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.