Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Favorite Records, 2010

1.  Camu Tao, King of Hearts – It’s a shame the first full-length solo by this Columbus legend is just coming two years after his death, but we’re all richer for having it.  This record is an open wound, an open bottle, and punk as fuck.  Full of surging, catchy beats using pop interpolations that always cut deeper than you think at first; the ramshackle lo-fi nature of the record makes it feel more personal but also makes it sound fresher, makes it jump out of the speakers at you.  Passion and urgency, time isn’t long on this earth for any of us.

2.  Jack Rose, Luck in the Valley – Another beautiful record my life is better for having in it but a damn shame it had to come out posthumously.  His most spacious work, a few tracks with the Black Dirt Pickers, old pal Glenn Jones, Harmonic Dan, with amazing warm solo tracks like “Blues for Percy Danforth” and house-party tracks like a version of WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” that should make everyone who thinks about covering that chestnut give it up or “When the Tailgate Drops, the Bullshit Stops”.  A breakthrough even for someone like me who loved all his records.

3.  Victoire, s/t – This eponymous debut full-length by Missy Mazzoli and her primary working ensemble is the most accessible classical/new music record this year – or, I’d say, of a number of years – a series of beautiful, jagged miniatures.  There’s something astonishingly fragile about the writing on this but also a strength coursing through the song’s veins, the Bryce Dessner-featuring “Song for Mick Kelly” about the character from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, features a keening, mournful violin line that lacerates the drone of the organ.  “Song for Arthur Russell” captures and summarizes everything I love about Arthur Russell’s music better than a million covers I’ve heard, with the mild electronic percussion, more Reich than Paradise garage, the cut-off vocals that reach for ecstasy but are always getting subsumed into the sound, never quite hitting release, and the buzzing strings over the suspended chords from the keys.  Now, for next year, a label needs to start putting out Mazzoli’s longer-form orchestral and chamber works so she can keep blowing all our minds.

4.  Chocolate Genius, Inc., Swansongs – I like to think in a parallel universe – maybe Lethem’s parallel universe where Gravity’s Rainbow won the Hugo – Chocolate Genius’s Blackmusic won a whole mess of Grammys and a new undercurrent of deeply personal, cliché-adverse R&B rose up in its wake.  Everything he’s done since then has been of the highest quality but nothing’s punched me in the gut in the same way until the new one.  Indebted to history, check the “Walk On By” referencing intro to “Enough For You”, but not beached on it, still swimming, still surprising, “Now we’re on dry land and you miss the seaside / Say you want another point of view / But when we make love, you wake up so hungry / I wish I had enough for you”.  Working images over to create an impression the way Mark Eitzel or Prince or Me’Shell N’degiocello does, and with a variety of moods his leathery, limited voice can wrap around, from that song’s melancholy to “Kiss Me” and “When I Lay You Down” with their lackadaisical seduction through the almost-gospel sunrise of “Ready Now”.  Like any record worth a damn, the music tells more of a story than the lyrics, tones warm and foggy for the voice and the songs to drift through, indistinct enough you need to pay attention but everything you need to hear comes right into focus when you listen for it.

5.  Current 93, Baalstorm, Sing Omega! – I already blogged about this record at length, but months late it’s still holding up and even growing in my memory.  A collection of love songs for the world and time and a record of the light after mourning (not a typo).

6.  Anais Mitchell and guests, Hadestown – I remember the first time I heard Anais Mitchell, “Cosmic American” and I was struck by the purity of the voice and the grit of the lyric, and this record – a song cycle in the manner of Randy Newman’s Faust featuring a ring of folk superstars to retell the story of Eurydice – delivers on that promise in spades.  Ambition only matched by its self-assurance and quality, helped by crystalline production from Todd Sickafoose. She and Justin Vernon nail the flirty quality of young Orpheus and Eurydice, Greg Brown and Ani Difranco both sexy and ominous as Hades and Persephone, I think I passed this on to more people I know than any other record on my list this year.

7. Unholy 2, $$kum of the Earth –The Unholy 2 in 3D Cinemascope at last, a record that perfectly captures what’s great about this band, the deep groove troughs and Chris Lutzko’s guitar tone that’s all sinew and gristle, Adam Smith’s sculpted delay and electronics, and Bo Davis’ drumming that knows exactly where the beat is in what feels like chaos.  What was once easily dismissed  - or enjoyed – as a cross between Suicide and Pussy Galore, now shows all of its elements and asserts itself as its own animal, with thanks given to the production work of Cheater Slicks’ Tom Shannon and Guinea Worms’ Wilfoster (who also put out a hell of a record this year) that finds clarity in the murk and puts the gravel back on the road.

8.  Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, Ali & Toumani –Two artists who made an indelible impact on the world and on me in particular when I just started going to bigger concerts, in their second duet record sadly released after Toure’s death.  Every note is measured and balanced and still spontaneous and of the moment, a record for prayers and hangovers and that leaves you with a little more hope for the world when you’re done with it.

9.  Sharon Van Etten, epic – Where Van Etten’s Because I Was In Love was a perfectly chiseled set of sharp, funny, introverted almost-haikus, this sophomore effort lives in the world.  Bigger arrangements with drums, guitars up in the mix that make you nod your head, sweetly moaning steel guitars and multi-tracked harmonies on  the vocals, but everything’s used judiciously.  What she trades in on the side of the cryptic and the internal she gains in the strength of her voice and a different kind of purity.  The year of diligent work and touring has aided in the confidence to come right out and say, “Say it outright / If you don’t wanna see me tonight / And you won’t if you don’t want to / Hide it from me if you must / Hide it from me if you don’t trust / Anything I say to you” and say it with her voice growing higher and stronger, not shirking away, not building a castle in the sand but walking right toward you.

10.  Jason Moran, Ten – Everybody’s saying it’s the year of the piano in jazz, and true enough there were great solo records by Vijay Iyer, Geri Allen,  a Brad Mehldau that got a lot of attention, and the best record of The Bad Plus’ career but this is the piano record that stuck with me, haunting me.  His tone’s never sounded better, the rhythm section of Taurus Mateen and Nasheet Waits still have that unmistakable swing and texture, and the tunes are badass.  “Feedback Pt. 2” with its layer of electronic noise filling in the cracks between the notes but somehow making it seem more spacious, the melancholy “Pas De Deux – Lines Ballet” and the hard-charging “Gangsterism Over 10 Years” are favorites, but there’s not a bad track on this.

11.  Punch Brothers, Antifogmatic – Chris Thile’s chamber-bluegrass quintet released an unassuming record this year that had the best songs they’ve recorded that drift into more of a Richard Thompson territory, more complicated than the earlier heartbreak lyrics, so many fantastic moments on this.  “You Are” tracking the transition of learning to love again over off-kilter harmonies and repetition, the gorgeous ballad “Alex” with its hook “You’re only as good as your last goodbye” and Thile’s mandolin breaking up the pleasantness with a thrash I’ve rarely heard on the instrument. “Rye Whiskey” as traditional as the record gets with a gang-shout vocal, strong straight rhythms on a good-time drinking song and the old blues trick of ending each verse with “Have I ever told you ‘bout the time I ….” and not resolving the line until later when the song sags a little under a mandolin line wrenching the darkness out of the high strings as it moves into “When I took you/ And took her / For granted” and the same chords shift into that seeping dark oil-paint mode. It’s got enough interesting harmonic material to keep a jazz or chamber music fan listening but the songs are so strong you wish there were ballsier bands to cover and propagate this material.

12. Mary Halvorson Quintet, Saturn Sings – Her most conventional record but also maybe her riskiest, adding trumpet and tenor sax, it sounds like a Horace Silver record that came from space.  Melodies you could sing along to, and every time the first song comes on the rhythm section of John Hebert and Ches Smith has me nodding along and smiling, but it’s not as simple as that might sound, there’s always something I don’t expect around every corner.  This record is a sunrise and snow splitting and liquefying under your boots and the last blooming roses of summer.

13. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty – A record stripped down to prime effectiveness, with old partners (Andre 3000 contributes the wobbly, clattering beat of “You Ain’t No DJ”, Sleepy Brown shows up on “Turns Me On” for his patented off-kilter loverman croon) and new (Janelle Monae’s perfect hook on “Be Still”, Gucci Mane on “Shine Blockas” which would be a massive hit in a better world) doing exactly what they do best.  A head nodder that also sticks words in your head for days and with beats full of little touches and hooks that also help it stick to your ribs but never trying to be anything but a great hip-hop record.

14. Janelle Monae, The Archandroid- This is the record where Monae filters and distills the last 30 years of R&B from solo George Clinton to Teddy Riley to Grace Jones to Prince to Angie Stone and recombines the DNA so it never sounds like just a throwback.  “Make the Bus”, the collaboration with Of Montreal is one of my favorite tracks and I never liked anything I heard from Of Montreal, she and Saul Williams team up for “Dance Or Die” with should be the year’s perfect club single.  The record could’ve stood a little editing, but I found myself smiling every time a song of this popped on my ipod, and I find it very heartening there’s an R&B record taking these chances.

15. William Parker, I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield – There are few things in music I love more than Curtis Mayfield, and this collections of live recordings of William Parker and band taking on Mayfield’s beautiful melodies in post-‘60s fire music style hits the spot.  This record took songs I’ve loved for as long as I’ve loved music and let me hear them with new ears, as on the 21 minute “If There’s Hell Below” with Hamid Drake on drums and Parker, telepathic as ever, kicking the rhythmic intensity up just a notch so the horns just boil on top with the vocals and Lafayette Gilchrist’s piano the only thing that lets our ears catch up.  Or the gorgeous ballad “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, with this Sabir Mateen solo as raw as anything I’ve ever heard him play that only intensifies the beauty.  There’s enough familiar to keep us engaged, like the fanfare at the front of “Freddy’s Dead”, but always some new left turn you didn’t think of.  Vocalist Leena Conquest has never sounded better than on this, very few singers work over this kind of music, Patty Waters, Fontella Bass, but she never gives up any ground, she works the songs down right to their heart.  Amiri Baraka’s poetry and incantations are the flame inside the songs, sometimes retelling the stories of the songs, sometimes filling in an emotional context, sometimes just beautifully riffing where the music takes him.

16. Ashley Paul, To Much Togethers – Anyone who talks about this record in terms of dissonance is the same kind of lame who talks about Rothko in terms of Pantone.  Overdubbing her visceral saxophone and mingling it with Taisho Koto and some scraped percussion on “Wedding Song” and probably a few other instruments I can’t place until all I have to focus on is the sound and the feeling.  Deeply contemplative but also unsettling, the mood is set of being at ease with the world but also deeply skeptical of it, the Meredith Monk-like loping rhythms of “One One”, the dragging, shadowy lines of “Another Walk in the Park.”  One of the most spiritual experiences I had with a record this year.  Stunningly gorgeous.

17. Ohneotrix Point Never, Returnal – I was really torn between this record and the new record from Cleveland heroes Emeralds, both on Mego, both very similar records and both major leaps forward, but I just plain listened to this one more.  Synth with a warm palette and a perfectly assured hand, from the post-glitch flowering of “Nii Admari” through the orchestral glaze of “Stress Waves” on to the Tangerine Dream-in-a-cuisinart of “Ouroboros”.

18. Demon’s Claws, The Defrostation of Walt Disney – Demon’s Claws take that methamphetamine homemade human torch energy and channel it into something seemingly more placid but also more deadly on this new record. From the opening open-wound stomp of “Fed From Her Hand” through the low-rent swaggering echo and guitar of “Catch Her By the Tail” into the chopped up Western landscape of “Anny Lou”, this record might take a while before you show symptoms, but if you like the rawer side of rock, you’re going to keep coming at it unprotected until you know you’re infected.

19. Parting Gifts, Strychnine Dandelion – After a 2009 where two of my favorite rock bands, the Reigning Sound and the Ettes put out records that weren’t bad but were nowhere near their best work, Greg Cartwright and Coco Hames teamed up on this project that clearly rejuvenated their songwriting.  Not straying from the blueprint of their two primary bands, but playing everything with a freshness that makes it feel brand new, from sock-hop standards like “Keep Walkin’” through sexy mud-covered stomps like “Don’t Stop” and tragic ballads like “Born to be Blue”, I wasn’t bored for a solitary second of this record.

20. Scott Woods, Sunset Clause – Maybe the first spoken word record ever to make one of these best of lists?  The only other I could think of was Sekou Sundiata’s second record for Righteous Babe but I can’t find a list from that long ago.  Columbus’ pillar/exemplar of all things poetic, Scott Woods, made the best record of his career this year, finally stripped down enough it doesn’t need musical tracks, just a combination of live and studio work and that perfect voice.  Amazing persona pieces like “6 in da Morning”, “Jesus, Judas and the Case of the Old Woman’s Son: A Murder Mystery”, and “To the High School Thug that Broke into His English Teacher’s Car”, gorgeous lyricism crossed with justified and blue-hot rage on “How to Make a Crackhead”, “The Organist”, “Lamborghini Hickies”, notes on what’s wrong with poetry today including “Lynchings”, and hilarious geek-speak on “Cthulhu Calls for Love”, “Dungeons and Dragons”, “I hate Zombies Like You Hate Me”, and “Bob Ross Loves You Baby”, this shows every aspect of his poetic voice and leaves you assured there’s more coming.

21. Judith Berkson, Oylat – This record finally – and beautifully – captures what I hear the first time I saw Berkson at a back yard show Gerard Cox organized a number of years ago.  Unadorned, on a combination of of the reedy thinness of an electric piano and the richness of an acoustic but both played with this almost-clipped touch.  Taking classic Jewish cantor material, ‘30s standards and some thorny originals and approaching it all in the moment so it retains a sexuality and a sensuality and an ache that echoes long after the record’s over.

22. Marc Ribot, Silent Movies – A less conceptual solo record than Spirits or Don’t Blame Me, but some of his most gorgeous playing.  Really letting the Latin and classical influences come through.  Standout tracks include “Delancey Waltz” that sounds like its titular street slick with rain and everyone trying to keep their balance, “Fat Man Blues” with its low-slung swing, and the one-two mournful punch of “Empty” and “Natalia in Eb Major”.

23. Rashied Ali and Henry Grimes, Spirits Aloft – It’s hard for any record of Ali on percussion and a string player to not get compared to his record with Leroy Jenkins, especially since Grimes plays violin as well as his standard upright bass for much of this record.  But everything on this live date is perfectly recorded and in the moment but still with everything they’ve experienced and everyone they’ve played with a shadow in their hearts. 

24. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening – Every time I try to write LCD Soundsystem off, they come back with a record I think is even stronger.  The dynamics, the singing, the writing, I feel like everything is just that notch stronger than their previous releases, and the hooks on this are monstrous.  While there isn’t a song that killed me the way “All My Friends” did, there also isn’t any filler.

25. Sarah Kirkland Snider, Penelope – A very different take on the sequence in the Odyssey that Enda Walsh took on in his play of the same name that also made my best-of list.  Played by NY new music ensemble Signal and with vocals by Shara Worden, the melodies stick in my plasma and everything has the weight of myth and the deep sadness of living. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Favorite Art Exhibits, 2010

1.  Paul Thek, Diver, Whitney Museum, NYC – I knew of Paul Thek’s work but I didn’t really know it when I walked in to the museum on a beautiful late October day, but coming in from the street all orange and golden and into this, all blue and pink and meat sculptures, it was like being slapped,  The impermanence of every damn thing is driven home all through this retrospective, but so is the truth in transcending the limitations of society, of inhibition, of the body.  As moving a collection of work as I saw all year.

2.  Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, Museum of Modern Art, NYC – One of the most visceral exhibits I saw this year, but that doesn’t mean it relied on shock value.  A fascinating combination of recreations of her earlier performances, videos, ephemera, and of course Abramovic herself sitting at a table making eye contact with visitors for hours on end. 

3.  Mark Bradford, s/t, Wexner Center for the Arts –Props to the Wexner Center for doing this and going above and beyond to integrate this with the community and get the outside world involved in an exhibit that was a harder sell than, say, last year’s Luc Tuymans.  Abstractions wrigglingly alive, color palates that smacked the viewer around, an exhibit I saw three times and wanted to see a dozen more.

4.  Catherine Opie, Girlfriends, Gladstone Gallery, NYC –Portrait photography that grabs you by the throat.  Few backgrounds but the ones set in a specific place are twice as gripping, the compositions draw you in even more because of that.  Women in joy and pain and ecstasy and rage.

5.  Peter Brotzmann, Wood and Water, Corbett v. Dempsey Gallery, Chicago – Brotzmann’s visual art which I’d only seen on record covers really stunned me in this gallery.  Blake’s giants and classical woodcut techniques and a love of the earth and woods and everything that deforms both, with a rough-hewn look but also a watery dreamlike brushstroke.

6.  Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Herbert Ferber, Modern Art, Sacred Space, Jewish Museum, NYC – This blew me away with three takes on modernist reworkings of tradition Jewish iconography, designed for an actual synagogue in the late ‘60s.  Whether it was the Curious George thing I saw this year or the Masters of the Comic Book show I saw a few years ago, or a small exhibit of permanent collection work dealing with how artists view the holocaust at this remove, no one sequences or displays art in a more approachable, interesting way than the Jewish Museum.

7.  Cyprien Galliard, Disquieting Landscapes, Wexner Center – Photos of buildings right before or right after demolition, this air of impermanence and crumbling modernity but also this beauty of decay. a splash of blue plastic that leads your eye through the rubble so then you see the tiny flecks of color you might miss originally.

8.  Various Artists, The Delusion of Eating, The Shelf gallery – My favorite multi-artist show in Columbus this year, brilliantly curated to expose the theme in a variety of different ways, less about sexuality than the early press led me to believe and more about the lies we tell ourselves about what we eat, about the nutritional qualities and also the hedonistic elements.

9. Jan Gossart, Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasure, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC – A widely known canonical artist who I had no background in before seeing this show, one of the frustrations and pleasures of being a dilettante striving for autodidact status.  Everything in these paintings is suffused with joy and a thick erotic richness, a link between Van Eyck and Rubens.  I could’ve stayed here for hours.

10. Various Artists, Chaos and Classicism, Guggenheim Museum, NYC – A mindfuck of a show clean and gleaming like a pristine tooth but bubbling rot not far enough under the surface.  Sometimes a regressive movement is just aesthetically motivated, but as often wanting to go back like it was at least leaves you open to insidious forces.

11.  William Kentridge, Five Themes, Museum of Modern Art, NYC – Seeing this South African artist’s exhibit full of his animations including stills and storyboards and enormous sketches and prints as well as performances and ephemera around the operas The Nose and Magic Flute was a kick in the teeth.  The artist and the audience as a worm burrowing into the banality of evil and coming out a little wiser but with a black eye.

12. John Baldessari, Pure Beauty, Metropolitan Museum, NYC – I walked out of this with an enormous grin on my face, and a new appreciation for an artist whose name I knew but I had no idea he was responsible for this much of what I think of as the conceptual art canon.

13.  Sarah Sze, untitled, Tanya Bonakdar gallery, NYC -  The framework of a wonderland, all spindly structures and very mundane parts but so enormous I had to delve into every single piece and leave slack-jawed.

14. Various Artists, Abstract Expressionist New York, Museum of Modern Art, NYC- Taking one of my favorite eras of art and showing me things I’d never seen and making me think about it in a new way is no easy task, and this did what the play Red could not even (though I also loved that).  It also paid the best tribute to a museum I already loved by reminding us that on a good day its permanent collection floors don’t even scratch the surface of its permanent collection.

15. Rivane Neuenschwander, A Day Like Any Other, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis – This Brazilian artist picks up Baldessari’s fun-gauntlet and throws so much at the viewer that you know something has to stick.  And what sticks you have a hard time getting over for days, including constellations made out of hole-punched paper looking over tables with the detritus of a raging night, an installation paying tribute to the movie The Conversation and a series of buckets with holes creating a resonance when they drip into other buckets.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite Theatre and Dance, 2010

Theatre in Columbus is having something of a renaissance in the last few years, at least to my eyes.  I’ve always loved seeing a play but I remember some lean years where there was very little I wanted to catch.  I put theatre and dance on the same list this time because – and I know this is wrong – I tend to approach dance in some ways from a text perspective.  I respect what it uniquely does, but I still tend to lump it in my head with plays/monologues. 

1.  Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, Available Light, August 21, 2010 – I think I’ve done enough gushing about this show.  But while I juggled and hemmed and hawed over much of this list, there wasn’t even a second when AVL’s take on an under-regarded Sondheim play wasn’t at the top of it.  First thing I’ve ever seen Heather Carvel in and she was a revelation.  Ian Short was as amazing as he always is.  The direction caught both the youthful angst and what happens to the dreams of youth perfectly.  And when my ipod runs across the off-Broadway cast recording, these are the people I see and the voices my head hears.

2. Fences by August Wilson, NYC, April 14, 2010 – Obviously one of the greatest plays of the last quarter of the 20th century, and probably my third favorite August Wilson, plus I’d never seen it live.  I was planning to see this before I realized it had this perfect cast.  For acting firepower it doesn’t get much better than this.  Denzel Washington is a hurricane of charm and rage and love all trying desperately to be controlled and to run wild.  And Viola Davis matches him note for note but does it with stillness, with silence, and with one gesture to a hundred of his perfectly in-the-moment gesticulations.  Mykleti Williamson works the audience’s preconceptions like a master violinist and stabs you right between the ribs when you’re not expecting it.  I’d tell you I didn’t cry during this but I’d be lying.

3.  Them (2010) by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane, PS122, NYC, October 21, 2010 – I’m a big fan of all three of these gentlemen, but I’d never seen any of them in the flesh, and the original production of this roughly 25 years ago is still spoken of with an incredible reverence.  The early solo Ishmael Houston-Jones dances himself jammed my heart into my throat until I thought I’d choke or break into a million pieces, like the first time I heard Amiri Baraka read or Peter Brotzmann play saxophone or Diamanda Galas sing, an utterly unique vocabulary getting expressed so perfectly you’re not sure anyone else can ever use it.  But of course, the younger dancers peopling most of this revival/reimagination are fantastic, alone and together and all together and alone again.  Cochrane’s electric guitar was all chopped chords, whiplash feedback, emotions exploding before they happen with the dancers and shadowing the explosions, propping the characters up and bridging the dance and the text.  Cooper’s text is every bit as good as the other two legs of this triangle, not matching the dance except in brief moments – and those synchronicities as are shocking a gun getting fired – but informing it and showing another perspective on the plague and the desperation we still aren’t out of, told in a dryly funny voice that hits you with a sadness it lulled you into not expecting from the beginning, “I thought what they were doing was love.”  Maybe the most harrowing thing in any medium I saw all year but also the most life-affirming.

4.  In the Red and Brown Water by Tarrell Allen McCraney, Steppenwolf, Chicago, February 21, 2010 – My only regret with this is that I wasn’t in Chicago long enough to see the other two connected Brother/Sister Plays while we were there, because this was stunning.  Set in the projects of Louisiana in a time never quite specified, or perhaps out of time, and focusing on very current despair and joy but also Yoruba ritual.  I want everyone writing urban fantasy/American magic realism to see this and see how much juice there still is in the form, how much emotional and metaphoric weight it can still have.  Drumming and singing and astonishing acting, especially Rodrick Covington and Alana Arenas, and a script that draws the line between our past that keeps us down, our past  that shows a way out, and goes straight through your heart.

5.  Pride and Prejudice by Daniel Elihu Kramer (adapted from Jane Austen), Available Light, January 14, 2010 – A great adaptation of one of my favorite all-time novels that opens it up in pacing and modernizes it a little by bringing in the current currents of conversation but keeps its heart and its intensity intact.  Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction keeps the threads balanced and keeps the production moving at just enough of a clip to make an impact and keep the audiences engaged.  Great performances all around, especially Kim Garrison Hopcraft, Michelle Schroeder and Wolf Sherrill.  I was so in love with this I probably convinced 20 people to go who hadn’t seen a play since they were in college.

6.  Hughie by Eugene O’Neill and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, Goodman Theater, Chicago, February 20, 2010 – Two takes on the tragedy of aging, two takes on classic-period modernism, and a showcase for Brian Dennehy that shook me to my core.  The moment where he starts to sing in Krapp’s Last Tape is one of those moments where you realize you’re watching one of the great stage actors just sinking into a role, collapsing on himself.  Electricity all around.

7.  837 Ventura Boulevard by Faye Driscoll, Wexner Center, November 19, 2010 – A fantastic, hilarious dance trio by Faye Driscoll that opened with her singing Will Oldham’s “I Am a Cinematographer” while shadowboxing and improvising half the lyrics and opened up into a friend-triangle that’s poisoning everyone involved.  Taking you from goofy joy right through the rage underpinning the joy, the trying to have a good time mostly to show up people.

8.  The Aliens by Annie Baker, Rattlestick, NYC, April 18, 2010 – It took the full first act for this to click for me, but once it did, it hit like a ton of bricks.  The three characters on the one set of the back porch of a coffeeshop in Vermont, perfectly directed by Sam Gold, with the viewpoint character, Jasper,  learning from the older two through mimicry and through reading behind what they’re saying to see the cautionary tale.  Acting’s amazing, there’s as much beauty in the moment when Michael Chernus as KJ said, “Frogmen sing together” near the end of the first act as in anything I saw this year, and the writing takes naturalism and makes it ineffably, miraculously strange.

9.  Red by John Logan, Donmar New York, NYC, April 17, 2010 – On paper, there was a lot of reason to worry about this.  A two-hander built around arguments about art between Mark Rothko and a fictional assistant by the man who wrote Gladiator?  But it was electric and heartbreaking, Alfred Molina gave a tour-de-force performance and Eddie Redmayne actually gave him a run for his money, not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him, to get dirty.  And the writing really captures those rhythms and keeps you moving with a few arias that’ll make the hair on your arms stand up.

10. A Free Man of Color by John Guare, Lincoln Center, NYC, October 24, 2010 – Frankly, this play’s a little bit of a mess, three hours long with it seems like 30 characters, spread out over two continents, and in the style of a restoration comedy.  But I was both as purely entertained as I’ve been all year, and as in awe as if I was watching a tightrope walk.  Jeffrey Wright is amazing (as expected) and hilarious (not quite as expected)as Jacques Cornet in a broader way than I’ve ever seen from him and he’s surrounded by a cast studded with pitch-perfect supporting actors.  A whirlwind of euphemisms for Cornet’s penis, leaping behind and out of curtains, and a self-awareness that they’re all in a play that mirrors the time period and the precarious social situation and artifice of New Orleans, most heartbreakingly when the main character in a fit of desperation summons Thomas Jefferson to address his complaints to his new ruler.  It made me feel good to see someone going out and making this kind of ambitious antithesis-of-black-box theater.

11. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, Actor’s Theatre, July 24, 2010 – My favorite Shakespeare comedy in a venue I’ve loved since I saw my first girlfriend at 16 in Titus Andronicus, and the best production of this I’ve ever seen.  Staged in neo-realism’s Italy, a performance by Eleni Papaleonardos as Beatrice that had my jaw in my lap, a very strong Travis Horseman as Benedick and a stunning Acacia Duncan, there was nothing I didn’t like about this.

12. The Great War by Hotel Modern, Wexner Center, January 21, 2010 – Hotel Modern basically performed a live WWI movie with narration and sound effects exclusively using miniatures.  Indelible images and even performances all drawn out of plastic and digital video, affirming the belief in theater being whatever an artist thinks it is.

13. The Absurdity of Writing Poetry by Matt Slaybaugh, Available Light, March 21, 2010 – One of the first Available Light shows which I heard about but didn’t catch at the time, now revived as a once-per-season tradition.  A cut up/original text hybrid going through Slaybaugh’s influences, winding through the danger of making art, the double danger that no one will care, and ultimately that if you need to do it you need to do it anyway.  I wanted to have a few crybaby Columbus bands/writers who focus (by which I mean whine about, not take steps to actually build it) a little too much on their audience instead of their art watch this, because it’s a perfect example of how good, how invigorating, and how full of and in touch with life this kind of ars poetica can be.

14. Penelope by Enda Walsh, Druid Theatre Company, NYC, October 23, 2010 – There’s definitely a masturbatory element to this, both in the language and in the characters, it’s ostensibly about Odysseus’ wife but she never moves past being “Odysseus’ wife”, she’s a trophy for the four men hanging out in an empty swimming pool drinking gin to fight amongst themselves over.  They know the end is coming and their wooing is an all-angles portrait of stinking desperation, not just for their lives but also for an era, and you don’t ever really feel for them but I stayed on the edge of my seat and laughed my ass off. 

15. Stop Sign Language by Eleni Papaleonardos, Available Light, September 17, 2010 – One person show premiering this year written by and starring Eleni Papleonardos (who’s made an appearance on this list a few times), about her growing up with dyslexia, her growing up in a bilingual house and how language develops, all braided together because that’s how life works, it’s not easily separated or distilled down to its components.  Very funny and incredibly moving.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Favorite Shows of the Year, 2010


First of a series of four posts of art that really drove me nuts this year, that let me sleep like a baby or disturbed my sleep for days or made me sit down and write something about it or made me write three drafts I just threw out because I couldn’t get it or made me write something completely unrelated.  That made me call somebody or send somebody an e-mail even if I just found myself saying, “Man, so it was, I mean, you know… shit.”  Everything in all of these posts is in Columbus unless otherwise stated.

Saw around 80 concerts this year, not bad for spending an entire month in the Philippines for work.  Great year for music, wish I saw some more local stuff but only so many hours in the week.  2011, I’m ready, my loins are girded, I’ve bought the first ticket to a show next year (Pogues in Detroit, early March, but I’ve already got designs on some January and February stuff).

1. The Oblivians, The Summit, o7/10/10 – Everything you want straight up rock and roll to be – electric energy (and not just because there were some ungrounded microphone issues early on), gospel harmonies and snarling howls, drums that make you want to slam into your best friend in a five foot radius, and guitars like a freight train.  Last year’s show in Detroit was wonderful, but this beat your memories like they stole something, better than I thought a nostalgia reunion could ever be.

2.  El Jesus De Magico and the 2050s, 01/14/10 – Everything I hope the fringes of rock is going to deliver, even if it doesn’t always, a fitting send-off with friends everywhere.  Missed the Cheater Slicks since I was seeing a play that also made this year’s best list for me, but the 2050’s brought the nasty blues-rock but without any of the corny noodling clichés that sometimes entails, more Boss Hogg and Scene Creamers but with a tension you could hang yourself on.  But the meat was the best El Jesus show I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen them a ton.  Witzky’s howl all melancholy and blue flame, a rhythm section equally adept at the slow-burn narcotic crawls and the ferocious stomps, and organ and guitar that build these swirling expressionist paintings of light and feeling.

3.  Raphael Saadiq, The Vibe, Chicago, 08/06/2010 – Goddamn.  I mean what else do you say to this?  The perfect frontman, knows exactly where to brandish his ego like a sword and where to keep it in check, in a spotless suit with a seven piece band and two back up singers, special guests, I didn’t stop dancing for the 90 minutes he was on stage.  90% of the songs of his I wanted to hear, and a version of “It’s a Shame” with one of the Spinners up to sing with him that almost made me drop to my knees.

4.  Budos Band, Southpaw, Brooklyn, 04/16/10 – Boiling trumpet  and sax over slashing guitar, throbbing, ebbing bass and drums, and four percussionists.  The ingredients for an amazing dance party.  Played most of the new record and the crowd didn’t stop moving the entire set, everyone left soaked in sweat, falling asleep on the train back, and perfect, pristine sound still ringing in your head.

5.  Cheap Trick, The LC, 07/09/10 and Devo, Ohio State Fair, 08/04/10 – Every year I cheat a little on one entry, and this year it’s this one.  Within 30 days I saw two shows that restored my faith in live classic rock.  Neither of these bands cheaped out and there was an exuberance in still getting up and rocking an audience.  I love Cheap Trick but with the kind of love that tries to pretend most of their ‘80s work didn’t happen, and I’ve seen them a few times and while they’re great, there’s a lot of sleepwalking through a very well-worn setlist, but not this time.  With Rick Nielsen’s son on drums instead of Bun E. Carlos, they opened with “Weight of the World”, got “I Want You to Want Me” out of the way four songs in and when a third of the crowd left, they didn’t care.  Devo did all the songs you wanted to hear, a couple of things of the new album, particularly good versions of “Girl U Want”, “Good Thing” and “Uncontrollable Urge”, had three costume changes and clearly relished playing the Ohio State Fair.

6.  Swans and Baby Dee, Outland on Liberty, 10/08/10 – Every time I’ve seen Baby Dee it’s been a markedly different show: the joyous cabaret five-piece band at Rumba Cafe, the duo with Maxie Moston at Knitting Factory that stabbed the audience right in the heart again and again, and this with cellist and violinist and her restricted to harp, except for one instrumental on accordion, that was a finely sculpted bit of chamber music including a heartbreaking “Anne-Marie Does Love to Sing”.  Swans blew away any expectation I might have walked in with, from the more-than-10 minute intro to “No Words/No Thoughts” building up chains of tiny cells to create this grand, shadowy mosaic, but not just accumulating, squeezing the most power out of each of those building blocks and through repetition and slight changes, showing them in new light again and again and again.  On through the classic “Sex, God, Sex”, that had everyone nodding along and Gira’s howl at its most potent.  They dragged the audience through the depths of the soul on this pure, visceral, muscular but not macho or clichéd music, and they brought you back out into the light on songs like “Beautiful Child”, but all the light has a shadow element and as Leonard Cohen wrote, “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows”.  Breathtaking, exhausting, invigorating.

7.  Robbie Fulks/Jenny Scheinman duo, The Hideout, Chicago, 08/09/10 – A two-hour trip through the shadowy alleyways, dead-end curves and bright lights surrounding the intersection between Joy and Pain.  Fulks’ “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” with its hobo narrative and sharp, cold fingerpicking and Scheinman’s pizzicato.  Scheinman’s “My Old Man” with its refrain, “I’ll break your little feet” and Fulks’ high harmony.  Fulks’ “Goodbye Virginia” soaring to the rafters, her violin giving it wings and chiaroscuro.  Jokes and stories and astonishing playing and perfect versions of Grandpa Jones and the Carter Family and Lionel Belasco and their originals that meshed even in their different vocabularies, topped off by Mississippi John Hurt’s “I’m Satisfied”, leaning up against the bar having led the audience out pied piper style.

8.  Watershed, Rumba Cafe, 09/10/10 –  Good rock is a magpie’s nest and what makes it good is you relating to the shiny baubles, thinking they’re very much like your own or the ones you always wanted.  And the show at Rumba this fall, barely rehearsed, is the best Watershed show I’ve ever seen for a couple of reasons, but mostly that.  Coming out and leading with “Mercurochrome”, taking its disinfectant metaphor, the stinging pain of leaving being the way you know you’re healing, but here, live, in the middle it turned into a perfect raunchy (has that word ever been used for this band?) cover of Johnny Thunders’ “One Track Mind” with its Chuck Berry bounce and its perfectly-obvious drug metaphor and a whole other level of obsession which amped up the energy of their own song, crashing back into the final chorus, “This time tomorrow / I’ll be gone / The more it hurts / The more it works” and at least three kinds of mythologizing - mythologizing the pain of a decision you haven’t made yet, mythologizing self-abuse as a test of how strong you are, and plain ol’ rock star mythologizing -  all blur into this purple bruise and give the crowd whiplash.  Celebrating playing together, their drummer Dave of a number of years back in the throne after a year of health hell, they burned through a set of some of their angriest, catchiest songs to a crowd that really cared, everyone dancing, everyone singing along, but not as over-rehearsed as they can be (as, to be fair, you really have to be if you’re playing some of the larger stages they play), just sweaty joy, flubbed notes and scars and all.  A victory lap well-earned.

9.  Smoking Popes, Reggie’s Rock Club, Chicago, 02/20/10 – A band I liked well enough but didn’t quite get the massive love for just blowing me away.  Soaring, wistful vocals, from a guy who sounds like he’s being pulled in two directions at once with a band that snakes through all moods.  Rhythm section with crunch and swing, and two guitar lines that got tangled in each other’s flight path like two moths around the same flame.  Big and anthemic but winking just enough at that fist-pumping quality, as disarming in its earnestness as in its sophistication.

10. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, Beat ‘n’ Soul, Off Broadway, St. Louis, 11/06/10 – The crown jewel in a weekend that also featured amazing sets by the Nevermores, Mondo Topless, The Beatdowns, The Bo-Keys and River City Tanlines, One guitar, bass, drums, an organ player who also busted out some beautifully raunchy tenor sax, and brilliant songs.  Drawing a continuum they fit into aesthetically through covers of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, the former done with a perfect reverence and the latter switched up from self-pity to a ferocious statement of intent, “This is not a joke / So please stop smiling.”  Their originals, and the frontman, are what separates this from a Sharon Jones or an Eli “Paperboy” Reed, both of whom I love but can be a little safe, a little measured.  Brooks leads with his chin right into the danger, right into the rage, “I’m glad to see there aren’t any kids under 12 in here, but if there are, bring them to the stage!  They need to learn some shit.”  Songs that are catchy, especially barn-burning versions of “Want More What” that rotates on the line, “I just want to fuck some more” and the two word hook, “Want more / Want more / Want more” that gets the crowd as crazed as any Parliament chant, or “75 Years of Art Sex” with its keening, heart-broken but also lusty hook, “You stab me in the dark”.  Soul music can still hold as much as you can throw at it and if you see a live JC Brooks set and you aren’t blown away, I can’t help you, my friend.

11. Jason Moran/Don Byron/Charli Persip, Jazz Standard, Manhattan, 04/17/10 – The set I always wish mainstream jazz was hitting heights it rarely does in my presence.  Byron’s tenor and clarinet keep spiking these already-gorgeous melodies with hints of gospel shouting and a rockabilly croon, Jason Moran playing the piano like a court jester and a percussion ensemble and Cezanne, and Persip (and Don Byron’s dad on bass for a few wonderful numbers) keeping it all together.  Even when it went off the rails, it was just to see how high it could jump and still land safely.

12. Cave and Psychedelic Horseshit, Carabar, 06/21/10 – Once in a while a show reminds you why you go out on Monday nights.  This was that show for me this year.  Psychedelic Horseshit did one of the best concise, song-based sets I’ve ever seen from them, Matt backed by Adam and Beth from Times New Viking for 30 minutes of thorny Buddy Holly pop.  Then Cave from Chicago got up and started playing this crunchy krautrock that shed its skin into a much sexier breed of krautrock than I think I’ve ever heard.  All about texture getting pulled out to see how much tension they could ratchet us up to, before that giant downbeat that felt like it resolved not just the last beat or the last measure but everything you’ve heard that night.  It felt like the air caught fire and the room shifted just a little and suddenly everyone unbuttoned another button, people started dancing, people are giving each other the eye.  Their records are very good, but that set was magnificent.

13. Liturgy, Scion Rock Fest, Bernie’s, 03/13/10 – Almost-codified black metal deformed in the best way by some post-minimalism, blast beats leavened with some middle eastern/Sun City Girls drumming and scorched earth guitars given a new Jesus and Mary Chain acid bath.  The kind of thing you have to see in Bernie’s because in a more comfortable club you might not believe it’s happening, the moldy claustrophobia keeps you in the moment.

14. Ernest Dawkins, Velvet Lounge, Chicago, 08/06/10 – Keeping fire music alive and staying connected both with its ‘60s forbears/giants and deeply entrenched in what today has to offer, its pain and its pleasures.  The composition was far more than just a launching pad for solos, but the solos were as fierce and as sweet as I could’ve hoped and the interaction stopped my heart a couple of times. 

15. Home Blitz and Day Creeper, Carabar, 07/29/10 – How close can you come to the carpet and still spring up smiling?  This set had a Raging Bull  appeal, the scrappy fighter who you get the sense knows they’re in a Sisyphean struggle but they do it anyway.  That was Home Blitz for me that summer weeknight.  Between every song, it looked like the whole set would fall apart, but every perfect noise-pop gem brought them back swinging with webs of interlaced guitar, nice guy Johnny formerly of Rot Shit on bass keeping everything together, and fierce drumming.

16. Travis Laplante, Zebulon, Brooklyn, 10/20/10 – Probably the best solo tenor sax set I’ve ever seen, and by someone I’m barely familiar with to boot.  Unamplified and first on a bill in a packed Brooklyn bar with people just looking to escape CMJ for a few hours with a nice beer or glass of wine, Laplante comes out and his horn starts singing, soul-growls that stretch like taffy into these organ-like landscapes, then get atomized into individual notes that hang in the air.  Great sets after, including Glass Ghost’s Stereolab-filtered-through-Serge-and-Jane grimy pop and Sam Micken’s arch, dry take on neo-soul with a falsetto that wouldn’t quit, but nothing else punched me in the gut like this.

17. Noveller and unFact, I Think It’s Open, 08/20/10 – My only regret about this show is that I got there a little late and missed Mike Shiflet’s opening set, heard it was stunning.  Second time I’d seen Noveller and this blew that earlier set away, more melodic but also more surprising, sculpting these perfect mountains of glass with her clarity of tone, then setting a fire all ar0und them just to see what they did to the light of the flames.  unFact, the solo-bass project of David Wm. Sims of the Jesus Lizard was also a face melter, subtler melodically, a little more song-based, and all soaked in that rich,volcanic tone he’s brought to every band he’s played in.

18. Dutchess and the Duke, Wexner Center, 01/16/10 – Two voices, two guitars, almost no addressing the audience (a welcome relief after a show I was at earlier that evening that literally had as much banter as songs) and this sweet, sweet longing.  Nothing particularly interesting to describe, but this show shook me all the way down.

19. Hallogallo 2010 and Disappears, Wexner Center, 09/07/10 -  And this show shook me in the exact opposite way, Michael Rother on guitar and synths leading Aaron Mullan of Tall Firs and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and the Crucifucks in a set of Cluster, Harmonia and the eponymous Neu! track.  This physical, sweaty, spiritual body music.   The only thing I saw/heard/whatever this year that did the same thing to me as this set of music was that Paul Thek retrospective at the Whitney museum. 

20. The Beetkeepers, Scrawl, Black Swans, and the Planktones, Rumba Cafe, 12/04/10 – One of those reunions that’s so much better than you ever would’ve thought that everyone feels lucky just to be there.  And every single band stepped up their game, as good a set as I’ve seen from Scrawl, Black Swans, the Planktones (the new iteration of the Wyatt brothers’ fun cover project), and I’ve seen some great sets by all three of those bands.  And the Beetkeepers kept everyone in the palm of their hands for the entire hour set and played with a free-spirited tightness I never would’ve expected from a band spread across three cities and not having played together in almost 20 years.  Goddamn.