Best of 2019: Live Music

In a year when I swung wildly between the longing to retreat at full steam into my shell and desperate, frenzied attempts at connection, it sometimes got harder to find solace in music. But whenever I’d get discouraged, live music was still there and reminding me why it’s been such a force in my life all these years. In the same way gratitude and attention helped pull me back – even if sometimes only for a little while – I found some of the greatest joy in old forms given surprising faces, artists I’d loved for years scaling a new Parnassus or two, further refinement and sharpness of voices.

140 shows in eight cities and narrowing it down to these 20 (with another 10 sets from various festivals) was as hard as ever. I found it interesting that old standby Dick’s Den got the most of my business, hitting an average of twice a month; Ace of Cups continues to ease into Bobby Miller’s booking as he lines up perfectly with the room and saw me 15 times this year; I finally got off my ass and made the amazing booking (for my taste mostly from Jen Powers but also from other dedicated souls) at Dirty Dungarees a priority with 8 stops. Rumba Cafe, The Johnstone Fund for New Music’s shows at Short North Stage, the Wexner Center, and Natalie’s all made their usual strong showings.

None of us know what’s in store but I’m excited again – for plans already booked (NYC for Winter Jazzfest, and other APAP-adjacent fun and again for my birthday, a reunited Bikini Kill in Detroit) and the continued synchronicity of my community. Some of what has me pumped: the most exciting cultural opening of the year, Scott Woods’ Streetlight Guild is already more than delivering on its promise; I’ve seen the new Natalie’s space in Grandview and it’s everything they do well on a larger scale; Filament perfected its mix of exciting touring acts and local conjurers to create the best intimate listening room in town; my first trips to the renovated Snowden-Gray Mansion revealed a brilliant room for exciting, traditional jazz; word on venues I haven’t made it to yet like BluNote Cafe and Savoy Club has me hungry to visit them.

All photos are taken by me unless otherwise stated. Everything below is in Columbus unless otherwise stated.

Mark Lomax II and Urban Art Ensemble, Lincoln Theatre

Mark Lomax II and Urban Art Ensemble: “The 400 Premiere,” Lincoln Theatre presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts (01/26/2019) – This spellbinding evening represented the culmination of Mark Lomax, Columbus’ finest living composer’s most ambitious project to date. As though 12 full-length, wide ranging albums tracing the African diaspora from the ma’afa into the future wasn’t enough, Lomax arranged a suite for the Urban Art Ensemble including almost a half hour of brand new material. Blistering performances and the finest integration of strings with jazz I’ve ever seen, this kept me floating for days, from a composer and drummer I’ve been watching for 20 years.

Punch Brothers with Gabriel Kahane, Southern Theatre (03/20/2019) – Two artists with a foot in western chamber music and a foot in vernacular forms gave us expansive, open-hearted takes on staying engaged and in touch with the world. Kahane’s solo set focused on the Book of Travelers material with digressions into the rest of his work including a setting of the “That’s Not Your Man” tweets about Ohio-born president Rutherford B Hayes and a wrenching “The Ambassador.” The Punch Brothers continued their mission of refinement and complication with righteous, mysterious pieces like “Three Dots and a Dash,” and wistful snapshots like “New York City” and “Julep.”

Timothy Holley and Karen Walwyn, Wexner Center for the Arts (04/07/2019) – One of many highlights of Mark Lomax’s Wex residency was this presentation of renowned cellist Holley and pianist Walwyn. That afternoon they took us on a journey through African-American composers that opened my eyes with stirring pieces by Florence Price, Trevor Weston and more.

Dale Watson, Woodlands Tavern

Dale Watson and his Texas Lonestars, Woodlands Tavern (04/19/2019) – The reigning king of the neo-honky tonk movement came up from Texas for a reminder that classic forms are as alive as you want them to be. Watson paints his stomps and waltzes in bright neon instead of sepia and one of the few times I’ve ever seen someone ask for requests from the audience and mean it as when he looked directly at me after I shouted for “I Hate These Songs” off the first of his Hightone records I bought 20 years ago, said, “Okay, we’ll do that one,” and launched into a perfect, aching version of that ode to music’s ability to embody all our pain.

Kath Bloom, Dirty Dungarees (04/30/2019) – Kath Bloom – who I grew up with the collaborative records with Loren Connors – gave a wrenching, perfect low-key set that resonated with everything I’ve always wanted a singer to be. A bone-deep love for the past fixing her eyes firmly on the now and a reminder that we can all keep getting better at things if we work hard enough and care enough.

IDLES with Fontaines DC, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland (05/14/2019) – The most exciting rock and roll show I’ve seen in a while and the best summation of what rock and roll can do if we trust it, how it can still be a system to unlock new horizons instead of a system to box us in and keep us adolescent. IDLES are maybe the most exciting live band working today and their stew of hardcore rhythms, churning atmospheric guitars and hints of Birthday Party sardonic wit and Fontaines DC are coming up behind. A sold out crowd I was happy to be in, not tolerating, full of palpable love for the world, the kind of love where you want it to be better.

SIGNAL Ensemble with Brooklyn Youth Chorus: “Richter Reich Part,” The Shed, NYC (05/30/2019) – Two of my favorite composers given life in an immersive installation of one of my favorite visual artists, this was meant for me, and it delivered in spades.

Meah Pace, Rubenstein Ballroom at Lincoln Center

Meah Pace, Rubenstein Auditorium at Lincoln Center, NYC (05/30/2019) – Another case study in someone making old forms feel new and completely their own through intense commitment. Meah Pace turned out a version of “Gimme Shelter” that made me forget any I’d ever heard before and got a relatively staid crowd in this Lincoln Center auditorium dancing and cheering, and her own songs like “Promised Land” held their own. Probably my favorite surprise all year.

Tav Falco and the Panther Burns, Le Poisson Rouge, NYC (05/31/2019) – I’ve been a huge fan of Falco’s for years but I’d never gotten to see him live. This did not disappoint – his jagged, art-damaged takes on country blues and bubblegum even led him going back to standards like Dean Martin’s “Sway” and a poignant take on the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go Round the Roses.”

Joanne Brackeen, Mezzrow

Joanne Brackeen/Lonnie Plaxico Duo, Mezzrow, NYC (06/01/2019) – Another legend I’d known from records but never seen live, Mezzrow was the perfect room for Joanne Brackeen’s fluid, sparkling take on the piano. Lonnie Plaxico – whose electic, electric records for Blue Note in the late ’90s/early ’00s were huge for me – was the perfect duet partner, sticking to upright on classics like “Autumn Leaves” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.” A perfect New York summer evening.

Daddy Long Legs, Rumba Cafe (07/11/2019) – My first time checking in with Daddy Long Legs live since a fantastic show where they backed R&B oddball T. Valentine at the Lakeside Lounge (RIP) and they’ve grown into one of the best bands working. Two guitars and drums attacking the sound made famous by the ’60s Stones with the fire of conquering generals.

The Mavericks, Rose Music Center

Los Lobos and The Mavericks, Rose Music Center, Huber Heights (07/20/2019) – Rose is the perfect venue of its size and Ohio is richer for having it. This double bill made in heaven found the Mavericks (augmented by accordion, percussion and a full horn section) celebrating their 30th anniversary and Los Lobos 35 years from their breakthrough How Will the Wolf Survive album. Two muscular, swinging party bands, unabashedly Latinx, and the perfect thing for a summer night.

Davila 666, The Summit (07/24/2019) – Davila 666 returned after years of solo projects and reminded me why they’re one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. Songs I hadn’t heard in almost a decade, in a language I don’t speak, proved their hooks are still burned into my brain, daring me to sing along and dance like a madman. This was the perfect thing for Anne’s birthday to fall at midnight.

Amanda Shires, The Basement (08/15/2019) – Shires’ own records and bandleading get better and better every time I’m lucky enough to see her. In a Basement almost too crowded, she brought me to tears with a Songs:Ohia cover and made me swoon and shake with her originals. One of the greats.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Rumba Cafe

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists with Control Top, Rumba Cafe (08/21/2019) – It had been too long since I saw Ted Leo, his Pharmacists’ current lineup was the best Clash-style rock I’ve ever seen, hints of The Jam and Nick Lowe, classic Thin Lizzy and The Kinks. A fireball of joy and pain and grooves. Philly’s Control Top blew me away with tight songs, thick bass lines, and sparking, grim guitars.

Central Ohio Discovery Ensemble with composers Jennifer Jolley, Linda Kernohan, Mark Lomax, Jennifer Bernard Merkowitz, Michael Rene Torres, Charlie Wilmoth; and poets Scott Woods, Barbara Fant, Jennifer Hambrick, Louise Robertson, Dionne Custer Edwards, and Jeremy Glazier: “The Big Score,” Columbus Performing Arts Center (09/08/2019) – This collaboration is exactly the kind of thing I want more from Columbus. I was talking with one of the performers and said Jack and Zoe Johnstone have filled an immeasurable gap in Columbus, the one genre we were largely missing was new chamber music. This mix of some of our most interesting composers with some of our finest poets was a homerun 85% of the time and was always swinging for the fences.

Midnight Hour, Strongwater

Midnight Hour, Strongwater (10/03/2019) – This cinematic, sultry collaboration between Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad was perfect. A crack band highlighting Green on Red’s Jack Waterston on guitar and vocalists Loren Oden, Angela Munoz, and Saudia Mills, this moved from silky soul to rippling jazz to grinding funk.

Angel bat Dawid and Tha Brothahood, Wexner Center for the Arts (10/10/2019) – Angel bat Dawid embodies the soulful fire music tradition of Chicago and rides it into space. Her ringing clarinet and vocals have an incantatory power that levitated me right out of my seat and her crack band switched between reeds, percussion, electronics, Art Ensemble of Chicago-style but completely modern and singing these praises for today. The set that gives me the most hope for the future of jazz and the future of music at the Wex.

Fantastic Four, PJ’s Lager House

The Fantastic Four, PJ’s Lager House, Detroit (11/29/2019) – A quintessential Detroit night, the contemporary lineup of an underrated soul combo who recorded for labels like Motown and Westbound churning through Northern Soul classics like “The Whole World is a Stage,” “I Love You Madly” and “I’ve Got to Have You” in a tiny rock club with a cooking five piece band behind them. Passing tradition on in the right hands.

Reverend Horton Heat with Dave Alvin, New Bomb Turks, and Voodoo Glow Skulls, Majestic Theatre, Detroit (11/30/2019) – I don’t think I’d seen the Reverend Horton Heat in 15 years – whenever that tour with Supersuckers and Split Lip Rayfield (RIP) was – though they were the band I saw most often for many years. Our friends and hometown heroes New Bomb Turks plus the promise of Dave Alvin sitting in with the Rev got us to Detroit for our anniversary and this so far exceeded expectations I can barely describe it. Voodoo Glow Skulls had a crazy-fun opening set that made me nostalgic. Turks burned through a furious set that showed they haven’t lost a step in all these years. And the Reverend, augmented with a great piano player and a great, swinging drummer formerly of Brave Combo, had everyone in the palm of his hand. Watching he and Dave Alvin trade solos on classic Blasters tunes like “Marie, Marie” and “Long White Cadillac” reminded me why I loved live music in the first place and why I love it still.

Reverend Horton Heat and Dave Alvin, Majestic Theatre

Favorite Festival Sets:

Anbessa Orchestra, Cleveland Museum of Art

Heron Oblivion, Melted, Bluestone (02/24/2019)
Rachel and Vilray, New York Guitar Festival presents Memphis Minnie: In Search of the Hoodoo Lady, Brookfield Place, NYC (05/31/2019)
Anbessa Orchestra, Summer Solstice Fundraiser, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland (06/22/2019)

Sheer Mag, Burger Boogaloo

Amyl and the Sniffers, Burger Boogaloo, Oakland (07/05/2019)
Sheer Mag, Burger Boogaloo, Oakland (07/05/2019)
The Scientists, Burger Boogaloo, Oakland (07/06/2019)

Sweet Knives, Gonerfest

VIVO String Quartet, “Black Angels,” VIVO Music Festival (08/30/2019)
Sweet Knives, Gonerfest, Memphis (09/26/2019)

Kelley Anderson, Gonerfest

The Oblivians with Quintron, Gonerfest, Memphis (09/27/2019)
Kelley Anderson, Gonerfest, Memphis (09/27/2019)