around shows). Every time I go, about every other year, I want to go every year.
  • Secret Planet Showcase (01/11/2020, Drom, NYC) – A punky, world music party in one of my favorite clubs (co-thrown by another of my favorite bars, Barbes). I always leave this sore and sweaty. This year was exceptional, with Daptone horn meister Cochemea leading a frenzied band of almost all percussionists, Sunny Jain from Red Baraat’s rippling spaghetti western tuba funk, the lilting melodies and beguiling rhythm of Alba and The Lions. Magic front to back.
Rock Potluck, Ace of Cups
  • Sarah Hennies and Mara Baldwin (01/12/2020, National Sawdust, NYC) – Sarah Hennies, long one of my favorite percussionists and composers, had a hell of a year with a couple of her finest records and what felt like new performances every time I turned around. This collaboration with Mara Baldwin, a violin quartet led by Anna Roberts-Gevalt, with sculptures inspired by Shaker furniture transported me and made a deep impression in a long day of magic that just kept getting better (I’d already seen the Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith dance piece, the Rachel Harrison retro at the Whitney, and Simon Stone’s Medea with only a break for dinner at St Anselm, and that was all Sunday). 
  • Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons (01/12/2020, Sultan Room, NYC) – Pianist Kris Davis is a recurring presence on these lists. She gets better and better. This live production of one of my favorite records of last year was a kaleidoscopic explosion with one of the tightest, most surprising bands I’ve ever seen – including Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Tony Malaby on tenor – in my first trip to the tight, sweaty back room of this Middle Eastern restaurant. I got to end this trip on the highest of high notes, with grooves and crackling melody dancing around my head all the way through a nightcap and a fitful sleep before the next morning’s flight.
  • Final Rock Potluck (01/18/2020, Ace of Cups) – Bobby Miller’s given me a lot of my favorite moments in Columbus music – 4th and 4th Fest, Megacity Music Marathon, the last few years of Ace of Cups booking – but maybe his most enduring impact on this town we both love is (with Shane Sweeney in the first couple years) the importing and localizing of the great Dallas tradition as the Rock Potluck. One night only conglomerations of musicians making sparks fly unlike what we’d expect from their own bands. I was still fighting fatigue- and the kind of wet, shitty day January specializes in –  but Anne and I dragged ourselves down for the last few sets of this…and Oh My God. There was so much burbling joy in this room. Bob Starker took a sax solo behind Marcy Mays on a take on the Fleetwood Mac-via-Judas Priest chestnut “The Green Manalishi,” one of the women from Snarls launching into Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” and watching new songs come out of almost thin air. We all left with some of the best memories of this tradition that will be sorely missed.
Raphael Saadiq, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall
  • Chuck Prophet (01/28/2020, Natalie’s Grandview) – Any of us who love touring music have at least a couple of stories of artists who got pushed back more than once. Alec Wightman booked Prophet’s full band, The Mission Express, in the hopes we’d get our shit together and had to cancel twice as COVID raged. But we were lucky to get the rare solo acoustic version. Classics like “You Could Make a Doubter Out of Jesus” and “Would You Love Me”, newer songs like “High as Johnny Thunders” and “Bad Year For Rock and Roll” co-existed in a set that felt like a journey. And the memory that stuck most with me is the first time I heard the song that most deeply imprinted this year for me, off Prophet’s new record, still a few months out, “Willie and Nill.” A perfect example of the kind of empathic, hard luck stories Prophet writes better than anyone, “Nilli said, ‘I had a body once, Willie you have no idea. I could make a grown man bark all night – anytime, anywhere.’ Willie said, ‘I had a lion’s mane. Now I sing at the top of my lungs till the neighbors get their broomsticks out and the cops all sing along.’”
  • Physical Boys (02/15/2020, Kaiju, Louisville) – The centerpiece of this Valentine’s Day weekend trip to Louisville – that had me miss the Theatre roundtable awards back home – didn’t disappoint but there’s a special joy getting to see something completely new. One of my favorite music rooms, Kaiju, hosted a newish Louisville band Physical Boys who played a beautiful, intoxicating mix of Stiff Records’ sharp jangle and Afghan Whigs operatic sleaze.
  • Raphael Saadiq with Jamila Woods (02/17/2020, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall, Louisville) – Raphael Saadiq followed his darkest, most personal album with a stripped-down, muscular tour that was unlike any other time I’d ever seen him. Great venue, killer sightlines, fantastic sound. My only regret was missing most of the excellent (from what I caught) Jamila Woods set.
Bria Skonberg and Byron Stripling with Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Southern Theater
  • Bearthoven (02/18/2020, Short North Stage) – The Johnstone Fund has brought more new music (contemporary classical, whatever you want to call it) in the last few years than any earlier time I remember, filling a gap I sorely missed in our musical scene. This return visit from NYC trio – piano, bass, drums – Bearthoven paired a phenomenal new Sarah Hennies (see above) composition with the bright propulsion of a Michael Gordon premiere.
  • Radioactivity with Vacation and Good Shade (02/19/2020, Ace of Cups) – It had been too long since I caught Radioactivity’s spiky brand of angular Texas punk and this three-band bill reaffirmed my faith in catchy, sweaty rock and roll.
  • Columbus Jazz Orchestra featuring Bria Skonberg (02/23/2020, Southern Theater) – I don’t keep up with the CJO as much as I should but this unseasonably sunny Sunday matinee was a shot of pure light in my veins with the group having a ball alongside guest singer and trumpeter Skonberg on great rep including Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.”
  • Reigning Sound with Venus Flytraps, Bloodshot Bill, and Alarm Clocks (03/06/2020, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland) – The last trip out of town for some culture before this all went south (well, “as,” the weekend we were up there the first confirmed Ohio cases of COVID were diagnosed in Cleveland. A reunion tour of the original Reigning Sound lineup celebrating both my favorite rock club in the country and one of my favorite record labels, Norton, was everything I want in rock and roll.
  • Amy Lavere and Will Sexton (03/10/2020, Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – The last local show before everything went to hell  – one of my favorite songwriters, Lavere, backed by her longtime partner (whose songs are coming into their own on his terrific new record this year). Their tour was shortly canceled, but I was thankful for this last glimpse before locking down.


It was never like being in a room with sweaty strangers, but the proliferation of livestreams and creative pivoting made me feel a little more connected and a little less alone. Favorites of the couple hundred shows I checked in with.

For the first few months of lockdown, Living Music With Nadia Sirota was a balm. One of my favorite violists and a key locus in the new music scene hosted a delightful show once or twice a week, bringing three or more of her pals together – from Claire Chase to Missy Mazzoli, Shilpa Ray to Nathalie Joachim, Judd Greenstein to Ted Hearne – for a taste of what they were doing and a taste of camaraderie I needed even from a remove.

Goner Records simultaneously made me miss Memphis more than ever but gave me a dose of their freewheeling spirit and impeccable taste. Their online translation of Gonerfest was the best streaming version of a festival this year, simultaneously recognizing the international spirit that makes the festival so successful and making us feel like we’re surrounded by our best friends.

Another dose of Memphis came from a weekly shot of John Paul Keith, turning the same skills he uses to keep audiences spellbound as a fine singer, a great guitarist and songwriter, and a charming raconteur toward the camera instead of a barroom. Keith’s jukebox-like memory for songs and artists leads him through delightful anecdotes and a real friendship with people logging in week after week. There was more than one exhausting Monday where hearing JPK say “Hey, Lydia,” brightened me right up – and I don’t even know Lydia.

The north flip-side of those great JPK shows came with Jesse Malin’s Fine Art of Self Distancing, alternately playing solo and his band, from his bars Berlin and Bowery Electric. Malin also ran – with Diane Gentile and others – translations of his fun tribute shows (to Johnny Thunders and The Cramps). Beyond his solid songs, just like Sirota and Keith, he understood and demonstrated what we needed most was fellowship.

Locally, Natalie’s led the way in outdoor shows and now streams, keeping up with their high standards for sound and sight. One of my favorite rooms in town that I dearly hope makes it through this. Ace of Cups got a late start, but I felt very safe on their patio with the precautions they’ve taken and the first of their streams I caught sounded great. 

Jazz clubs in New York have already noted one fallen (Jazz Standard) and are pivoting with great alacrity. Small’s Live and Jazz Gallery are both crushing it with regular, killing performances and Jazz Gallery adds conversations, happy hours, and dance parties. The legendary Village Vanguard is also putting out great sounding, great looking shows by the kind of giants who’d normally be playing to packed houses.

There are still more great performances than I can fit in and more to love than I have time for. I just hope most of these rooms I love make it to the other side and some assistance is forthcoming.

"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.

Best Of live music

Best of 2018 – Live Music

“Hear a song from a band that saves you”
-Ashley McBryde, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”

I understand the intrinsic dangers of ranking subjective art but I grew up loving this kind of list and I occasionally enjoy reading back over them. I saw over 100 shows this year and another 20 could have easily made this. I still found most of my nourishment in little rooms – and a big one or two – hearing something loud blast my face or something so delicate it made me shut my damn mouth and lean in. Everything is in Columbus unless stated otherwise.


Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Skully’s
  1. Cory Henry and The Funk Apostles (Le Trianon, Paris, 05/02/2018) -Photo is from the Columbus show at Skully’s which was also damn good and where I got much closer to the action. I was already a fan, of Snarky Puppy and Henry’s gospel-tinted solo work and familiar with his ability to hold an intimate crowd rapt. But this still felt revelatory. Not only has Henry broken through to making some of the richest funk music around, colored by classic Stevie Wonder and Willie Mitchell productions without being a throwback,. As I wrote for JazzColumbus, “No one stopped moving for the entire 90 minutes they were on stage. Like every great bandleader, Henry believed in himself and his team enough to let every member shine. The unit stretched songs and vamps out into uncharted territory without falling into slack jam-band clichés. Every tune walked the line and exploited that sweet tension in coming together and falling apart, dark-hearted duende wrapped in a glowing love for the world.”
  2. Mourning a [BLK]Star (The Summit, 07/27/18) – I ended a long week of celebration, centered on A’s 50th birthday, with a solo trip into the night climaxing with one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen. Cleveland’s Afrofuturist soul band Mourning a [BLK]Star hit their stride this year with two spectacular records and the set I saw epitomized a band leaning into their power with intense focus. Layered, surprising harmonies, thick grooves, edge-of-a-switchblade horn charts, all in the service of truth that cracked my chest open.
Nicole Atkins, The Basement

3. Nicole Atkins with Ruby Boots (The Basement, 08/16/18) – I’ve been a fan of Nicole Atkins for years but as much as I loved her earlier work – “Girl, You Look Amazing” is still on every playlist I make where I expect dancing – Goodnight Rhonda Lee felt special. This tour made a forest fire out of that love. It was as close as I’ll ever get to seeing Patsy Cline in her prime – not in any sense of imitation but in the sense of someone finding that perfect crossroad between country and torch song. Any time you can stand that close to a flame this bright and this warm, take it.

4. Marah (Mercury Lounge, NYC, 01/13/18 and Hogan House, 04/20/18) – In the early 2000s, Marah reaffirmed my faith in rock and roll more often than any other band. I got to see the reunited version, with Serge Bielanko back in the fold, and they still did it. Better yet, I got to see them in both modes, acoustic and full-bore raging electric machine. The latter had the benefit of being at one of my favorite rock clubs in one of my favorite cities, à propos for the anniversary of If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry. One of the quintessential New York records of this century at one of the last-standing LES rock clubs from that era, it doesn’t get much better. I wanted to hug everyone. Then I got the songs-forward acoustic version at one of my favorite short-lived venues, Hogan House, those two voices and two guitars and complicated love (between the brothers and for the world) inches away from me. It doesn’t get much better

5. Mickalene Thomas/Teri Lyne Carrington (Wexner Center, 10/04/18) – Mickalene Thomas’ canvases always dazzle, look for more on the breathtaking exhibit on the art list, but I was not expecting this foray into multimedia performance to blow me away. Thomas manipulated footage and abstract images behind a laptop to a score by the great Teri Lyne Carrington, also on drums. One of my favorite trumpet players working today, Ingrid Jensen, and an astonishing turntablist I couldn’t find the name of for all my googling rounded out this muscular, delicate quartet. Mesmerizing, throbbing repetition and ecstatic release, a reminder that the cut-up technique doesn’t have to be academic and that deep attention to history and desire should underpin all world-building as much as they did here.

6. David Byrne (Rose Music Center, Huber Heights, 08/11/18) – The last time I saw David Byrne was the weekend after 9/11; easily one of the most potent, emotional shows I’ve ever seen. Everyone I talked to about this tour said “American Utopia is something special,” so I took a chance on letting something compete with those memories and I was so glad I did. Byrne is a lesson in continuing to follow every curiosity and pulling every thread as hard as you can. As A said, “That’s the 66 I want to be.” His use of downtown choreographer extraordinaire Annie B-Parsons dovetailed with the first time I’ve ever seen wireless amplification used to what I think should have always been its purpose: a rock show put onto a plane without being tethered to stacks of amps (or, thanks to its drumline qualities, a trap kit). This freedom was parlayed into an intense respect for sound and content instead of settling into a parlor trick. The most dazzling spectacle I’ve ever seen in a rock show but simultaneously mammoth and human-sized and crushing, as evidenced by my tears in the upper rows on the final encore, Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.”

Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days, Wexner Center

7. Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days (Wexner Center, 02/24/18) –This year had the final half of Chuck Helm’s last season at the Wexner Center and the first half of Lane Czaplinski’s. This show was a perfect example of the former. When Helm first saw, and brought, O’Farrill to Columbus as part of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls project, he took care to single out the young trumpeter and now brought O’Farrill’s cracking project as a leader. When I spoke with him about the impetus for the project, O’Farrill spoke for a while about the inspiration he gains from film and the intense, cohesive, nuanced pieces they brought spoke to that influence. Atmospheres that gripped me by the color and threw me around with every piston in the muscular engine firing.

8. Various Artists, New Black Eastside Songbook (Short North Stage, 03/14/18) – Poet/curator/organizer Scott Woods conceptualized and provided titles for a six-song suite collaboration with exemplars of black art in town for something righteous, moving, and true. His expansive genre tastes and clear eye for the world, as it is and as it should be, guided this project. Woods pulled together our best musicians and gave the freshest, most accurate perspective on the town I’ve grown up in. Ogun Meji Duo, featuring our finest composer in Mark Lomax II and my favorite saxophone player Eddie Bayard, absorbed and tossed back Columbus’ rich jazz history (destroyed like so much else with the very deliberate placement of the interstate) on “Welcome to Bronzeville.” Paisha’s barbed satire on “Things to Do in Black Columbus” and Jordan Sandridge’s cri de coeur “Rahsaan Rollin’ in the Dirt” and the acid commentary of Krate Digga’s electronic suite “Blight Privilege” all grabbed me by the collar. Counterfeit Madison’s “Olde Towne Beast” was the best, most focused song I’ve ever heard from her: rich and textured and throbbing. I had tears in my eyes as everyone convened for the finale “Bulldozing the Ave.” The best – bar none – example of what Columbus is capable of was on that stage (and the encore performance at Natalie’s).

9. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams (Woodlands Tavern, 02/28/18) –This duo, sans rhythm section, with resumes encompassing Broadway and Bob Dylan, Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles and Little Feat, served as a reminder of the beauty and breadth of roots music. Wrenching originals like “The Other Side of Pain” and “Save Me From Myself” held their own with stone classics like the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild,” Carl Perkins’ “Turn Around” and gospel traditionals “Samson and Delilah,” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.”  Campbell’s flexibility and empathy as a co-writer shone in songs he’d written with both Julie Miller and William Bell, and their voices sounded like they were born to make music together.

10. Thumbscrew (Village Vanguard, NYC, 07/22/18) –This collective trio of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, put out two phenomenal records this year, Theirs and Ours, along with serving as the backbone for Halvorson’s art-song project Code Girl. The last night of their week at the mother church of jazz was a reminder of how far you can take forms and how much beauty you can plow with an ensemble who know and trust each other. Rare telepathy that glimmered like juggling flaming knives in ever-more complicated patterns but also brought it down to the simple joy of ballads. 

11. Reigning Sound with Miriam and Nobody’s Baby (Alphaville, NYC, 07/21/18) – Greg Cartwright may be the best songwriter of the 20th century (see his high placement on the best sets from festivals list) and his Reigning Sound project, 20 years on, is the best showcase for his variety of moods, riffs, and mots juste. The current line-up with the Jay-Vons backing him doesn’t play very often these days so this Brooklyn show was a treat. Betraying no rust, they proved they can kick up a dance party and reduce you to tears, sometimes in the same song. Opening was my first chance to experience Miriam Linna’s (The Cramps, The A-Bones) new project Nobody’s Baby and it was exactly the kind of sassy, joyous homage to the music she grew up loving you would hope, featuring a crack band including Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Daddy Long Legs’ Murat Atkurk.

Curtis Harding, A&R Bar

12. Curtis Harding (A&R Bar, 04/04/18) –No one’s making better revved-up soul-inflected rock music with a sexy groove than Curtis Harding. Promoting his stunning Face Your Fear record, he set the staid confines of the A&R Bar on fire with songs you couldn’t help dancing to, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. One of those shows that send me back out in the night happy to be alive and a little in love with everyone sharing that experience with me.

13. Kronos Quartet – A Thousand Tongues (Wexner Center, 01/25/18) – This live performance of longtime Wex visitors/commissioners Kronos Quartet accompanying Sam Green’s (an artist with his own extensive and fruitful relationship to the Wex) documentary about them was a summation of all the magic they’ve brought so many like me over the years. A victory lap and a reminder how much gas there still is in the tank.

Deaf Wish, Spacebar

14. Deaf Wish (Spacebar, 09/04/18) – Twisted catharsis with a side of fist-pumping doesn’t sound much better than Australian noise-rockers Deaf Wish. Over the years (since first seeing them at Gonerfest in 2011) they‘ve streamlined their sound sacrificing none of the beautiful weirdness at its core. This was one of the best rock bands working, at the height of their powers, giving me that rush I got from Sonic Youth when I was a teenager without ever sounding like an imitation.

15. Marisa Anderson with Sarah Louise (Ace of Cups, 06/28/18) – There’s no better practitioner of solo guitar than Portland’s Marisa Anderson. She plays the electric guitar as though it’s a conduit to the hidden truths of the universe. A stylist who’s synthesized every great voice on her instrument and come out with her own sharp and beautifully nasty twang. The second appearance of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” on this year’s list, which could be the universe trying to tell me something. Sarah Louise’s beguiling opening set reminded me of ’70s British folk and drew me in with its curiosities and complications.

Mwenso and the Shakes, Rumba Cafe

16. Mwenso and the Shakes (Rumba Cafe, 09/08/18) – New York’s Michael Mwenso brought his virtuosic, gleefully unpredictable band (part cabaret revue, part ’70s funk extravaganza, part postmodernism at its zenith) to town in one of the purest expressions of fun I got in a club all year. They kept the wildness of their jam session roots while translating that vibe into a show that made sense to an audience. Charisma to spare and earworms that burrowed into my head for days.

17. Ashley McBryde (Bluestone, 11/08/18) – There isn’t a finer practitioner of Mellencamp-style roots-rock and Patty Griffin country today than Nashville’s Ashley McBryde. Leading her crack six-piece band through a set heavy on her new record Girl Going Nowhere, but with room for already-classics from her debut like “Bible and a .44” and “Luckiest SOB,” she led a class on opening your arms to an audience without pandering. She opened with “Livin’ Next to Leroy” and its crushing opening lines, “Three doors down, there’s tinfoil on the table,” and led us on a journey of lyrics as finely observed and chiseled as a Michelangelo sculpture but with every bit as much concern for the bounce and flow of the music.

18. Zonal and Moor Mother (Corsica Studios, London, 04/26/18) – Techno Animal cohorts Justin Broadrick (Godflesh) and Kevin Martin (The Bug) have reformed under the name Zonal. When a show of theirs was a possibility on my first ever trip to the UK it was a no-brainer and their murky, abrasive, bass-drenched techno is more potent than ever. The x-factor on the middle of the set was Philly poet-rapper Moor Mother who, from her first line “There are no stars in the sky,” teased a rainbow of colors in the viscosity of the music and made whole lives visible in the fire she breathed.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy at Stuart’s

19. Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Stuart’s Opera House, Nelsonville, 10/08/18) – Will Oldham is an inspiration in a lot of ways for me. A polymath, unmistakably devoted to the craft of his songs, who never takes himself that seriously. His unfailing curiosity toward putting his songs into various contexts both keeps him interested and shines light on possibly unexplored textures in the original. This small tour featured chamber-music arrangements with violin and cello, a three-piece horn section, a backing singer/duet partner from the opening band, and the prince playing very little guitar. “I See a Darkness” had a muscle-y gospel punch and “The Way” was recast as a powerful statement of intent, a line in the sand.

20. Amir El-Saffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble (Lincoln Theatre, 10/10/18) – One of my favorite trumpet players returned with his expansive, roiling Two Rivers Ensemble and with a special guest: El-Saffar’s teacher (and one of the great maqam singers in the world) Hamid Al-Saadi. This was perhaps the finest religious music I’ve ever heard, obliterating any description and leaving me staggered.

Festival Sets:

I’ve got that persistent festival fatigue like everybody else. Art should be part of your life, to the extent you can make it one, not a destination vacation or a cattle call. That said, I hit several and saw sets that were as good as anything, that made me want to go for 12 hours, gorging myself, and those should be acknowledged.

Algiers, The Standard
  1. Algiers (Big Ears Festival)
  2. Nicole Mitchell – Art and Anthem for Gwendolyn Brooks (With Jason Moran) (Winter Jazzfest) 
  3. David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot (Big Ears Festival)
Greg Cartwright with Coco Hamel and Gentleman Jesse, Memphis Made Brewing

4.  Greg Cartwright (Gonerfest)
5.  Susan Alcorn (Big Ears Festival)
6.  Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die (Winter Jazzfest)
7.  Pierre Kwenders (Cleveland Museum of Art, Summer Solstice
8.  Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem (Big Ears Festival)
9. Jason Moran and Milford Graves (Big Ears Festival) 10. Marc Ribot’s Songs of Resistance (Winter Jazzfest)
11. Roscoe Mitchell – “TRIOS” (Big Ears Festival)
12. Sarah Manning (Winter Jazzfest)
13. Harlan T. Bobo (Gonerfest)
14. Evan Parker’s Rocket Science (Big Ears Festival
15. Bloody Show (Gonerfest)16. Tyshawn Sorey Trio (Big Ears Festival)
17. Oblivians featuring Stephanie McDee (Gonerfest)
18. Craig Taborn Quartet (Big Ears Festival)
19. Diamanda Galas (Big Ears Festival)
20. Ethers (Gonerfest)


books live music record reviews

Things I’ve Been Digging – 06/10/18

Trying this as a memory exercise as much as anything else. Two-three things I’ve really enjoyed in the past week (or so) and one thing I’m looking forward to, irrespective of what I’m assigned to write about. Plan is to post one of these every weekend when I usually have at least one day off.

Memphis Rent Party by Robert Gordon (link to purchase). Robert Gordon had a front row seat for some of the most exciting movements in Memphis music for this last 30 years. He’s shared the fruits of his keen eye, searching curiosity, and big-picture sense of the intersecting threads of history with us in books (his It Came From Memphis is a Rosetta Stone for cracking the code of American music and his books about Stax and Muddy Waters are essential), liner notes, documentaries, music videos (including Cat Power’s “Lived in Bars” filmed in one my favorite bars in Memphis, The Lamplighter).

This collection of short pieces about artists from Tav Falco to James Carr to Otha Turner to Jeff Buckley with the grace and gravity of someone who lived alongside them and cared enough to go deep. The additional context in the notes and restored material is worth the price of admission alone. In whole, Memphis Rent Party struck me as a loving admonition to dig into and do more of the things that give me solace and light me on fire. As he says:

“Memphis is not about perfection but about the differences, the flaws. It’s the kinks that mark beauty and define us, not the lack of them. How remarkable to create something unlike what anyone else can, that even the artist can’t repeat. That recorded moment – like Dickinson said – why preserve it if you can recreate it every day? Preserve instead the best ever take, the most unique version, the unrepeatable presentation.”

And later: “In a government housing tower or over on the finer side of town, someone is composing a song or recording a sound or performing a show that that might change how we think, how we hear the world and understand our place in it. What happens in Peoria, Pittsburgh, and Petaluma may not become emblematic of a generation, but the expression of something different can still challenge the mind and thrill the heart. That still, small voice, it won’t be immediately familiar, and it takes a moment to come in clear, but listen for it, note how near – it’s just down the road or right across the river.”

The Sadies, Rumba Cafe

The Sadies (Rumba Cafe, June 9, 2018)

Dallas and Travis Good returned to Columbus with their crack rhythm section of Sean Dean on bass and Mike Belitsky on drums and took us all, in turns, to the purifying fire of the honky tonk and the sweaty erotic energy of a tent revival. Years ago, seeing them, a good friend said, “They’re great but they need an Elvis Costello,” referring to their The Band/The Roots propensity for backing other artists (Neko Case, Jon Langford, Jon Spencer) often creating some of that person’s best work but overshadowing their own.

It had been a few years and I’m ecstatic to report that if that was ever a problem of theirs, it’s a problem no longer. Beyond those uncanny sibling harmonies, the personalities of Dallas and Travis, switching off on lead vocals and lead guitar were charming and riveting.

They took roots music and reminded me that it’s a wriggling, profane, beautiful, still glistening and alive thing. They graced originals like “Riverview Fog” with a Byrds/REM jangle and chime and “God Bless the Infidels” with a snarling fiddle and allusions to the Louvin Brothers’ classic Satan is Real.

They conjured up the dark underbelly of the history of song with a raging “Pretty Polly” and channeled honky-tonk heartbreak on “Cut Corners” with lines like “Here’s to the lucky ones, let’s drink to better days: you and yours everywhere, this one’s on me (for a change). Don’t cry for me, remember that no one and nothing is free.”

As many of my friends were down at Twangfest, this was a restorative, a sweet connection to those memories and the taste of a little knife’s-edge of that celebration.

Neko Case, Hell-On

Neko Case has been one of my favorite voices since I first heard Furnace Room Lullaby. Some of my all-time favorite shows have been her work, in whole or in part – opening for Nick Cave at the Chicago Theater, a Little Brothers show with out of town friends that ended in a snowball fight and a raging after party at the St James, a night at the Beachland Ballroom with The Sadies opening for and backing her.

Every record she’s made is worth checking for though I confess she lost me a little around Middle Cyclone. Her new one, Hell-On, a few listens in stands proudly with her strongest work. It’s the perfect record for the glow of a solo summer afternoon. Thick and sticky, all Edward Hopper green and long shadows, a little frayed at the edges but shot through with hope.

Coming Up:

Bava Choco’s Clowns Release Show (June 15, 2018 at Ace of Cups)

Patrick Monroe’s been one of Columbus music’s most vocal boosters for years and in his last couple bands, Intercontinental Champs and his new one, Bava Choco, his own songs have come into their own.

Bava Choco adds sticky stoner riffs and ’70s grind to the pop hooks for an intoxicating mix. For this release show for their second EP, they assembled a killer night of music front to back. Lizard McGee of Earwig opens with a rare solo show. Moodshifter, the new project of Aaron Pauley on guitar, Andy Hindman on bass, and Larz Raymond on drums play next. I caught Moodshifter a few weeks ago and the material is still gelling but there are already sparkling riffs and some really fresh songs that hint at what’s to come. The Damn Thing merges the songwriting of Marcy Mays, from Scrawl, and Dave Holm, of Ugly Stick and Bigfoot, with the crunching riffs of Pat Murphy (of Bob City and, with Marcy, Night Family). One of the best, most fully formed bands to emerge if the last few years – every time they play it’s not to be missed.

"Hey, Fred!" Uncategorized Writing Other Places

Bounteous Beauty This Week in Columbus

Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – photo courtesy of Wexner Center

I hope the handful of you reading this got the three-day weekend to rest up because there’s enough unmissable stuff this week to kill the weaker of constitution.

Starting off on Wednesday we see one of the early blendings of new Performing Arts Curator Lane Czaplinski and outgoing curator Chuck Helm. Helm booked, in collaboration with CCAD, NYC artist Neil Goldberg for his one-man show Inhibited Bites fresh off two performances around APAP. Czaplinski makes good on his commitment to connecting the Wex beyond its four walls by bringing the show to Franklinton’s Idea Foundry. There have been happy hours related to Wex events before, but this at Land Grant is one of very few we’ve had steps away from the show. I wrote a preview for Columbus Underground.

Neil Goldberg’s Inhibited Bites – photo courtesy of the Wexner Center

Thursday, the Ogún Meji Duo kicks off a six-month residency at Art of Republic. One of our finest composers, Mark Lomax II, and my favorite saxophone player in town, Eddie Bayard, bring their fiery, flexible. Each of these residencies features a special guest and this week’s is very special: visual artist Bryan Christopher Moss. Friend and editor Andrew Patton previewed this for JazzColumbus.

Friday, one of our finest record labels, Heel Turn, celebrate their third anniversary with two showcases of our best rock and roll on the Old North High Street corridor. The appetizer at Dirty Dungarees features Bloody Show – never have better Stooges-style songs graced our town – with Mr. Clit and the Pink Cigarettes and the new Outer Spacist/Terrestrials offshoot Psychotropic. Facebook event. And the main event is headlined by my (and pretty much everybody else’s) favorite Columbus band right now, DANA, with Burning Itch from Knoxville, and Messrs and Raw Pony also from Columbus. Get there early, you don’t want to miss Raw Pony if you know what’s good for you. Facebook event.

Saturday, one of the finest young trumpet players from NYC, Adam O’Farrill brings his quartet Stranger Days to the Wex. I had the privilege of interviewing O’Farrill in advance of this show, and this is the kind of pure jazz that can move people who aren’t necessarily interested in jazz and leave those of us who already drank the Kool-Aid high for days. I previewed this show for JazzColumbus.

Later Saturday, Spacebar brings an unhinged rock extravaganza from near and far. I’ve barely been able to stop listening to London band Shame since they hit my radar before an NYC trip last year. Their first full-length Songs of Praise delivers on all the snotty, gleeful promise of their early singles with ingratiating post-punk grooves and snarled hooks that draw you in at the same time they’re pushing you away. Pittsburgh Sub Pop signees The Gotobeds have a slightly poppier shine to their stiletto sharpness but anyone who saw their Big Room show a year or two ago knows how hard they can rock. Local up-and-comers Kizzy Hall and Roof Dogs open, both of whom I’m looking forward to checking out again. Facebook event.