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.

Shows:

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)

 

Big Ears 2018 Day 2: Joyous Cacophony, Cries de Coeur, and Gratitude

Bang on a Can All-Stars, extra blurry from the last row of the balcony

Early afternoon in a 15 hour day of dedicated absorption, I was lucky to see one of my all-time hall-of-fame music writers, Ben Ratliff, in conversation with Damon Krukowski. Krukowski I, of course, knew from Damon and Naomi and Galaxie 500. And his book, The New Analog, is part of the current wave of big-picture music books along with books like Ratliff’s Every Song Ever and Jace Clayton’s Uproot.

But my most personal connection with Krukowski came from his publishing company Exact Change. I was in Boston visiting Mike Gamble – as I seemed to be every few months during college – and in the Twisted Village record store I found Exact Change’s edition of Morton Feldman’s writing: Give My Regards to Eighth Street. One of those books that set my hair on fire. I still have that copy almost 20 years later, beat to hell and still providing a light socket to stick my finger in when I’m stuck.

During their ranging, fascinating talk, two particular statements stuck with me. The first was Krukowski, “The thing I hear all the time is ‘overwhelmed,’ and I’ve come to question it. It’s a good, immediate thing to say. But maybe you do have time but the coordinates have changed and you can be grateful.”

In a lot of ways, this festival, full-to-bursting, is about gratitude for that abundance. I ran into a local friend and composer Brian Harnetty who called it the kid-in-a-candy-store effect. Ratliff answered a related question from the audience with, “Whatever choice you make is the right one. Wherever you are, if you commit, you’re in the right place.”

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem

The overwhelming impression I walked away from Friday with was the power and joy of communication in that space and that time. Specificity.

There was a strong thread within that joy – and I use joy to encompass catharsis – about using music to actively and directly engage the outside world. A resistance to the impulse to withdraw to some easy and lonely hermetic bubble.

That began with my first set, Bang on a Can All-Stars’ selection of their Field Recordings project using commissioned compositions built around found or archival sound. Mark Stewart, the guitarist, introduced every piece by talking about where the writer found its “truth and beauty.” Calculated cacophony broke into sublime warmth. Shimmering textures from Ken Thomson’s clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello shattered and turned on Vicky Chow’s perfectly placed piano depth charges and were borne aloft on David Cossin’s chunky, driving drums. The juxtaposition of the pieces shone new light on them all – Caroline Shaw’s piece, about a quilter reflecting on her craft, placed between David Lang’s ominous abstraction of sharpening knives and Steve Reich’s bitter fable “The Cave of Machpelah,” changed the texture and expanded the resonance of all three.

Dancing to Kristin Andreassen

That sense of playful engagement was neon-bright when I stopped at Boyd’s Jig and Reel. A terrific bar but I learned the first year that “best scotch list in town and rowdy locals” is a touch counterproductive to in-depth grappling with sound. My taste of this year’s “traditional” track came through Becky Hill and Kristen Andreassen’s Old-Time House Party. All I really knew of either artist was Andreassen’s fantastic album The Gondolier and my old pal Dave’s relentless enthusiasm for her band Uncle Earl. To say I was charmed and delighted feels like damning with faint praise – it was a magical supernova of love.

Variety show style, there was clogging (I might have misidentified it, an Appalachian analog to hoofing-style tap), dancing (including an advanced-beginner level square dance), and a flood of guests. My favorite tunes were the Andreassen showcases. “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color For Your Eyes” featured Scott Miller’s – THE Knoxville ambassador if you grew up where and when I did – bassist Bryn Davies and rhythmic patty cake. “Meet Me Out on the Dancefloor” reassembled the earlier guests for a two-step woven with sweetness: bass, banjo, Celtic cello, ragtime clarinet, rhythm guitar, and harmonies. It was a palate cleanser, a refresh, and something I could see again and again.

Algiers

Algiers painted that engagement with colors of resistance and witness in the foreground at The Standard. I say this with no exaggeration, they put on one of the finest rock shows I’ve ever seen. Setting the tone as they came out to drones, bathed in red light, frontman Franklin James Fisher dedicated their set to bassist Ryan Mahan “In exile in the UK.” Substitute bass player “Gary Indiana” acquitted himself brilliantly, sculpting bass lines out of molten volume, sometimes turning up so loud he just had to shake or strike the bass and layering shiny, sticky tar with synth bass. James Tong’s sensual earthquake drumming conjured Depeche Mode and the Cro-Mags as it wove in and out of loops. Lee Tesche had a similar approach to the guitar: bowing, switching to saxophone Billy Zoom-style, leavening fat riffs with acid dissonance.

Fisher’s voice and presence summed up the eternal righteous fucking of the sacred and profane that serves as the DNA of rock and roll since time immemorial. An implacable swagger and roof-shattering scream with the mix of intense masculinity and abject vulnerability as well as anyone’s executed it since Smokey Robinson and Sinatra. The kind of frontman who draws you into his fire.

The band aren’t precious about style or signifier. They play like the world is ending and there’s no time for your weak-ass conception of authenticity. A transmission sent straight from a doomed planet to the dental filings of an outcast on another doomed planet. Algiers is throwing an apocalypse party worthy of The Stooges and Funkadelic and Public Enemy but drilled and tooled for the here and now.

The Thing

Less directly programmatic music was also in abundance and there was no shortage of the pleasures of “pure” abstraction.

Rocket Science affirmed that Evan Parker still plays like he’s leaning off a cliff, unafraid. Craig Taborn is one of the great improvisers of his, or any generation – shifting his entire body language and attack to echo Parker’s fluttering high-register work; muting the piano strings directly; changing the flow of the group, the eye of the storm and its electricity. Petet Evans’ virtuosic trickster and Sam Pluto’s live electronics and real-time delays and looping set up and distorted frameworks and contexts.

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem band was wall-to-wall fun and excitement. Her violin jousted with the guitar of her partner in deconstruction Nels Cline over thick, roiling grooves courtesy of Todd Sickafoose and Scott Amendola – a rhythm section born to play together. Great, sticky tunes, especially “A Ride With Polly Jean” and a new untitled number.

Mats Gustafsson was one of my gateway drugs to free jazz, by way of John Corbett’s writing and a first credit card I charged too much to Dusty Groove on. His power trio, The Thing, is the kind of physical force of nature even people who don’t like improvised music can’t deny. But even as much of a fan as I am, I was unprepared for the simultaneous widening of scope for inspiration and laser focus of approach they deployed here. Soulful, even sweet, without sacrificing any intensity or ferocity. This last set wrung me out and sent me into the shining night reeling.