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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.