Great year for live music, with only having to travel for work for a few isolated weeks instead of months at a time I saw 125 shows and honestly very few of them were weak. But these were the 20 that fought for themselves in my memory, that I wanted all my friends to be there seeing and was glad for whatever friends of mine were there, whether it was 100 or 2. As with the other posts, everything in in Columbus unless otherwise stated.
1. Tyondai Braxton and the Wordless Music Orchestra, 03/07/11 (Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; Manhattan) – The sound of the world cracking open and being born. Playing a record I’d already been in love with but hearing it in a great-sounding room with all the woodwinds and strings and a four-person vocals/kazoo section was eye opening to say the least. Colors bleeding into each other and exploding in the back of my head and this raw, perfect joy. Just joy.
2. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, 12/02/11 (The Basement) – JC Brooks also appeared on my theater list this year but the first time they came to Columbus doing their set – they were the backing band for my top-rated Numero Group show at the Lincoln Theater a few years ago – reaffirmed their status as the best live band working today. A new lineup with no horns, stripped down and ready for action, with those same great songs that embrace everything from James Brown to the Delfonics to Johnny Thunders to Sonic Youth as dance music. Even with a sadly small crowd – probably 50 people – Brooks didn’t for one second phone it in, a sweat-drenched, perfectly sung performance that had everyone in the palm of his hand, and the band was right there behind him. Music like this is what’s keeping soul alive.
3. Liminanas/Gaz Gaz, 08/19/11 (The Summit) – A band, Liminanas, that comes to the US for the first time (at least for a full tour) and really come out with something to prove. They and Gaz Gaz teamed up to do both sets as a barbed wire wall of 7-piece sound. Great, catchy songs sung in a manner just disaffected enough - caring/not caring blurring into one another. A mix of elements that’s not new – a dash of Velvet Underground pulse instead of beat, ‘60s girl group vocals and drums, Ramones drive, clean and dirty guitars switching prominence between verse and chorus, and a tambourine player who looks like he’s having the time of his life – but all played with such fire and charm that it sounded brand new. The whiskey was sweeter, the smiles grew bigger and by the time we all stumbled into the night slick with sweat we felt washed clean.
4. Budos Band, 02/26/11 (Outland on Liberty) – For all my bitching about poor Columbus crowds, once in a while my city really does me proud and this time they did it again with Budos Band. The last of three shows A. and I made it to that night (and not a stinker in the bunch, I should say, Rodney Crowell acoustic and the Bill Frisell/Greg Leisz tribute to Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant were both top notch also) and it was a scorcher. Promoting their great third record, III, as the sax player said, “It’s the one on the merch table with the fuckin’ cobra”, bari sax melting over the crowd, trumpet raining knives, bass twitching like a raw nerve and walls of percussion and guitar undulating in time. These last three shows on the list, I danced more than I did at any other show.
5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Dan Zezelj, Brooklyn Babylon, 11/09/11 (Brooklyn Academy of Music; Brooklyn) – I was really torn whether to put this in the “theatre” list or the “shows” list, but as good as Zezelj’s images and animation were – and they were very good – this was all about the music for me. Everything perfectly balanced, big, brassy, cinematic music that harkened back to classic Basie and Jones/Lewis but also full of modern riffs and touches including electronics and the whole band playing percussion, no boundaries but always within the realm of the narrative, nothing showy. I was so enraptured I didn’t want this to end; barring a DVD, I’d love a CD of this music.
6. Robbie Fulks, 05/23/11 (The Hideout; Chicago) – Fulks’ Monday residency at the Hideout is a treat everyone who can get to Chicago should experience as often as possible. The joy of seeing Fulks as a player and a songwriter not hemmed in by budget or travel or the third booked night in a row where he’s lucky to get gas money has really brought a flowering of the artist he’s always been. His ad hoc recurring band the night A. and I were in Chicago, The Scavengers, had Robbie Gjersoe on guitar, KC McDonough on bass and organ, and Gerald Dowd on drums and everyone singing. As purely fun a night of music as I had, full of wacky surprises – bebop and funk instrumentals played as perfectly as anyone right now, covers of Jon Hartford and Bobbie Gentry and Bill Fox, some new Fulks originals that were heartbreaking and wry as always, everything good about the last 40 years of pop music in a tiny room played out of love.
7. Hell Shovel and Day Creeper, 10/05/11 (Ace of Cups) – Anyone who’s ever seen one of these lists knows I love Demon’s Claws, but even I was unprepared for Jeff Clarke’s new band. The Riders of the Purple Sage on mushrooms, Old 97s with a taste for meth instead of whiskey, whatever comparisons you want to make the material and playing is more than strong enough to stand up to it. Songs that split the difference between Carl Perkins and Johnny Thunders but with a deep Suicide love of drone; my happiest musical surprise all year.
8. Black Swans, 12/30/11 (house concert) – The Black Swans ending a pretty great year that also had them releasing their best album so far and touring like mad, with the wrap-up at this recorded house concert for an invited crowd. They rolled through 15 songs including new stuff – that sounded fantastic, particularly “Fickle and Faded” – and most of their records, played with characteristic warmth and practiced telepathy. Songs of loneliness and love bringing a community together.
9. Josef Van Wissem with Che Chen and Robbie Lee and Paul Metzger and Mike Shiflet, 06/18/11 (Skylab) – van Wissem’s lute playing’s always extraordinary and this set had him, for lack of a better word, more rock and roll style with a deep Keith Richards rhythm but without ever dumbing down. The flurries of notes all felt perfectly inevitable, and the backing with Che Chen on tapes, percussion and violin and Robbie Lee on a homemade bass clarinet was a wall of sound that cracked my rib cage and left me trying to explain this to people I knew wouldn’t care and not giving a damn. Mike Shiflet’s opening set was transcendent and Paul Metzger’s set after them of bowed extra-string banjo (I wrote down 12 but thinking about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 18) was the perfect thing to send us all back into the night. The kind of thing Skylab does better than anywhere else in town that makes Columbus lucky to have them.
10. Puffy Areolas and Unholy 2, 04/02/11 (Cafe Bourbon Street) – For a while, the Puffys have been leading Ohio’s charge of joyful, anarchic, greasy rock. Damon taking up lead vocals as well as guitar started the concentration and adding Bim Thomas (of legendary Bassholes, Obnox, anything worth playing on fame) turned the flame bright blue. As strong a sweaty, beer-drenched show as I saw all year, the room all leaning in, huddled close as one and dancing simultaneously – that’s right, we were defying motherfucking physics. The Unholy 2 set afterward that turned into an improbably rocking all star jam was also damn fine.
11. Signal Ensemble and Third Coast Percussion, 03/13/11 (Le Poisson Rouge; Manhattan) – Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at LPR played flawlessly, with rhythms that sank all the way into your skin and made the molecules of the room vibrate in countless different directions at once. The capper on one of the best New York trips I’ve ever had, and after it was over, the four of us took a cab to my favorite bar and toasted the night without words.
12. Orgone, 07/14/11 (Ravari Room) and Gang Gang Dance, 07/12/11 (Double Happiness) – Two shows in the same week that were very different but equally invigorating takes on rhythm. Gang Gang Dance, in one of my favorite new bars of the year almost uncomfortable packed, which makes that kind of music even better. The waves of people mean you can’t not dance and the long neon taffy synthesizer lines and percussion like a dozen heartbeats in a sack put everyone over the top. Orgone, sadly playing to maybe ten people at Ravari Room, where I’ve seen a number of great shows, giving their 100% and swirling their psychedelia through vintage Roy Ayers style smooth funk, occasionally throwing us with a hard break. Bliss.
13. V-Roys, 12/27/11 (Southgate House; Newport, KY) – The Southgate House was one of my favorite venues in Ohio (yeah, I know it’s Kentucky, but it’s the greater Cincinnati area and it doesn’t occur to me in the same breath as venues in Louisville or wherever) which is closing after the 31st. This show did justice to every great memory I had there. Mic Harrison and Scott Miller’s solo projects are fantastic with great songs but there’s a special magic with those two voices and guitars bouncing off each other, which is in no way meant to slight the swinging, driving, supple rhythm section of Paxton Sellers and Jeff Bills. Still nailing everything from slowly blooming explosions of heartbreak and rage like Miller’s “Lie I Believe”, “Goodnight Loser” and “Sorry Sue” and grimy, ragged power-pop like Harrison’s “Amy 88”, “Sooner or Later”, and Miller’s “Guess I Know I’m Right.” Sure, maybe this went on a little too long and had too many midtempo songs but when someone hasn’t been around in 12 years and they just came back for a few drinks and some sweet memories before they vanish back into the ether, indulgence isn’t a sin it’s a blessing.
14. Group Doueh, Chicha Libra, and Mucca Pazza, 06/25/11 (Cleveland Museum of Art; Cleveland) – Every museum fundraiser should be this good, in all senses. Well run, plenty of places to get a drink, lines are managed and the music is perfectly curated, never an afterthought. Group Doueh’s blistering guitar over synth and gospel vocals in twisting mobius strips took my breath away. Chicha Libre’s Peruvian pop takes on everything from classic French ballads to the theme from the Simpsons worked just as well in the midwest under a warm, cloudy sky as in a tiny Brooklyn club. Mucca Pazza worked better in these circumstances than I’d ever seen them.
17. Paradoxical Frog, 11/10/11 (Cornelia Street Cafe; Manhattan) – I saw Tyshawn Sorey twice this year, both in sax/piano/drum contexts; along with being blown away by his playing even more than usual, Paradoxical Frog stunned me with their compositional rigor and ultimate dedication to sound. Kris Davis’ piano sounds better every time I see her and she was a massive gravitational force with Ingrid Laubrock’s tenor swooping in and pulling out, weaving through Sorey’s upside down lightning storms. A band all about tone and feeling but still steering clear of any clichéd way to think about those concepts.
16. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, 11/18/11 (Wexner Center for the Arts) – The kind of thing the Wexner does better than anyone in town. An invigorating show where the main instrumental voices were ngoni of different sizes (may be called something different, like the difference between a mandolin and a mandocello) ringing out in different ranges with different resonance, under gorgeous not quite gospel vocals, waves of groove and melody melting in and washing over each other and the audience.
17. Six Organs of Admittance and Black Swans, o8/08/11 (Skully’s) – I don’t get a lot of joy out of ragging on promoters or venues but the way this show was handled was a fucking travesty. An act that hadn’t been here in a while, that had always drawn in the realm of 100 people played to 12 by my count not including the opening band, and I can almost guarantee won’t be here again for a long, long time if ever. But beyond that ass-chapping lack of promotion, this was a beautiful, meditative thing with Six Organs (in solo acoustic mode like the first time I saw him) soothing silence and reflection in paintings of his own blood on a rainy Tuesday right as some chill was puncturing the end of summer.
18. Guitar Wolf and Cheap Time, Bottom Lounge, 05/19/11 (Chicago) – Chicago might be my favorite place to see a straight up, do shots and bounce into people rock show as well as boasting some of my favorite people to see that kind of show with. Cheap Time came out and got us all moving with what Ken Hite dubbed “The Pretenders recreated as a Replacements tribute band”, Brit-inflected Pop songs with a rust belt sensibility (and a male vocalist really reviving Hynde’s clipped vocal style and range) played by three people bashing through their instruments at the very edge of their ability like it’s the only thing that matters. And Guitar Wolf came out and destroyed like always, Ramones songs played twice as fast and three times as hard, with stage presence that harkened back to KISS and the Kinks.
19. Doveman, Nadia Sirota and Owen Pallett, 03/09/11 (Merkin Hall; Manhattan) – Let’s have some love shown to Judd Greenstein’s work with the Ecstatic Music Festival, I’m bummed I can’t make the 2012 iteration (just can’t pull off a trip up there till April this year) but it’s always packed with stuff that I’m drooling over. This example from last year was perfect. It started with Owen Pallett doing a number of songs from his mesmerizing Heartland and reaching back to his earlier work under the name Final Fantasy, really reaching into his lungs and playing with his abilities as a singer, enjoying not having to set up loops, really taking advantage of having the string quartet with him. Then Nadia Sirota played some gorgeous viola pieces, slowly reassembling the quartet behind her, including a new piece Pallett wrote for her. And Doveman with his charming banter and intoxicating piano and vocals, backed by everyone who’d been on stage that night playing much of his last record and brand new work with new arrangements.
20. Plastic Crimewave Sound and Psychedelic Horseshit, 01/28/11 (Skylab) – The first time I saw Psychedelic Horseshit’s new material live with Matt Whitehurst and Ryan Jewell building taffy sculptures of JG Ballard cityscapes, layer on layer of synth and guitar and percussion both organic and synthesized. Then Plastic Crimewave came out and did their patented art-rock, Stooges through Hawkwind through earlier Crimson, with those great songs and guitars turned up just loud enough in that little room to pry your third eye open.