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 – 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)