Best Of live music

Best of 2020 – Live Music, Sometimes Virtual

In this fucked-up year, I was lucky enough to see 35 things before it shut down in early March, in four cities. So I was trying to make good on my promise of excitement! And I still tried, even when it felt like just sitting around my house.

Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons, Sultan Room


  • Brett Burleson Quartet (01/04/2020, Dick’s Den) – It’s not always the first show of the year but Burleson’s annual birthday show is a burst of heat early in January that feels like a starting pistol and an invocation to call forth the spirit of a good damn year. This one in particular, at the end of a marathon also celebrating my friend Crystal’s birthday in the little suburb I grew up, and saying goodbye to college standby The Library with some of Anne’s best friends (including the owner Cricket who was selling it), the two sets I caught here were exactly what I needed. Seeing Burleson with a second guitar player is always a rare treat, and his duets with Josh Hindmarsh over a sizzling rhythm section were some of the most beautiful Jim Hall-style melodic guitar fireworks I could have hoped for.
  • Ryan Truesdell’s Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer (01/08/2020, Jazz Standard, NYC) – I wrote about this at some length earlier but this tribute/memorial birthday party to one of the great arrangers (and teachers, my friend Mike still talks about Brookmeyer with massive fondness) summed up the kind of warm feeling of being at an honest-to-god hang. A feeling I’ve gotten more at NYC jazz clubs than anywhere else in the world, and especially at the (RIP) Jazz Standard, a club that always tried harder than it had to and delivered in spades.
  • Winter Jazzfest (01/10/2020 and 01/11/2020, Various Venues, NYC) – For over a decade, WJF has lived up to its promise of giving out of town bookers (here for APAP) and adventurous locals a concentrated look at one of the greatest, most vibrant scenes in the world. It’s expanded to bring in Chicago and London and Brussels and hit all the major genres without feeling like it’s pandering or diluting. Catherine Russell raising her eyebrow at Steven Bernstein on the Le Poisson Rouge stage. Philip Cohran’s sons in Hypnotic Brass Ensemble tearing SOBs apart. Two old friends hugging each other in front of me during Makaya McCraven’s set and the musicians on stage in awe of their bandmates. A marathon for poet Steve Dalachinsky (one of my inspirations, reminding me how often I’d see him around shows). Every time I go, about every other year, I want to go every year.
  • Secret Planet Showcase (01/11/2020, Drom, NYC) – A punky, world music party in one of my favorite clubs (co-thrown by another of my favorite bars, Barbes). I always leave this sore and sweaty. This year was exceptional, with Daptone horn meister Cochemea leading a frenzied band of almost all percussionists, Sunny Jain from Red Baraat’s rippling spaghetti western tuba funk, the lilting melodies and beguiling rhythm of Alba and The Lions. Magic front to back.
Rock Potluck, Ace of Cups
  • Sarah Hennies and Mara Baldwin (01/12/2020, National Sawdust, NYC) – Sarah Hennies, long one of my favorite percussionists and composers, had a hell of a year with a couple of her finest records and what felt like new performances every time I turned around. This collaboration with Mara Baldwin, a violin quartet led by Anna Roberts-Gevalt, with sculptures inspired by Shaker furniture transported me and made a deep impression in a long day of magic that just kept getting better (I’d already seen the Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith dance piece, the Rachel Harrison retro at the Whitney, and Simon Stone’s Medea with only a break for dinner at St Anselm, and that was all Sunday). 
  • Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons (01/12/2020, Sultan Room, NYC) – Pianist Kris Davis is a recurring presence on these lists. She gets better and better. This live production of one of my favorite records of last year was a kaleidoscopic explosion with one of the tightest, most surprising bands I’ve ever seen – including Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Tony Malaby on tenor – in my first trip to the tight, sweaty back room of this Middle Eastern restaurant. I got to end this trip on the highest of high notes, with grooves and crackling melody dancing around my head all the way through a nightcap and a fitful sleep before the next morning’s flight.
  • Final Rock Potluck (01/18/2020, Ace of Cups) – Bobby Miller’s given me a lot of my favorite moments in Columbus music – 4th and 4th Fest, Megacity Music Marathon, the last few years of Ace of Cups booking – but maybe his most enduring impact on this town we both love is (with Shane Sweeney in the first couple years) the importing and localizing of the great Dallas tradition as the Rock Potluck. One night only conglomerations of musicians making sparks fly unlike what we’d expect from their own bands. I was still fighting fatigue- and the kind of wet, shitty day January specializes in –  but Anne and I dragged ourselves down for the last few sets of this…and Oh My God. There was so much burbling joy in this room. Bob Starker took a sax solo behind Marcy Mays on a take on the Fleetwood Mac-via-Judas Priest chestnut “The Green Manalishi,” one of the women from Snarls launching into Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” and watching new songs come out of almost thin air. We all left with some of the best memories of this tradition that will be sorely missed.
Raphael Saadiq, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall
  • Chuck Prophet (01/28/2020, Natalie’s Grandview) – Any of us who love touring music have at least a couple of stories of artists who got pushed back more than once. Alec Wightman booked Prophet’s full band, The Mission Express, in the hopes we’d get our shit together and had to cancel twice as COVID raged. But we were lucky to get the rare solo acoustic version. Classics like “You Could Make a Doubter Out of Jesus” and “Would You Love Me”, newer songs like “High as Johnny Thunders” and “Bad Year For Rock and Roll” co-existed in a set that felt like a journey. And the memory that stuck most with me is the first time I heard the song that most deeply imprinted this year for me, off Prophet’s new record, still a few months out, “Willie and Nill.” A perfect example of the kind of empathic, hard luck stories Prophet writes better than anyone, “Nilli said, ‘I had a body once, Willie you have no idea. I could make a grown man bark all night – anytime, anywhere.’ Willie said, ‘I had a lion’s mane. Now I sing at the top of my lungs till the neighbors get their broomsticks out and the cops all sing along.’”
  • Physical Boys (02/15/2020, Kaiju, Louisville) – The centerpiece of this Valentine’s Day weekend trip to Louisville – that had me miss the Theatre roundtable awards back home – didn’t disappoint but there’s a special joy getting to see something completely new. One of my favorite music rooms, Kaiju, hosted a newish Louisville band Physical Boys who played a beautiful, intoxicating mix of Stiff Records’ sharp jangle and Afghan Whigs operatic sleaze.
  • Raphael Saadiq with Jamila Woods (02/17/2020, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall, Louisville) – Raphael Saadiq followed his darkest, most personal album with a stripped-down, muscular tour that was unlike any other time I’d ever seen him. Great venue, killer sightlines, fantastic sound. My only regret was missing most of the excellent (from what I caught) Jamila Woods set.
Bria Skonberg and Byron Stripling with Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Southern Theater
  • Bearthoven (02/18/2020, Short North Stage) – The Johnstone Fund has brought more new music (contemporary classical, whatever you want to call it) in the last few years than any earlier time I remember, filling a gap I sorely missed in our musical scene. This return visit from NYC trio – piano, bass, drums – Bearthoven paired a phenomenal new Sarah Hennies (see above) composition with the bright propulsion of a Michael Gordon premiere.
  • Radioactivity with Vacation and Good Shade (02/19/2020, Ace of Cups) – It had been too long since I caught Radioactivity’s spiky brand of angular Texas punk and this three-band bill reaffirmed my faith in catchy, sweaty rock and roll.
  • Columbus Jazz Orchestra featuring Bria Skonberg (02/23/2020, Southern Theater) – I don’t keep up with the CJO as much as I should but this unseasonably sunny Sunday matinee was a shot of pure light in my veins with the group having a ball alongside guest singer and trumpeter Skonberg on great rep including Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.”
  • Reigning Sound with Venus Flytraps, Bloodshot Bill, and Alarm Clocks (03/06/2020, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland) – The last trip out of town for some culture before this all went south (well, “as,” the weekend we were up there the first confirmed Ohio cases of COVID were diagnosed in Cleveland. A reunion tour of the original Reigning Sound lineup celebrating both my favorite rock club in the country and one of my favorite record labels, Norton, was everything I want in rock and roll.
  • Amy Lavere and Will Sexton (03/10/2020, Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – The last local show before everything went to hell  – one of my favorite songwriters, Lavere, backed by her longtime partner (whose songs are coming into their own on his terrific new record this year). Their tour was shortly canceled, but I was thankful for this last glimpse before locking down.


It was never like being in a room with sweaty strangers, but the proliferation of livestreams and creative pivoting made me feel a little more connected and a little less alone. Favorites of the couple hundred shows I checked in with.

For the first few months of lockdown, Living Music With Nadia Sirota was a balm. One of my favorite violists and a key locus in the new music scene hosted a delightful show once or twice a week, bringing three or more of her pals together – from Claire Chase to Missy Mazzoli, Shilpa Ray to Nathalie Joachim, Judd Greenstein to Ted Hearne – for a taste of what they were doing and a taste of camaraderie I needed even from a remove.

Goner Records simultaneously made me miss Memphis more than ever but gave me a dose of their freewheeling spirit and impeccable taste. Their online translation of Gonerfest was the best streaming version of a festival this year, simultaneously recognizing the international spirit that makes the festival so successful and making us feel like we’re surrounded by our best friends.

Another dose of Memphis came from a weekly shot of John Paul Keith, turning the same skills he uses to keep audiences spellbound as a fine singer, a great guitarist and songwriter, and a charming raconteur toward the camera instead of a barroom. Keith’s jukebox-like memory for songs and artists leads him through delightful anecdotes and a real friendship with people logging in week after week. There was more than one exhausting Monday where hearing JPK say “Hey, Lydia,” brightened me right up – and I don’t even know Lydia.

The north flip-side of those great JPK shows came with Jesse Malin’s Fine Art of Self Distancing, alternately playing solo and his band, from his bars Berlin and Bowery Electric. Malin also ran – with Diane Gentile and others – translations of his fun tribute shows (to Johnny Thunders and The Cramps). Beyond his solid songs, just like Sirota and Keith, he understood and demonstrated what we needed most was fellowship.

Locally, Natalie’s led the way in outdoor shows and now streams, keeping up with their high standards for sound and sight. One of my favorite rooms in town that I dearly hope makes it through this. Ace of Cups got a late start, but I felt very safe on their patio with the precautions they’ve taken and the first of their streams I caught sounded great. 

Jazz clubs in New York have already noted one fallen (Jazz Standard) and are pivoting with great alacrity. Small’s Live and Jazz Gallery are both crushing it with regular, killing performances and Jazz Gallery adds conversations, happy hours, and dance parties. The legendary Village Vanguard is also putting out great sounding, great looking shows by the kind of giants who’d normally be playing to packed houses.

There are still more great performances than I can fit in and more to love than I have time for. I just hope most of these rooms I love make it to the other side and some assistance is forthcoming.

"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/30/2020

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.

Patti Smith, taken from stream and edited

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.

live music Uncategorized

Things I’ve Been Digging 09/14/2020

George Cables Trio, taken from livestream and edited

Music: George Cables Trio at Village Vanguard

In the wake of Gary Peacock – one of the great bassists, especially in a piano trio format – an exemplar of classic post-bop piano jazz George Cables played a Vanguard set with nothing to prove and everything at his disposal, backed by as good a rhythm section for this kind of heart-filling music as you could hope for, Essiet Okon Essiet on bass (who I last saw live with the late, great Harold Mabern, one of Cables’ few peers in this lane) and the almighty Billy Hart on drums.

Cables took us on a mesmerizing journey through the history of modern jazz piano with a rapturous version of McCoy Tyner’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing” with tumbling darkness threading the chords, a righteous dive into Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” and a version of Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” that made me forget every other version for a little while. 

He also restated his unshakable command and glittering crown on standards, with jaw-dropping versions of “All The Things You Are” and “Body and Soul.” Just as good as those unassailable classics were originals of his like “Traveling Lady” with fiery propulsion underneath its deceptively light touch and the touching elegy “Farewell Mulgrew,” 

Jason Moran, screenshot taken from Livestream

Music: Jason Moran Cecil Taylor Tribute at Harlem Stage

For fans my age, Jason Moran did more to turn us on to a spiky, rich legacy of jazz piano that felt in danger of being sidelined or marginalized in the early ‘00s: Geri Allen, Jaki Byard, and especially Cecil Taylor. He’s still one of my favorite players, as evidenced by him appearing on several of my favorite sets at the last Big Ears I made it to.

Almost as valuable as live streams in this isolated age are institutions digging into their archives and this Harlem Stage tribute to Taylor they brought back the Moran set from is an event I distinctly remember wanting to go to and the logistics and timing of travel just wouldn’t work. It’s not as good as being in a concert hall but sitting here watching the sunset out of my office window, I feel the magic in this brand of witnessing and giving thanks.

Maybe the greatest night of jazz I ever had in my life was watching Taylor lead a large ensemble on my birthday at the Iridium. Moran conjures that impossible-to-replicate quality while sounding like himself. He makes the piano sing with nods to Taylor, the way those spikes are flecked with a romanticism that’s born of being in touch with a greater mystery. The cracks in the very sky. It’s a breathtaking 15 minutes that made me end a long day (an exhausting 11 hour workday, an excellent meal) feeling like I was flying.

Red Baraat, taken from livestream and edited

Music: A Friday Night Despair Reprieve (or Turning Despair Into Gold): Red Baraat, archived from SFJAZZ Fridays at Five; Lucero Livestreamed from Minglewood Hall with Jade Jackson and Laura Jane Grace streaming from venues near their homes.

Even for those of us who (in the before times) try not to live our lives desperate for Friday or a vacation or some great disruption, who know it’s important to include joy throughout the week, Friday night feels sacred and that specialness has eroded some with most of us having another night we only see the members of our household after getting off a zoom call with the same people from work.

Had a little frisson of that specialness this Friday, logging off of work and tuning into bands who mine their past and even when they look at uncomfortable truths, they never, ever despair. Started with the weekly Wussy broadcast – one of these days I’ll do a deep-dive on these regularly scheduled streams that make my heart sing and whose joys aren’t as easily summed up looking at any one episode, but this was a particularly good installment.

I bounced after an hour of Wussy to the essential SFJAZZ Fridays at Five series that’s shown up here before. This time was the great Red Baraat, which stirred a lot of personal feelings for me – they played one of my best friends’ wedding years ago, and I was texting that friend earlier in the day, worried about the fires in Portland.

Led by Sunny Jain – also on the personal tip, I was glad I made it out to see his electric Wild Wild East band in NYC for APAP in January – Red Baraat plays ecstatic, spiritual party music that’s rich in community. Melding long rock guitar lines with traditional bhangra, Latin claves, and go-go, they’ve found a way to honor the differences in these various dance musics and cultures without ever feeling appropriative or like they’re using something as garnish. In a rippling set, they hit all their major hits from “Tunak Tunak Tun” to “Gaadi of Truth” to “Shruggy Ji” including a dance competition in the middle of the latter. If you get a chance – in whatever form the aftertimes looks like – to see Red Baraat, don’t miss it. It will make your heart full.

Another band that digs into their own history and kept their eyes open, but even when they confront disappointments and disillusionment their songs always leave room for hope and possibility. Lucero’s the rare band that got more interesting to me as they added elements, keys and horns, as they took on the burdens and benefits of their Memphis lineage, giving Ben Nichols’ voice (the raw tonal quality of his physical instrument and also his history-drenched songwriting).

Lucero, taken from Livestream and edited

Part of what makes Lucero interesting is their perpetually open ears, and this show drove that home with the openers. Northern California’s Jade Jackson’s set took the sharply observed and lived-in songs off her two records and sent them into the world with such authority I’d be shocked if kids in bands aren’t already playing them in their garages, especially “Motorcycle” and “Bottle It Up.” 

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace gave us the stunning intensity she’s known for on classics like “True Trans Soul Rebel” and brand new songs that already sound like classics, including “The Mountain Song” which was a lilting lullaby for a life going wrong with tenderness for the choices taken and the choices never offered, and the chunky, dancing “Apocalypse Now and Later.”

This stream, playing a fan-chosen set list, prompted witty banter “Apparently, our fans don’t think most of our fans know what they’re talking about” as they went through a cross-section of exactly what makes them beloved in a perpetually replenishing ocean of bands born out of the raw material of The Replacements and Social Distortion. 

Surprises for me included a lovely cover of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss The Bottle” and two of the songs that always feel like Memphis to this regularly visiting outsider. “Smoke” roared through its keening, empty-streets melody as Nichols exhaled that for-the-ages dialogue in the chorus: ‘He said, ‘Lesser men than me have put up better fights.’ She said, ‘We’re doing pretty good if we can just get out alive.’” “Downtown” featured Brian Venable’s guitar playing that sticky horn riff, giving the lyric’s pleading at the start of the night a foreshadowing of a party going out of control.

This was a night – including a stop at Goner Records’ Goner TV with a reading by the great Ross Johnson from his new memoir – that reminded me there’s good if you’re looking, it’s not all always dire.

books live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – July 7, 2020

Three months into this quarantine with no end in sight, I think I’ve found kind of a sustainable routine. At least for a while. So I’m going to try to resurrect this brief category in the blog set up for when I had a week with no paid writing. In general, trying to post on Monday or Tuesday and it’s three things I was wowed by in the last week. Also in general, looking for a book/article/art exhibit, a record, and some kind of livestreamed performance.

If you’re reading this – I’m looking for what’s keeping you going too.

Book: Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener (buy at Gramercy Books).

Holds I requested from the library system before everything closed down showed up with the frisson of happy surprise over the last week or two. My favorite of this first batch is a riveting tech memoir from the New Yorker writer Anna Wiener. Wiener does an excellent job analyzing the tech startup world from the inside out. She incisively flays open the culture of catch phrases and co-opted psychology talk with a fine blade, casting a harsh light on that world’s funhouse mirror take on intersectionality.

The techniques I had a hard time with at first – avoiding proper nouns and the easy connotations of naming restaurants, films, companies – worked their magic on me, making this memoir feel less indebted to a time and place while the use of sensory details put me in the feeling of that place. Uncanny Valley left me with a lot to chew on about my own relationship to work, my coworkers, my friends, and empathy.

Music: Joe Lovano’s Trio Fascination livestreamed from the Village Vanguard

It’ll never replace being in a room but the creative responses to the current situation, the ways music steadfastly refuses to say “No, you can’t do that” while mitigating risk as much as possible, warms my heart.

In particular, jazz venues have been strategizing and come out of the gate with some of the most potent offerings. Spike Willner’s Small’s is leading the charge – I’ve been watching at least three of their nightly offerings a week, look for a highlight here soon – but other venerable institutions like SFJAZZ, The Jazz Gallery, and the Vanguard are also coming out strong.

Every one of the three Vanguard broadcasts I’ve seen features remarkably good camera work and makes me misty about the fantastic sets I’ve seen there. This past weekend was my favorite, by a group of legends: Joe Lovano’s Trio Fascination with Ben Street on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums.

Growing up when I did, Joe Lovano was my favorite all-around living saxophone player. His Blue Note records in the late ’90s and early ’00s were gateway drugs to high school and college me, firmly in the tradition and perfectly in his voice, turning me onto great players like Paul Motian, George Mraz, John Scofield. I’ve never heard a bad Lovano record and he’s always blown me away live.

I discovered drummer Andrew Cyrille around the same time when my first Cecil Taylor purchase was his ’60s Blue Note big band firestorm Unit Structures. As I pieced together – I’m still working on it – that beguiling music unlike anything I’d heard before, the drumming hit me first and kept me grounded. I couldn’t begin to count the number of records I bought specifically because Cyrille was listed as drummer, or killer players I checked out on my periodic trips to New York knowing nothing other than he was in the group. If someone asked me what I want jazz drumming to be – the wild surprise, the propulsion, the use of color – I have a list but it always starts or ends or both with Andrew Cyrille.

Ben Street’s work I didn’t know quite as well but he’s always impressive and he’s the perfect melodic, grounding foil for this set of fascinating excursions, bone-deep ballads, and cooking, sultry scorchers.

This glorious set made the wound of this empty club throb with life, the pain of not being there made more acute and salved at the same time. This was a perfect jazz set, a conversation writ large.

Next up in this excellent series: pianist Eric Reed leads a quartet with Stacy Dillard on saxophone, Dezron Douglas on bass, and McClenty Hunter on drums this weekend. Tickets are available at

John & Jen, from left: Hunter Minor, Dionysia Williams. Photo by Edward Carignan

Theatre: John & Jen, Short North Stage

Alongside jazz, I miss theatre most of all. I’m incredibly grateful for the companies that have been able to work with licensing groups to release archival copies (favorites include Lydia Diamond’s Toni Stone from ACT and Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play at The Goodman) and I’m heartened by companies who aren’t taking “we can’t do this” for an answer, led locally by Krista Lively Stauffer and Tim Browning’s Virtual Theater project (which let me catch Douglas Whaley’s transfixing Turkey Men which was my biggest regret in missing last year).

Short North Stage raised the bar on production values (which I described in my preview for Columbus Underground) with their Edward Carignan-directed adaptation of the Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald Off-Broadway classic John & Jen.

First and foremost, the production sounds great, with Lori Kay Harvey’s musical direction and piano rich and full but never overpowering and the dynamite voices of Dionysia Williams and Hunter Minor are a joy. The actors get the playful nature of the characters’ relationship and smoothly shift gears between joy and heartbreak in exactly the tone the play demands.

Carignan’s direction and videography make excellent use of the production’s homespun qualities, creating a show bursting with charm. John & Jen‘s gorgeous, sticky melodies shine here, any fans of Lippa’s later work or Short North Stage’s smaller chamber shows will do well to catch this during its week of streaming.

John & Jen streams on vimeo through July 12. Tickets are available at

Best Of live music

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.


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)