“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 (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.”
- 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (Big Ears Festival)
- Nicole Mitchell – Art and Anthem for Gwendolyn Brooks (With Jason Moran) (Winter Jazzfest)
- David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot (Big Ears Festival)
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)