This was a year of seeing some fine, fine music. Last year A. and I decided we’d missed more shows than we saw and this year we set about correcting that imbalance. Mission accomplished.
Big thing to bring up is my New Orleans trip which I took out of contention for this list both because it’s forever tied in my brain to my stroke and because it was so awesome it overpowers everything else. Tony Barba playing at Dragon’s Inn, the Condo Fucks and Redondo Beat at One Eyed Jacks, everything at Ponderosa Stomp especially Otis Clay and the Hi Rhythm Section, reunited Flamin Groovies backed by the A-Bones, Dennis Coffey. I mean damn. And the New Orleans Jazz fest with my favorite single moment, after seeing half of Emmylou Harris’ powerful set especially “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Red Dirt Girl” then walking over to see Solomon Burke open with “Just Out of Reach of my Two Empty Arms” and going into “That’s How I Got to Memphis”. And all the food? My god.
A lot of stuff that was good didn’t make this list – The Supersuckers at Ravari, Leonard Cohen in Detroit, Jack Oblivian (twice), Bonnie “Prince” Billy (twice), Box Elders at Bobo, Wooden Wand at Rumba, Scott Miller at Southgate House, O’ Death at the Southgate House, The Cynics, King Khan and BBQ and Those Darlins (two diff shows) at the Northside in Cincinnati, Garotas Suecas at Rumba, Vandermark 5 at the Wexner Center, the list goes on.
Next year the plan is to reconnect with local music and find a few bands to love that don’t have my friends in them or haven’t been playing for 10 years, only Nick Tolford really blew me away and made me go see him several times this year.
Other trend I’d note that didn’t seem to fit the list proper, this was the year I reconnected with how much I like to go out and dance. My thanks to Funkdefy locally, Windy City Soul Club and Peruvian band Novalima DJ’ing at the much-missed Sonotheque in Chicago, Mr. Finewine and Jonathan Toubin at many locations but together in a huge unmarked space in Brooklyn; all were some of the most fun nights I had this year, where you come out sweaty and sore and horny and feeling very, very good.
1. Numero Eccentric Soul Revue, Lincoln Theater – You want to know how to perfectly recreate a classic music event of years gone by, you should call the Numero people. First, mention has to be made that JC Brooks and the Uptown sound were the consummate backing band with a damn fine singer who had enough presence to command the stage, enough ebullience to be a perfect hype man, and enough humility to just stand aside and sing backup when needed. And what made this great was that Numero is all about not just the eccentric, lost sounds, but they’re about local scenes, so tribute was paid to Marion Black through Brooks doing one of his songs and the Four Mints did a couple of songs including the gorgeous “Gently Down Your Stream”. Renaldo Domino killed on “Too Cool to Cry”, one of the most beautiful songs of the ‘70s (I said most beautiful at the time, and A. put me in my place with “More beautiful than ‘La La Means I Love You’?”). And Syl Johnson set the mother on fire, with his golden suit and raging versions of his hits including “Take Me to the River”, and while I would have liked another few songs (no “Dresses Too Short”?), the final encore of all the acts doing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” nearly brought me to tears. So joyous a night in Columbus you won’t likely see again for a while.
2. Gories/Oblivians, Majestic Theater, Detroit - Two bands I never got to see in their hey day, playing one of two shows in the US, and leaving everybody drenched and talking funny. Oblivians closing their set with "Never Change" with Greg beating the drums like he was Buddy Rich at the end of a long, drunken night, lurching through the biggest gospel rhythm you've ever heard. Mick Collins taking a solo so righteous on “Ghostrider” that he rocked his glasses off.
3. Extra Golden, Rumba – Best drummer I saw all year, propelling a band through the best melodies I heard all year. They played like they threw diamonds up into a starry sky with flames in the background and took long-exposure photograph, all deliciously blurred shapes and acid-trail lines. Anyone who wasn’t dancing was nodding along from their seat. Anyone who wasn’t at least nodding, or who was outside smoking, is automatically suspect.
4. Faust, Wexner Center – Most of the time, you see one of those bands you thought you’d never see and they don’t live up to the expectations you built up. But once in a while it’s better than you would have let yourself hope. This year that happened to me at least twice, with the Gories and with Faust. Regardless of who the lineup was, original members or no, they showed up with a concrete mixer on the rider which they mic’ed and deferred to like a background singer. A long kosmischemusik jam followed by introducing the next song with “This is about the ambiguity between men and women” and then one of the prettiest acoustic-guitar-led pop songs I heard all year. I walked out of this and floated all the way home, wanting to grab people by the shoulders and make sure they know just how awesome what I saw was.
5. Antony and the Johnsons, Southern Theatre -Reams have been written on the angelic properties of Antony’s voice but until you see him live you may not realize how much of a classic soul man he is. The same intensity and humor and joy I saw last year from Jimmy Scott singing from a wheelchair at the Iridium, or Meredith Monk at the Wexner Center or at BAM, or Otis Clay, Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint in New Orleans this year, he has those qualities in spades. A tight seven piece band that can go from chamber music/art-song settings to ‘50s gutbucket cal and response and Antony at the piano at all times in control, from the rousing “Shake that Devil” and “Fistful of Love” though the heartrending “For Today I am a Boy” and “Kiss My Name” on through the perfect, finding-the-sadness-and-obsessive-qualities cover of “Crazy in Love”. they created a continuum of music that used clichés and tropes but never descended into just cliché.
6. Rafael Toral Trio, OSU Urban Arts Space – Not the first show I saw after getting out of the hospital (that was Leonard Cohen in Detroit) but close, and certainly the first show I took a notebook to and tried to write about, though I don’t think I did anything with it. Before this show I only knew Toral from the record he did accompanying David Toop and his appearance on Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Here he appeared with C. Spencer Yeh of Burning Star Core, Trevor Tremaine from Hair Police for the first set of a single 20-25 minute improvisation that coiled and glittered, then adding Columbusites Ryan Jewell and Mike Shiflet to make it a quintet that opened the canvas up to different brushstrokes and colors. As hard as the music was to describe – is it noise? is it free improv? is it at times eai? – it was even harder to get out of my head later that night.
7. Eric Taylor, Red Door Tavern - “Just like high school.” That was the oft-repeated refrain Taylor would use in his long, partly-improvised, snaking spoken word interludes between those beautiful songs, both were riveting. A story of his friend drawing wax-crayon hearts on a shopping bag and throwing knives at them starts hilarious and ends ineffably sad and then turns into one of my favorite of his songs, “All So Much Like Me”. For those two sets there was nowhere I Wanted to be and I even regretted leaving before the encores to go see Moto at Bourbon Street (who rocked, of course).
8. Jack Rose, Hideout, Chicago, and Sarah Borges, Fitzgerald’s, Chicago – I wrote these two shows up together in this blog and they’re inextricably linked in my mind, I’m not sure what to say about one without the other, but it was the best Jack Rose show I ever saw and I thought that before it turned out to be the last Jack Rose show I’ll ever see. He’ll be missed but I don’t need to tell you that. And Sarah Borges was perfect in a completely different way, distilling all sorts of roots music (soul, ‘50s R&B, country, whatever the hell NRBQ is) down to catchy hooks and tight playing and a sense of epic fun. A great first couple of nights before the wedding of one of my best friends, which was the best thing we did all weekend.
9. Larkin Grimm, Cafe Bourbon Street - Four of us there in one of the worst-promoted shows in history. Grimm playing most of her excellent Parplar (came out in 2008 but I wasn't hip to it until the beginning of this year) backed by guitar, harmonium, percussion and guzheng with these songs that build their own internally consistent world and at the same time feel wholly other and resonate with your own life. Her voice is a bludgeon and a scalpel when she needs it.
10. Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, Roulette, NYC – This was the frosting on a great damn weekend of jazz in New York for me this year, from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at LPR to Harris Eisenstadt at Cornelia Street Cafe, but Threadgill was somebody I never thought I’d see live. And the current lineup of Zooid is cracking. Stomu Takeshi on bass, the guitarist and the tuba player are erecting these cracked sculptures of rhythm while still not letting the melody slip and Threadgill’s alto and bass almost recall Bach counterpoint at times, with a terrific drummer. I think Threadgill gets a lot of credit for arranging and putting together awesome bands but you don’t hear much about his compositions – or at least I don’t recall – but my god, these perfect byzantine structures but with gold rivers running through them, every piece held its own weight and could hold anything the players or audience could put into it.
11. Reigning Sound, The Summit – Nothing much to say about this, one of my favorite bands sounding better than I’d ever seen them and playing for an hour and a half to a pretty full crowd on a Tuesday night. It’s hard to get me to stay out after midnight on a weeknight any more but I just didn’t want to leave.
12. Amir El-Saffar, Wexner Center – This and the aforementioned Harris Eistenstadt show fought in my memory for this list, both had excellent tunes and great playing, but I had to side with El-Saffar and not just for Nasheet Waits shit-hot-as-always drumming. I walked out of this glad I was alive. Right after I saw a very good ? and the Mysterians show but I don’t remember it anywhere near the detail I remember El-Saffar and not just because of the shots.
13. Davila 666, Ravari Room – Exactly what you want rock and roll to be, the stripped down-to-basics melodies of Johnny Thunders and the Ramones but also the wild dancing excess of the Fleshtones, with two people who are basically tambourine players and background singers. They got up in front of maybe 70 people on a Sunday night and left an ounce of sweat and plenty of spilled beer on the stage and sent everyone out into the night with a song in her heart. And I’d be remiss to not mention the slinky grooves made up almost entirely of sharp edges that Mannequin Men opened with, and the perfect, raging set El Jesus played to start the night off.
14. Black Swans, Essie Jain, and Bird and Flower, Rumba Cafe, 11/06/09 – There’s an undeniable joy when you see a band develop into its own thing before your eyes, which I saw happen with Bird and Flower; they had one of the most enjoyable sets I’ve seen in a long time and have grown from a band I respected and dug to one I really look forward to seeing. Essie Jain‘s lullaby should have shamed and quieted the barroom party crowd, and would have in a better day, but even in the face of an indifferent audience she brought some wistful beauty to a Friday night. But the winner of the night, aside from the audience, was Black Swans. As much as ever, they were a revelation, a band that references history but is not shackled to it, on the newer songs like “Joe Tex”, “Blue Bayou”, “Thinking of You” and especially the perfect ballad “Don’t Blame the Stars” and the metallic mosaic-blues stomp “Sunshine Street”, they’ve cracked into a new world, one I can’t see enough of.
15. Erik Friedlander, Wexner Center – Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. I’d seen Friedlander do songs from his solo record Block Ice and Propane in Chicago a few years ago in a space over a Chinese restaurant and that was great but the immaculate sound of the Wexner Center and his father’s photographs hammered this home and made it one of the most moving shows I saw all year.