My TimeHop reminded me that last year, and three years ago, I was in NYC for festivals around APAP, which is always one of the most invigorating parts of any year I work it in.
James Brandon Lewis, Kirk Knuffke, and Gerald Cleaver at Arts for Art Inc, 01/06/2021
Of the overlapping black music traditions, relatively few hands dig into the fertile intersection between R&B and free jazz. Arts for Art – a storied non-profit that hosts the annual Vision Festival among other services to the culture – kicked off their 2021 with one of the finest examples of the sparks that fly when those two forms hit one another: a trio of sax player James Brandon Lewis, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
As Lewis said in the post-set discussion, “Charles Gayle and Grover Washington, Jr. both came from the same place I did, Buffalo.” This trio wove excerpts of the Bill Withers classics “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Just the Two Of Us,” the latter a collaboration with Washington and a massive hit, along with Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll Be Free” into an unbroken 45-minute meditation and exultation.
Lewis’s liquid tone and Knuffke’s sharp, jabbing punctuation aligned on deep hooks like the revolving “I know” section of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” building up the tension and exploding that feeling into a bonfire of abstraction. That jousting coiled into a mournful funeral march before clicking into a more urgent, insistent gear.
Through all of these changes, Cleaver’s drums commented and steered the ship. The one section where he slid into head knocking funk beats felt like an unexpected blast of sun cracking velvet clouds, then as soon as I grasped it, he and the trio were onto something else.
Everyone in this trio intimately understood both musical forms and used the tropes for their cathartic power as well as misdirection. They didn’t shuffle free playing and dance music; they burned them into something fresh and personal.
Under the Radar, presented by The Public Theater
One of the brightest lights in my personal APAP – and the conduit for many of my favorite things at the Wexner Center every year – is the Public’s Under The Radar fest. This international sampling of moving, riveting performance art and theater pivoted brilliantly to online this year. I’ve checked about half of it so far and there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch.
Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor
This two hander – which won a prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – featured Alipoor and Kirsty Housley narrating – with dazzling imagery the self-destructive microcosm of the idle rich in Tehran. In doing so, they draw out heartbreaking truths about the decline of civilizations, the scars of colonialism, and the blur between long-term consequences and immediate decisions.
Full of poison-dagger lines I was still chewing over days later like “There isn’t an anthropocene that connects us, there’s a scar that divides;” vaporwave summed up as “A ghost made of bits and pieces of a past that never quite was;” and a description of Dubai as “It’s like long generations of the past returning eternally to party with them.”
the motown project by Alicia Hall Moran.
One of our finest American singers, plumbing the rich terrain between Opera and popular music, Alicia Hall Moran assembled a ferocious band for this, including her husband Jason Moran on piano, Reggie Washington on bass, LaFrae Sci on drums, and Thomas Flippin on guitar, alongside fellow powerhouse singers Barrington Lee and Steven Herring.
Moran drew connections between the Motown songbook and classical “art music,” giving both sides equal weight without sanding down either’s essence, and wove them into a crushing portrait of desire. An aria from The Magic of Figaro sparked off the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Sugarpie, Honeybunch.”A torturously slow “Heat Wave” was a languid blast from better seasons. A “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” drew every nuance out of that Stevie Wonder classic without bogging it down. If I see something better this year – even after theatres open – it’s been a good damn year.
Another excellent month for records and I remain glad I’m doing this. I hope a couple of you enjoy the playlists and find one or two things you didn’t know existed. Next monthly hodgepodge is tentatively slated for January but I’m going to work up a playlist to go along with my favorite records of the month blog post sometime in December. Be well.
The weirdness continued unabated in this season with distant Thanksgiving – which itself has problems, like everything in American society birthed in blood and torture and the positive feelings we’ve imbued it with come partially despite that history and partially resting on the pedestal of it – but I found things to love and hope you did too.
Probably the last of these for a while; my plan for the next four weeks is to put up my best of the year posts.
Music: Patti Smith, presented by Fans.
Weeks from the 45th anniversary of her landmark record that broke so much open for so many of us, Smith reminded me of her unique blend of the intimate and the expansive and took me to the church I desperately needed.
Accompanied by long-time collaborator Tony Shanahan and her daughter Jesse Paris Smith, Smith led us on an hour trip through highlights of her catalog, including readings of a new piece and a delightful chunk of Year of the Monkey, and one cover, a beautiful read of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” (with a nod to its own 50th anniversary and Young’s 75th birthday) that highlighted its fragility.
Smith found new contours, new crevices between the notes, new facets to shine her light of today through on songs she’s played thousands of times. “Dancing Barefoot,” dedicated “to the women” crackled with benediction and absolution; “Pissing In a River” circled its prey, building up to the incandescent flare-ups of “Come on, come on” and “What about it?”
The opening “Grateful” from maybe my favorite of her records, Gung Ho, set the tone – “Ours is just another skin that simply slips away” for a sunny afternoon of true gratitude, radical acceptance and taking stock, without blindness. That song faded into the righteous incantation: “Throw off your stupid cloak; embrace all you fear. For joy will conquer all despair in my Blakean year.”
She introduced “Southern Cross” with “This is a song about remembrance; it’s a song about life, really,” and more than anything else, this set reminded me that all remembrance can be, should be, must be, a celebration of life.
Music: Jason Moran’s Bandwagon at the Village Vanguard.
I’ve never been in NYC around Thanksgiving – not a parade guy – but I’ve always been jealous of many traditions for the locals, including that full week stand of the Bandwagon at the Vanguard.
There are a handful of shows that burn into my memory and I still recall with surprising clarity Jason Moran on piano, with Nasheet Waits on drums, and Tarus Mateen on bass, blowing the top of my head off at the Wexner Center in 2003. With no exaggeration, those 90 minutes blew open what I thought jazz could be, it expanded my parameters for thinking about music. I was vibrating with excitement when I walked in – having been a fan of the records for several years – and I could barely hold my molecules in one gravitation field after.
In the ensuing 17 years, I’ve seen all three of them multiple times – Winter Jazzfest and Big Ears, back at the Wex and late night at Jazz Standard – but never quite managed to catch another trio set. So even through a screen from miles away, I almost cried.
This was the music of conversation, argument, emphatic declaration, at the highest possible standard. Jittery, powerful abstractions melted into standards like “Body and Soul.” They paid tribute to the legendary Geri Allen with one of her classics “Feed The Fire” and they tore into a greasy honky-tonk stomp. This was the kind of music that made the world make more sense and made gratitude swell up in me.
Music: Maria Schneider’s Orchestra at the Jazz Standard.
Another of those legendary jazz Thanksgiving traditions is the great Maria Schneider leading her Orchestra at Jazz Standard. This would have been her 16th year on this week at the Standard, and with possibly her best record Data Lords released so recently, I’m overjoyed she found a way to mark the occasion.
She put together a limited run stream of clips of her band from the past couple years – including trying out some of the dark, knotty Data Lords pieces like “CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” – outtakes from the studio sessions, and a Zoom conversation capturing a little bit of the all-important “hang” that happens whenever that many musicians gather.
Like the Moran, I almost cried a few times. These perfect solos rising out of this massive, inviting but awe-inspiring architecture. The band breathing as one and fragmenting into the night’s sky or a city street.
I’ve waxed rhapsodic here about Smalls constant creativity and persistence to bring musicians together to play. In the last few weeks, they’ve carefully and strategically brought in small audiences and I almost wept hearing – from my kitchen, many miles away, missing New York in a week where Timehop reminds me I was at least three of the last six years – the great Sheila Jordan celebrate her 92nd birthday in this storied club.
A direct line to Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, and Charles Mingus – one of few left – Jordan took us to school with this survey of the great American songbook and this reminder of the glory of following one’s interests, wherever they land.
Backed by her longtime bassist Harvie S and New Zealand native Alan Broadbent, two of the most sympathetic vocal-accompanists alive, she reminded us how ineffable, fleeting, and indelible beauty can be in song. Definitive, forged in years of experience, versions of “Autumn in New York” and “I Concentrate on You” were highlights in this delightful rain of gems.
Theater: </remnant> by Theatre Mitu, directed by Rubén Polendo.
What’s memory mean to us? How do we piece these fragments together? Where does religion fit? How do we survive war? How do we stay connected with ourselves and a collective humanity? Cacophonies of voices and images fracture and coalesce in Theatre Mitu’s </remnant>, presented with New York Theatre Workshop, burning fragments into my brain.
This riveting exploration of memory – including memory as a feeding trough for trauma and the evolution of PTSD over the last century-plus set a high bar for these new digital hybrids that still felt like theater, that I was in the dark with other people even if I couldn’t see them, and with the fiery immediacy of something happening now even with the degree of editing and post-production visible.
Music: For Roscoe Mitchell by Tyshawn Sorey, performed by Seth Parker-Woods and Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
Anyone with evening a passing glimpse of my taste over the years knows I’m an unabashed admirer of Tyshawn Sorey’s work as a drummer and composer. He continues a streak of astonishing large-format pieces with an astonishing cello concerto, For Roscoe Mitchell, performed by the Seattle Symphony.
The dazzling piece conjured Mitchell’s luminescent compositions without using any of his moves directly. Played beautifully by the orchestra and soloist Parker-Woods under the baton of David Robertson, I don’t even have words for how grateful I am for this remarkable series from Seattle Symphony in these trying times.
Some deeply needed good news came out on Saturday and there wasn’t much better than playing classic Kenny Gamble, Spinners, Funkadelic, and Dirtbombs off our porch, bouncing between the sunlight and the champagne and friends. I hope we all remember the lesson that this success isn’t it and we keep working, but part of that work is rest and celebration. I found some art to love in that uncertainty before the news.
Music: Darius Jones: We Can Change This Country! presented by Roulette
In a time of perpetually scattered attention, I needed Darius Jones’ sweeping composition broadcast from one of the temples to new music that’s helped ground my life: Roulette from NYC.
Inspired by the James Baldwin essay of the same name, Jones assembled a riveting quartet of Cooper-Moore on flute and banjo, Tanya Kalmanovitch on violin, Sean Conley on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums, and a who’s who of the best vocalists working in jazz, new music, and the avant-garde today: Gelsey Bell, Amanda Ekery, Jean Carla Rodea, Sara Serpa, Amirtha Kidambi, Yoon Sun Choi, Aviva Jaye, Charlotte Mundy, Fay Victor, Stephanie Lamprea, with heartbreaking film work from Laura Sofia Perez, under the baton of Darcy James Argue (whose sadly-even-more-relevant Real Enemies got a brilliant digital makeover from Cal Performances last month).
Darius Jones and his players/singers meet our tumultuous times with a steely gaze and a combined intensity and integrity. Wisps of shadowy flute melody and skittering drums surf on and get subsumed by wordless vocals, chilling laughter and sheep noises. Collaged snatches of dialogue reminded me of Rauschenberg and Nina Chanel Abney.
We Can Change This Country! honors the Baldwin essay as a furious representation of a specific, unapologetic point of view, but avoiding the artless reportage that kind of polemic can get mired in. Jones uses all of his power as one of our finest composers and reed players to sculpt with the fire we’re living in and the fire it inspires inside him.
Jones moved me to tears when these voices, all held to the light with their distinctive facets and juxtaposed without smoothing the transitions, rose together on chants (most prominently “Vote him out”). More than any specific message – though the message is clear – that power when we rise together resonated through the bones of this piece and the blood of its viewers. I’m still unpacking this monumental work but it’s one of the finest things I’ve seen in years.
Music: Mic Harrison and the High Score at the Bijou Theatre
Friday night found me in touch with one of my favorite singer-songwriters in one of my favorite rooms. Anne said, as we were watching, that Mic Harrison is the perfect example of why someone would be in a scene. A vital utility player who stepped into two legendary Knoxville bands: classic alt.country unit The V-Roys (as they transitioned away from being The Viceroys) and powerpop juggernauts Superdrag, for the last 15 years Harrison has put out one classic, crisp record as a leader after another.
Harrison’s properly celebrated his latest, Bright Spot, in this 100-year-old theater with a barbed-wire-tight version of The High Score including his Superdrag collaborator Don Coffey Jr on drums, for a stream that sounded as good as I’ve heard that room sound and I’ve been in every corner for most of my favorite Big Ears Festival performances.
Harrison and the High Score doled out meaty, lithe roots-rock featuring some of the biggest hooks Harrison has ever written – the gang chorus on “Used to Be Somebody” was an arrow struck right into my chest – and soulful slow burns like the aching “Back to Knoxville.” He also took time to highlight songs by guitarists Robbie Trosper and Kevin Abernathy.
By the time they slid into the encore with Harrison’s classic The V-Roys Beatles homage “Sooner or Later,” there were tears in my eyes.
Music: Joel Ross’ Good Vibes at Berlin Jazzfest
Joel Ross is killing it this year: he released one of my favorite jazz records, in a crowded field, earlier this fall; he was a highlight in the mind-blowing Makaya McCraven show I was lucky enough to see at Webster Hall in January; he’s brightening so many other artists’ work.
While it’s never the same as being in the room, Berlin Jazzfest did a spectacular job partnering with Roulette (mentioned above) for paired sets from both shores. Ross and his band wove intricate magic, undulating conversations, burning dialogue and cut-crystal ballads, tossing between the immaculate melodic bass lines of Kanoa Mendenhall through the intertwined lines of Ross’ vibes and Jeremy Cohen’s piano into Brandee Younger’s harp, Immanuel Wilkins’ alto and Jeremy Dutton’s gravitational pull drums. This was the perfect thing for me to hear right before the election got called.
Had a harder time connecting and concentrating this week, but some time with friends helped and I still found a few unalloyed joys.
Theater: The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz reunion reading presented by Signature.
Suzan Lori-Parks was probably the first contemporary playwright I loved with the same fervor as the classics I grew up with. I read Topdog/Underdog at least a dozen times before getting my mind blown with CATCO’s visceral production in 2004 and I’ve been a rabid fan ever since. Most recently, I saw a riveting revival of her Death of the Last Black Man in 2016 right after the last election.
It gave me immense joy to revisit that work with a reunion of that cast under the same director, Liliena Blain-Cruz. Parks uses rich mythic language to revisit the death of the play’s eponymous black man, from different angles and with different emotional beats, and in doing so opens up and celebrates his life over and over again.
It felt as urgent in 2016 as it was when it premiered in 1990, and seeing it four years later with peril out in the open, shoved in the faces of those of us who might have had the luxury of looking away before, was a gorgeous volcano of our shared pain and joy.
Music: Mountain Goats, presented by Noonchorus
Both full-band streams – the second was Thursday the 29th – from a studio in North Carolina to celebrate the release of their excellent Getting Into Knives record find John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats continuing their hot streak creatively and releasing the pent-up energy we’re all feeling at not being able to live the life they’ve grown into.
That Faulkner line about the only subject worth writing is man in conflict with himself and Mary Oliver’s line about paying attention as our endless and proper work always come to mind when I think about the Mountain Goats. He melds those impulses together and finds, in that conflict, in that attention, a way to celebrate.
Both shows hit the wild extremes of emotion Darnielle crafts so well, and his brilliant use of the push-and-pull of a set list. The first stream, on the 22nd, was riddled with highlights. He paired two songs off Transcendental Youth, the gut-punch of shame in “Cry For Judas” with that terrible ambiguity wrapped in a sunny singalong hook, “Long black night, morning frost – I’m still here but all is lost,” sets us up for the celebration and encouragement of “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”: “Find limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day, and stay alive. Just stay alive.”
The second was full of highlights – a simmering “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”, a joyous, raging “Foreign Object” but two moments near the middle of the set still haunt me a couple days later. The low-at-the-heels vignette “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” hit this perfect note of devastation in the synchronicity of text and singing with “Ray left a message thumbtacked to the door. I don’t even bother trying to read them anymore,” and then this pause weighed down with regret that’s as bleak and beautiful as the “Scuse me while I disappear” on Sinatra’s best version of “Angel Eyes” or the stutter into smoke on Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops”. Not long after that, on “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” he delivers “My love is like a powder keg” with no wink or any bravado, it’s the perfect distillation of a character with nothing left to lose or offer but an earnest truth.
The encores – if you can call them that here – both ended with the closest thing he’s produced to a hit, the perennial, everyone-finds-their-meaning perfection of “This Year.” The first show followed it with another classic climax, “No Children” with jokes from the band about how odd it is to play it without people screaming along “I hope you die, I hope we both die.” The latter went into the more subdued “Spent Gladiator 2,” about shrugging off the expectations of a life and learning to live with them, finding some last bit of defiance in the throes of exhaustion.
Man, this was a great month for recordings. There’s also far more stuff that is a contender for my year end list that didn’t make this – my rule for instrumentals is they have to work with the larger song-based contexts, I’ll almost never drop a fifteen minute movement of an extended minimalist suite in here; it never feels like it works.
Like most autumns, I find myself drawn toward the reflective and the melancholy even a little more than usual. I tried to keep this from being monochromatic but time and you will tell. Thanks for listening. Continue reading for notes on each song.
Fall is benefitting from more seasoning to groups trying to make work in this difficult time and time to adjust to the new tools and circumstances. Almost like a real October, I was excited by more than I had time to fit in even if more of it was on my own couch. This week does not look to let up. What are you all enjoying?
Music:One Night Only, an annual fundraiser for the Jazz Arts Group
I don’t go to the Columbus Jazz Orchestra as often as I probably should, but every year brings a reminder of what a stellar organization we’re lucky to have. As the current director – great trumpeter, damn fine bandleader, and one of the best cheerleaders for jazz or any music any city is lucky to have – Byron Stripling said in his introduction, Ray Eubanks created a fantastic nonprofit that’s benefiting this city with its relationships with touring artists, composers, and soloists and especially its world-renowned education program.
Usually this great event either falls on a Pink Elephant Friday or when we’re out of town so taking part delighted me – and the execution warmed my heart. It’s hard to beat a house band like the Bobby Floyd Trio. They provided muscular and delicate support to Stripling on swaggering classics like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Fruits from the educational arm of JAG provided highlights throughout the program. Floyd played jubilant, three-dimensional organ behind young phenom Micah Thomas (who I saw bring the house down in a CJO performance with John Clayton and Joshua Redman and has a debut album collecting raves this year) on “Maple Leaf Rag.”
A tight quintet of Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra alums who are setting local stages on fire these days, including George DeLancey and Reggie Jackson, tore through Hank Marr’s epic late-night anthem “Greasy Spoon.” Another nod to Columbus history came with vocalist-on-the-rise Sydney McSweeney blowing the roof off on the Frank Loesser standard “Never Will I Marry,” whose definitive version came from legendary Columbus diva Nancy Wilson.
This was a stunning reminder of the beautiful jazz scene nurtured in this town, where it stands right now, and will be whenever we come out of this and can all be together.
Music: Tuesday Communing: Musicians for Marquita presented by Third Man Records and Moving Forward by the Public Theater.
My favorite season still drenches me in a little taste of the Fall FOMO. With that, I flipped back and forth between two streams that epitomize what music and theater can do at their best, a sense of community, connection, and transcendence.
Third Man Records in Nashville threw an old-school telethon, replete with cheesy counting board, phone bank, and an enthusiastic host in Cocaine and Rhinestones host Tyler Mahan Coe, to benefit Senate candidate Marquita Bradshaw.
Between raising over $15,000, they packed these three hours with a dazzling cross-section of current Tennessee music, poetry, and comedy. Standards and classics made an appearance, including Kathy Mattea’s nuanced take on Tom Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This,” Steelism’s gorgeous pedal steel-driven instrumental cover of “People Get Ready,” Logan Ledger’s stirring read of “Walk Through This World With Me,” and Lolo’s epic “Ooh Child.”
Hip-hop, probably the most prominent genre people my age and younger associate with Tennessee, showed up strong, including the fun, disco-tinged instrumentals of Memphis’ IMAKEMADBEATS, an excellent tune from Daisha McBride, and others. I regret not catching the name of the first act – drop it in the comments if you were more on the ball? – another instrumental hip-hop act started the evening off with one of its highlights: a cut-up of Bradshaw’s speeches interwoven with toffee-sweet-and-crunchy synth lines and stutter beats.
One highlight of this was the proximity of the artists, and the leveling the telethon interspersed superstars like Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift, or Margo Price with lifers like John Paul Keith – who brought the house down with his topical “I Don’t Want to Live in a World Like That” – freak-folk stalwarts The Cherry Blossoms and the duo of John McCauley and Vanessa Carlton.
These artists rubbed (virtual) shoulders with on-the-rise acts like the singer of Thema and the Sleaze, Caitlin Rose (who I’ve been a massive fan of since The Stand-In and her new song “We’re Only Lovers and They’re Only Lies” made me even hungrier for a new album), Caroline Spence, and Birds of Chicago.
Everything about Musicians for Marquita was so charming and so well done that I felt a pang when I flipped to the other good choice that evening, but I got rewarded when I did.
It’s a rare year when The Public doesn’t make my year-end list – this year’s going to be no exception with some stellar stuff from Under The Radar in January. Their more polished benefit was full of sincere gushing – from stars like David Hyde Pierce, John Leguizamo, and Phylicia Rashad – we all feel in our hearts.
The Public also made time to acknowledge what we’ve lost in time and gathering, with a lovely song from The Visitor (which was in rehearsals when the order came down) and a preview of Under the Greenwood Tree, which would have revived its 2017 production for all of New York at the free Shakespeare in the Park series.
The music was less the focus here, but everything was brilliantly done, including Antonio Banderas and Laura Benanti’s duet for the ages on A Chorus Line; Sting with “Practical Arrangement,” a witty ballad from his own Public-aided musical The Last Ship; and a heart-wrenching closer I missed the performer’s name on, from a musical adaptation of Disney’s Hercules, with the echoing line “Though it hurts to be human, count me in.”
Music: Marcy Mays and Colin Gawel at Ace of Cups.
Pulling along that thread of “count me in,” went to see my first live music (aside from a few songs for Anne’s birthday the Stockweliots’ back yard) since the shutdown, on the patio of the last bar I was in before everything closed (and the home of the most shows I’d seen before lockdown), Ace of Cups.
It was slow going before local hero Kyle Sowash stepped up to book some shows on Ace’s patio and this went a long way to provide a template for safely throwing shows for intimate crowds in these times (I’ve also heard very good things about Natalie’s efforts in this direction). We caught two great friends who also did a lot to represent Columbus music to the outside world in the mid-’90s.
Marcy Mays, Ace owner and one of my favorite Columbus songwriters, opened with a set of raw magic on her electric guitar, backed for about half of it by veterans Andy Harrison on guitar and bass (doubling on sound) and Sam Brown on drums. Mays hit Scrawl classics like “Please Have Everything” (which she announced was inspired by the late D. Boon) and “Your Mother Wants to Know” along with tunes by her more recent bands like The Damn Thing and a blistering song by her underrated hard rock juggernaut Night Family (featuring what Harrison called “a dose of cock rock ridiculousness” on a perfect over-the-top solo).
Gawel picked up Mays’ smoking gauntlet, and gave us one of his best, most focused solo sets in recent memory. Opening with new material could be a risky move with as beloved a catalogue as his, but his opening gambit, “Sensational Things,” was as good a song as he’s written, finding a sweet spot in the kind of paean to finding peace and stability that’s even harder to write than it is to live. Most of the other new songs were also winners, especially “Standing On the Rocks” with a big, infectious hook I still have in my head writing this the next day.
Gawel filled the rest of the set with Watershed crowd-pleasers including his tangy Kinks riff “Small Doses”, “Mercurochrome”, and aching ballad “Over Too Soon” and highlights of his Lonely Bones/Bowlers’ work with “Superior”’s undeniable hook and the cajun shuffle “Chemotherapy.”
He also sprinkled some brilliant covers through the set. “Over Too Soon” turned into a humid version of one of the best Replacements’ songs, “Swinging Party.” An appropriately caustic version of The Kinks’ “Property” prompted “God, I have to do something sweet after that.” And his encore started with a righteous version of Columbus rock godfather Willie Phoenix’s “Hey Little Girl,” returning Sam Brown to the drums.
It’s no secret that I’ve had massive festival fatigue the last few years. I don’t think culture’s primary or best purpose is as a destination vacation. The music – film, theater, books – we love should be part of our day-to-day lives, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and especially the conversations we have.
But as with anything, there are exceptions. At its best, a festival adds to that community; it enriches those lives. A good festival draws tribes together, it celebrates the good work they’ve done, it makes connections, and it plants seeds to grow back in our own communities.
I’ve been lucky to know several of these festivals but my favorite is Gonerfest, deep in Memphis and run by the estimable record store and label Goner Records. With an eye to keeping us all safe in this pandemic, like so many festivals have, they pivoted to digital.
In doing so, my favorite music festival cut a template for any other festival. Gonerfest did the best job I’ve seen in these 6 months of lockdown: they captured everything I wanted from the festival except being in Memphis. And they almost got that!
One of my favorite things about this switch to online is it amplified the one thing all of us being in the room doesn’t give us: a look at how we’re living. The creative use of everyone’s home turf made my heart swell in my chest: Toads’ punky exuberance on their home turf at Oakland’s 1-2-3-4-Go record store; Nick Allison’s set in fellow Austin band Golden Boys’ art gallery; Columbus heroes Cheater Slicks in a college auditorium beautifully filmed by Guinea Worms’ Wil Foster; Oh Boland in the grass of Galway.
And my favorite, New Zealand taking advantage of their well-managed take on the crisis by throwing a real show: five bands in an actual club (Whammy Bar that’s on my list if I ever make it close to that part of the world again). Two previous Goner favorites delivered and cemented my love for them: Bloodbags’ muscular, thoughtful rock, and the intoxicating dual-vocal swirl and slicing acid trail guitar of Na Noise. The other three bands brought it, Ounce’s twin drummer Sabbath-fried choogle and Dick Move’s swinging rhythm and witty, clipped songs made them among my favorite new bands, as Guardian Singles’ searing pop vibrated the molecules all the way here.
It’s not Gonerfest if I don’t discover at least a handful of new favorite bands. Beyond the Kiwis mentioned above, I fell hard for the crispy-edged Stonesy Americans of Michael Beach and Nick Allison & The Players Lounge and the skewed anthems of The Exbats, a trio with a dazzling lead singer behind the drums.
The regulars also came out swinging hard. Jack Oblivian and The Sheiks kicked things off with a rugged, sultry set from the beautiful twilight panorama of Midtown from the rooftop of Crosstown Arts. Zerodent bit off twitching, aggressive postpunk. True Sons of Thunder set a surging baseline and got me excited for their new full-length on Total Punk. Aquarian Blood continued to grow into their beautifully textured take on moody British folk.
Goner has always done a great job with side activities and they excelled here with a chat room, Zoom “bars” and a killer slate of films and talks. My favorite was the footage of the documentary on Memphis-centered civil rights group The Invaders with one of central participants and the soundtrack composer King Khan (who played the first Gonerfest, MC’ed Saturday’s day show, and introduced excellent sets by his daughters, Saba Lou and Bella and the Bizarre) but I was also entranced by This Film Should Not Exist, about a shambling Country Teasers/Oblivians tour, and Tyler Keith’s (Apostles, Neckbones, Preacher’s Kids) deep dive into Hill Country gospel and blues with jaw-dropping footage of Shardé Thomas, RL Burnside, and Rev. John Wilkins.
The thing I hope most for – on that secondary list after staying healthy, employed, warm – in this moment is that collectively we’re able to meet in person and feel the heat of music together next year. But I’m also warmed by this feeling of being less alone and getting to do something with my friends. Even from our own houses.
It feels like not a week goes by that doesn’t give most of us a reason to go, “It’s a dark week. Things look bleak.” Losing Justice Ginsburg was one of the hardest of those hits in this fucked-up time. A beacon of how to live, passionate about your work but also the greater world and your friends and your greater community and a way to harmonize all of those things I constantly strive for and frequently fail at. One of the best of us and another reminder to keep trying. Keep working.
As always, one of the biggest things that pulls me back from those whirlpools of despair is art. The other is friends. I hope you’re also finding something that gives you light in this darkness and my sharing this is always tied to the hope you’ll share those things with me and your own community.
Music: Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ.
I’ve waxed rhapsodic here a few times about SFJAZZ’s essential work and their breathtaking pivot to digital with their site closed due to the pandemic. Their monthly Wayne Shorter tributes have been a key part of this – the first four monthly, featuring a different frontline each time backed by Shorter’s rhythm section of Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums were all special.
This week, they ended with maybe even more of a bang: a 2017 performance of Shorter with his quartet featuring Teri Lyne Carrington on drums instead of Blade. Shorter’s universes beguiled me almost since I knew what music was, his intricate compositions that feel like nothing I’ve ever heard at the same time they feel as familiar as the blood in my veins, his ability to write for specific band contexts that still work generations removed.
This presented an example of one of the great working ensembles with that uncanny communicative empathy that jazz is based on, that conversation so many of us use as a metaphor for collective improvisation, everyone building up a situation by listening to one another and finding a new angle on whatever’s happening.
As Herbie Hancock said in the YouTube chat (if I haven’t mentioned it before, one of the excellent things SFJAZZ does is engage artists and listeners in the chat while the video plays) during their hypnotic dive into Arthur Penn’s early 20th century standard “Smilin’ Through,” there’s a great, shifting parallel quality with Patitucci and Carrington dialoguing on a related but separate plane to Shorter and Perez. A rich, swirling take on the Fairport Convention-popularized folk standard “She Moves Through the Fair” detonated landmines of surprise and delight. The entire set beguiled and charmed and sometimes baffled me in the best way.
Music: Immeasurable Explosions (Knoel Scott and Marshall Allen), Chiminyo, Lonnie Holley, and Kate Hutchinson, from the Boiler Room with Night Dreamer and Worldwide FM.
The Boiler Room – known for hard-hitting, cutting edge DJ nights – has become a vital livestream player in the last few months and is always something I’m glad to see pop up on my YouTube subscription reminder. This week’s was a truly delightful surprise. On a sunny afternoon with the first chill of the season in the air – anyone who knows me knows how much I love Fall – they put together the perfect lineup for straddling these seasons.
Kate Hutchinson kicked off the night with a perfect DJ set hitting on light reggae, tropical house, throwback disco, horn-drenched drama, electro hip-hop… summer beats with just enough of a chill. Just enough dashes of melancholy, enough grit in the oyster (or cynar in the fizzy champagne) for a tribute to the sunshine and the long shadows. Hutchinson also contributed excellent, insightful introductions to the broad spectrum of artists.
Lonnie Holley gets a lot of praise for the spiritual, incantory quality of his work, and the use of the materials of his life in a way that merits comparisons to his work as a sculptor; all of that remains true and was clear here. But there’s also an autumnal quality, a sense of honoring people around him and the people who’ve gone before, the changing of seasons in a lot of senses, that felt rich in this short set. Anytime I see him, even over a screen, I feel like I’m bullshitting and need to try harder.
Chiminyo previewed a marvelous record out later this week – I Am Panda – with a combination of tracks and live percussion: light dub, classic spiritual jazz, and early 80s synth textures flow together into roiling, stormy anthems. Sun Ra Arkestra alums and longtime friends and collaborators Knoel Scott and Marshall Allen teamed up for a mix of poetry and multi-instrumental duets that recalled nature and cracked the thought of nature open to the “Other worlds they have not told you of” in their old bandleader’s parlance.
Music: Aoife O’Donovan at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Barrytown, New York, presented by Dreamstage
Anyone who’s ever read any of my writing – best of lists, etc – knows what a massive fan I am of Aoife O’Donovan. This stream, on a new-to-me platform called Dreamstage, took excellent advantage of a gorgeous-sounding church in the Hudson River Valley that let her voice and guitar (and piano on a couple numbers) breathe.
O’Donovan might be our finest current songwriter of the key decision, that moment when a character is on a precipice that will change their life. She has a fine eye and ear for those details when everything about to change, how it feels in the moment and how it feels when recollected. Prime examples of that here were the opening one-two punch of “Hornets” with its cautious reassurance “I’ll be there to have and to hold you” on the chorus but also the verse, “Turning back’s the only way to go;” and “Porch Light,” maybe my favorite of her songs, with the weary, imploring taunt “You want to live a life of loneliness? Baby, so do I. I want to sit under the porch light and watch the yellow moon rise.” Just a devastating as the first time I heard both those songs, maybe more, as her voice has found new contours and places to shine the light in a few years of touring them.
She also hit songs from previous bands of hers: a lovely, rippling, Sometymes Why tune, “Clover,” and two standards she did with her first widely known band, Crooked Still, “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” and “Lakes of Ponchartrain,” in new arrangements. That knack for rearrangements also shone in her settings of Peter Sears poems, “Night Fishing” (dedicated to the late Justice Ginsburg) and “The Darkness.”
The centerpiece of this dazzling hour of music was two of the lustiest songs in her catalog. “Ryland,” which she performed in the supergroup I’m With Her, with its silky chorus “Just let me lie, under the apple tree, I planted for my love and me.” She segued that – with a laughing, “Of course I pair the song about apple cider with the song about bourbon,” – into the aching, affectionate standout from Fossils, “Oh Mama,” with its infectious sing-along chorus: “Oh Mama, sing me a love song, pour me some bourbon, and lay me down low.”