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)

Best of 2018 – Visual Art

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
-Mary Oliver

Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This has been a year of incredible highs and incredible lows, the latter all self-inflicted. Wearing myself so far down I was susceptible to a week in the hospital with pneumonia. To spraining an ankle so hard I was in a boot for two weeks. But one thing that always helps center me, that lights and maintains the fire called wanting to go on, is attention. And no cultural activity centers me more, nothing puts me in my place, nothing bows the strings in my soul like trying to focus on visual art.

And I will say this in all three posts but the best macro-gratitude exercise I undertake every year is keeping track of what I see/listen to (I need to be better about tracking what I read) and going over it at the end of the year. I took in around 75 exhibits this year and narrowing it down to 20 was hard. I am, always, very, very lucky.

Anyone else sparked by this or who bothers to read these, I appreciate you . Drop me a line, let’s talk about what we both saw or what I’m an idiot for leaving off. Everything here is in Columbus and any photo is taken by me unless stated otherwise.

Mickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess Looking Forward, 2015, Courtesy of the artist via the Wexner Center, Copyright Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1. Mickalene Thomas, I Can’t See You Without Me (Wexner Center for the Arts) – I can’t think of an artist who better epitomizes taking all of art history and synthesizing it into a voice utterly, unmistakably hers, than Mickalene Thomas. The bounty of riches presented with I Can’t See You Without Me was like tapping into a deep vein and realizing it’s full of stars: completely personal, in touch with the world (and worlds behind the world) and full of monumental, magic beauty. Everything I love in art was in this show and while I visited it five or six times, I regret not seeing it seven or eight more.

David Wojnarowicz, Whitney Museum of Art

2. David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night (Whitney Museum of Art, NYC) – Dispatches from one era when the world was on fire still shone brightly in this dazzling retrospective of one of American art’s foremost poets of ecstasy and rage.

3. Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – I still remember the first time I saw one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, at my first Whitney Biennial. It was an eye-opening reminder of the power of repetition to unlock a world and a potent mix of serenity and discord. I came to love the permutations of her varied work over time, most prominently in a stuffed, ranging retrospective at the Whitney. but this hyper-focused touring show was a concentrated dose of the mix of sensations that first drew me in.

4. Kerry James Marshall, Works on Paper (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – An epic-scaled domestic scene in panels fragmenting it like a comic strip and also recalling large Renaissance triptychs, was surrounded by other drawings in this tight, sharp show of an artist who only gets better.

5. Various Artists, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and Weapon (New Museum, NYC) – This ferocious trip through depictions of gender ended a January New York trip on a head-spinning succession of high notes, including Ulrike Muller’s jagged abstractions, a dazzling Mickalene Thomas video collage. This summed up everything I love about the New Museum when it’s clicking, work within the last 10 years – without cheaply valorizing youth – that summed up and exploded 40 years of the institution. A good sign for the future of the Wexner Center as the curator of this spectactular exhibit is the new director to succeed Sherri Geldin as director.

6. Hilma af Klint, Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim, NYC) – This hypnotic, transfixing, spiritual show cemented another contender for an originator of abstraction and opened my eyes to a voice I knew almost nothing about. A paean to the magic of drilling down into oneself with specific instructions not to show most of her work until 20 years after her death, working on instructions from spirits she communed with through a seance group. You couldn’t write af Klint’s story in a way that seemed believable but the art was as accessible as layered and elusive.

A Color Removed, SPACES Gallery

7. Michael Rakowitz with Amber N. Ford, M. Carmen Lane, RA Washington, and Amanda King with Shooting Without Bullets Youth Photographers; A Color Removed (SPACES Gallery, Cleveland) – Rakowitz in collaboration with a variety of local artists created an assemblage of the color orange, underlining the irony of trying to blame the deaths of children on the warning color or lack thereof. And it was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen in my life. A quiet temple to absence, loss, and rage.

8. Mary Corse, A Survey in Light (Whitney Museum, NYC) – I walked into the Whitney that sweltering July day knowing I loved Wojnarowicz, steeped in him since I was a teenager. I had no such knowledge or preconceptions of Corse and her deceptively simple canvases pulled my breath right out of my body. Working with the most fundamental element not just of painting but of sight – light – she made me look at it in a different way that recalled the meditative work of so many earlier artists but was still like nothing I’d seen.

9. Eugene Delacroix, Delacroix (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC) – This presentation of one of the old masters I knew the least about was refreshing in a way art of that vintage doesn’t usually affect me. The breadth of his literary influences and the wide range of stylistic techniques were dazzling; a self-portrait casting himself as the main character in Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor led me to dub him the creator of the cosplay selfie. And it was not just the Musee de Nancy frame that led me to say, and my companions to repeat the rest of the weekend, “Delacroix is lit.”

9. Charles White, A Retrospective (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – Another artist I wasn’t as familiar with as I should have been, a 20th-century American, this selection of White’s work was the perfect thing to see upon first arriving in the city. Enormous, dazzling, powerful and rich with the contradictions and terror still reverberating through the fabric of daily life. Almost impossible to take in but refusing to let me go, demanding and not letting me off the hook.

10. Various Artists, Inherent Structure (Wexner Center for the Arts) –  The Wex hit a home run with this vibrant look at the ways contemporary artists continue to suck the marrow out of traditional concerns of abstract painting while tweaking and subverting it. One of the best-arranged exhibits I saw all year, where every corner I turned revealed something else about what I’d seen and what I was about to see without pandering to the obvious. Artists I already loved like Amy Sillman illuminated a gateway toward those I knew less (Angel Otero) and those completely new to me (Channing Hansen).

11. Carolee Scheenman, Kinetic Painting (MoMA PS1, NYC) – This expansive retrospective, going back to the ’50s, was a lesson in how not to weaken in rigor, in curiosity, in feeling. Scheenman did almost everything and did it all with blinding heat and depth that continually revealed itself. Shaming and inspiring and astonishing.

12. Marlon de Azambuja and Luisa Lambri, Brutalismo-Cleveland (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – Another piece in the fantastic Front triennial, this collection of local materials in an iteration of de Azambuja’s ongoing series investigating Brutalism paired with Lambri’s photographs in something that was unsettling and perfectly in keeping with its surroundings (not just the Breuer wing of the CMA but Cleveland itself).

Phyllida Barlow, Hauser and Wirth

12. Phyllida Barlow, Tilt (Hauser and Wirth, NYC) – There was no shortage of art I saw this year that grappled with the way we in more privileged vantage points have realized the world doesn’t sit on its axis as comfortably as we once thought. Very little did it with the same arresting punch as British artist Barlow. A queasy circus singing a melody in its own voice, a voice that haunts me weeks later and I want to hear more of. Seeing the nods to Brutalism in these pieces transported me to the de Azambuja earlier on the list and the way those two artists of different nationalities exhibiting in different cities and different seasons spoke to one another in my head was a tribute to trying to see as much art as possible.

13. Sarah Lucas, Au Naturel (New Museum, NYC) – There’s a recurring theme in what shook me this year: artists I damn sure should have known better. Sarah Lucas epitomizes this, storied career as a sculptor I mostly knew as a name, one of the Young British Artists, with Hirst and Emin. This intense, witty, beautifully vulgar retrospective was everything I want art to be – speaking not just truth to power but a specific, personal, idiosyncratic truth.

14. Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture (Cartier Foundation, Paris) – Most of my first trip to Paris was spent doing exactly what you’d expect – the Louvre, D’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, Shakespeare and Company, wandering boulevards, drinking wine, all spectacular. So I was surprised by how affecting I found this show of a visionary Japanese architect. Breathable open spaces that feel like the future; echoes of ’70s science fiction movies like Silent Running but also evocative of the flowing purity of a Basho line or the meditative canvases of Agnes Martin. I wanted to live here. Paris, sure, but also inside these models.

15. Cyprien Galliard, Nightlife (MOCA, Cleveland) – I’ve been a fan of Galliard’s since the Wex showed his photographs but I’ve never been as enchanted as by the swirling dive into the after-dark of this video installation. Rodin’s The Thinker shattered by a bombing (the version in Cleveland), a tree planted to celebrate Jesse Owens also in Cleveland, fireworks over the site of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where Owens, shuddering plant life around Los Angeles streets, all throbbing to a looped sample of the Alton Ellis classic Blackman’s Song, the original chorus of “I was born a loser” melting into the re-release of “I was born a winner.” I could have stayed there for hours

16. Martha Rosler, Irrespective (Jewish Museum, NYC) – Martha Rosler’s acerbic retrospective at the Jewish Museum was the kind of fresh air and reawakening to the atmosphere of terror around us I needed. Steeped in language and sharply aware of the limitations and obfuscations of every vocabulary, this was as immediate and accessible as a slap in the face but also layers upon layers.

17. Susan Phillipsz, A Single Voice (Tanya Bonakdar, NYC) – Phillipsz is the master of the subtle, disorienting environment and one of the finest artists at using sound in a gallery setting. An installation with film of a violin player playing a snatch of score from a Karl-Birgir Blomdahl opera, with 12 speakers bouncing the violin tones through the room and surrounded by canvases caked in salt and named after the Lachrimae. Defying description and intoxicating at the same time.

18. Jennifer Packer, Quality of Life (Sikkema Jenkins & Co, NYC) – Packer achieves a balance of the intimate and the explosive that’s unlike any work I’d ever seen. These breathtaking canvases all had an interiority that I found beguiling, coupled with potent colors and surprising juxtapositions that grabbed me by the collar and forced me in off the street.

19. Ernest Withers, A Buck and A Half A Piece (Brooks Museum, Memphis) – Everything at the Brooks Museum this trip reminded me why it’s a must-stop in Memphis, the Jaume Plensa work very nearly made this list. But that slice of Memphis photographic history on the main floor wouldn’t let me go. Withers was a master at documenting cultural life (like the photo of Rufus Thomas and Elvis Presley above), civil life (with arresting images of the civil rights movement like the SCLC conference) and day-to-day “ordinary” life the way we should always see them: as parts of the same fabric, not discrete plants grown in their own pots.

20. Various Artists, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life (The Tate, London) – It’s no surprise Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were massive to me from the moment I was first aware of them; so seeing this retrospective on their home turf in my first trip to London was amazing. But more than that, this retrospective accomplished the tricky feat of showing these names as the nucleus of a burgeoning movement without overly inflating or denigrating the lesser-known student works. It painted the kind of picture that normally I’d have to buy the catalog to come close to.