Good lord. Most of my years are good years for live music but this was exceptional. Upwards of 135 shows at over 60 venues spread out over a handful of cities, and a few duds but a vanishingly small number. Similar to my records, not a lot of big, straightahead rock made this list but what did was choice. And a surfeit of searing abstraction and firey hip shaking. Of the four “best of” lists, this one had the hardest decisions, the most worthy stuff left off, and the most moments of “Fuck, I can’t believe how lucky I am” in looking back.
My comments last year about different venues stepping up and coming into their own and more genres being covered came even more true this year. As predicted, Natalie’s turned out to be a first class venue and appears with two shows with another two phenomenal shows that missed this list by the skin of their teeth (Scott Miller with Rayna Gellert and Kenny Roby). Great food, great staff, great sound - for any kind of listening-room gig this is the place I secretly hope certain kinds of shows will steer toward because nobody does it better. I was skeptical about a Jazz Standard/City Winery/Route 33 Rhythm and Blues model working in Columbus but most of the shows I see there are packed and it’s clearly filling a niche most of Columbus didn’t know was needed. Woodlands expanded Cthulhu-like to an additional three bars and their flagship continues to be light years away from the staid room it had been at Thirsty Ear. Several shows almost made this list there (Marco Benevento, two appearances by Jack Grace Band, Jimbo Mathus) and they’ve already booked some stuff for 2014 I’m salivating over.
New York continues to hold a special place in my heart and 30% of the list is made up of NYC shows - impressive considering only 4% of the year was actually spent there, but my trips both had incredible batting averages and there are still a number of shows that in another light would’ve made this list hands down (Britten@100 at Trinity Church, Brain Cloud at Rodeo Bar, Bobby Previte/Mike Gamble/Fabian Rucker and Jacob Garchik’s The Heavens at Bowery Electric, the list goes on). .
On the local front, the usual suspects got better and more intense. Aside from the locals on the list proper, I can’t not bring up a handful of bands I’ve only seen once or twice that are already good enough I bet they’ll be destroying me in a year - The Christopher Rendition, Orson Buggy, Comrade Question, Clave Sonic, The Utopiates, Dan White Sextet. Found a new favorite guitar player, Aaron Quinn, whose jazz and modern classical contexts are already enrapturing me.
20 (even 22 with some minor cheating) isn’t enough if you’re really paying attention. 20 isn’t enough if you give a damn and you’ve got enough of your health and enough spare spending money to go out once or twice a week. 20 isn’t enough. But these are 20 shows I felt bad for at least a handful of people for not being at (not always the same people, Big Sandy doesn’t have the same crowd as Swans, and that’s a good thing). These are 20 shows I wanted to hug people leaving or have a nightcap and talk until last call about or tell people about first thing the next morning.
- Marc Ribot Trio, 11/05/13 (Village Vanguard, Manhattan) - I was already looking at the first week of November for my second trip to New York of the year but when Ribot was announced as playing the Vanguard that sealed it. One of my favorite guitarists and an artist who did an immeasurable amount to turn me onto genres and scenes and other players I’m still a fan of today but this was the first time I’d ever seen him live as a leader and it didn't disappoint. Playing to the tradition-minded sense of Vanguard history as well as any set I’ve ever seen (and I say that as someone who’s seen Paul Motian, Marilyn Crfispell, and Andrew Cyrille play in that storied space) with a set of two Ayler songs, a Coltrane tune, at least one standard I didn't write down, and a couple of originals or perhaps fully improvised pieces this was the most intense hour of music I saw all year. That sharp, stinging tone ringing out in that perfect sounding little room bending and breaking notes and maybe most impressive on a long spidery ballad in the middle of the set. On drums, Chad Taylor, always fantastic but playing with a deep backbeat that still surprised and still found new and fascinating corners and new ways to play off the other two members of the trio. And Henry Grimes, the legend, who I was seeing for the second time (the first on James DeBruicker’s bachelor party in Chicago), good lord. Still such a rich tone and a perfect, unflappable center of gravity especially on arco.
- Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, 09/11/13 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - This might have been the most fun I had at any show this. It was damn sure the most fun I had at a seated show. I was skeptical going in, because Big Sandy and band are the consummate dance band to end all dance bands, but they assessed the situation and played two sets of sexy, soulful western swing and rockabilly and jump blues with a slightly stripped down band consisting of longstanding right hand man Ashley Kingman on lead guitar and a newer rhythm section. His powerhouse voice was the unequivocal star of the show and he and the band took this supper club atmosphere and played it to the hilt, dipping into his darker material like “Wishing Him Away” and “The Ones You Say You Love” but not neglecting stomps and swinging like “Hey Lowdown” and “How DId You Love Someone Like Me”. And his extended paean to Dan Dougan’s legendary clubs Stache’s and Little Brother’s brought back many a sweet memory. Even when his guitarist was shamelessly hitting on my girlfriend, Big Sandy passed a glass of his own tequila from the stage - a mensch and the best goddamn entertainer working today.
- Globalfest, 01/13/13 (Webster Hall, Manhattan) - This is neck and neck with Big Sandy for the most and best fun I had at a show and a big highlight from the same NYC trip that provided two slots of my theater best of and another two on this list. The only show I've ever seen use all three stages in Webster Hall and a tremendous range of art. Fatamou Diawara’s subtle rhythms and gorgeous, pure voice I wanted to live in. The great Oliver Mutukudzi who I never thought I’d get to see live with his light and gentle ‘70s party and politics. The Stooges Brass Band merging hip-hop breaks with classic second line step and swagger. La Santa Cecile’s gypsy latin hybrid. Everywhere I turned around there was sheer delight.
- Swans, 07/24/13 (Bluestone) - Swans have made a particular art out of catharsis and its denial not unlike the pleasures in S&M or religious asceticism. And while their show at Outland about three years ago was great, this was a more relaxed, confident show, a band enjoying being at the height of their powers. Very little classic material - though a *smoking* “Coward” - but you want this band to play exactly what they’re most excited about at any given moment, and as much of a focal point as Michael Gira’s deep and dark voice is, every part of this finely oiled machine was clicking just right through waves of pulsing percussion and guitar noise.
- Colin Stetson, 01/12/13 (Bitter End, Manhattan) - Winter Jazzfest is pretty phenomenal but there’s a lot of cramped rooms and waiting in line. In New York. In January. But what was good - in addition to this, Jacob Garchick’s The Heavens and Bobby Previte’s Baritone Trio at Bowery Electric, Kneebody at Subculture, Eric Revis’s trio at Zinc Bar - was incredibly good and this one 45 minute set would've made the money spent and the time on a sidewalk worth it all even if nothing else had been up to that standard. Stetson alone on one of the more storied musical stages in NYC (I was standing underneath a photograph of Kris Kristofferson) alternating between bass and alto sax and using the whole sax, setting up rhythmic patterns on keypads and blowing one harmony against another without any benefit of loops or effects pedals. But this never degenerated into simple parlor trick virtuosity, it was never like watching a trained seal,every instance of technique felt like a tool to strip the song down to an ever-deeper level of emotional content and intensity. I left shaking.
- Bill Frisell Big Sur Quintet, 12/03/13 (Wexner Center) - Speaking of virtuosi whose work is always in the service of content, Frisell’s most recent appearance was one of his most striking in recent memory. Much like chamber music, this was not a show about solos, soloing was brief (some tunes didn’t have any solo) and always suffused with compositional purpose. The compositions inspired by Big Sur, California, were rapturous including a razor-sharp riff on the long surf music tradition, a Beach Boys cover, tributes to Mills College minimalism and a couple pure, beautiful melodies. The string section - Hank Roberts, Eyvind Kang, and Jenny Scheinman - were all perfect but Rudy Royston was the MVP of the evening, chunky interesting drumming that never overpowered anything. Every element of this quartet was perfectly balanced and always in service of the song.
- Pimps of Joytime, 02/20/13 (Woodlands Tavern) - Pimps of Joytime enraptured a not-bad crowd for a cold February weeknight and got a frequently staid Columbus audience grooving. With a curator’s love of different dance steps and different grooves, including a particularly good grasp of the clave, and dynamics that jibed with a hundred heartbeats this was some of the best fun I had all year.
- Spiritualized, 09/14/13 (Wexner Center) - A band I’d been a fan of since High School finally coming through town on the back of one of the best records they’ve made and with one of the best live lineups they’ve ever had, anchored by the seismic drumming of Kid Millions from Oneida behind the kit. Jason Pierce led a clinic in how commanding a presence can be just sitting down with a guitar, never taking his shades off or even really acknowledging the audience. Waves of coruscating light and sound, taking me, at least, to a church of the flesh.
- French American Peace Ensemble, 06/18/13 (Shadowbox Cabaret) - Free jazz has a special place in my heart, it’s like mainlining raw emotion - joy, rage, desire - right into the pleasure centers of my brain. And it’s mediated by the skill of the artists (god knows I’ve also seen some terrible free jazz over the years) but it gives the impression of being unmediated the same way a Jackson Pollock painting does, it looks like a window right into your soul and into another universe. The great Kidd Jordan from New Orleans with a command of the tenor like no one else living and the soulful, heartbreaking tone,and Louis Sclavis, a little more restrained but perfectly in the pocket as Jordan’s reeds foil. Francois Tusques on piano doing fascinating comping on music that’s very hard to comp around. And my favorite rhythm section of any genre of music since I first heard them when I was in High School, William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums.
- Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, 11/07/13 (Jazz Gallery, Manhattan) - My first trip to the new Jazz Gallery, on the 5th floor of a nondescript building not far from Gramercy, and I’m happy to report it’s the same bare bones church to music it was below Houston and a phenomenal sounding room. And the Secret Society - about whom my admiration is on public record, after all they’re on my records of the year - have hit a new layer of purity and intensity. Nadje Noordhuis’ trumpet blew my hair back from across the room, especially on a new song, a tribute to legendary teacher and trumpeter Laurie Frink, and Ryan Keberle’s trombone an even brighter spark in the blood river that is the lower end of this big band. That hour summed up what makes this band special and looking around there were so many other musicians and particularly people who had clearly come from other gigs earlier that night, if this streak keeps up I’m calling it now, this is going to be one of the most influential bands in decades.
- Julia Haltigan, 11/05/13 and Arum Rae, 01/15/13 (11th Street Bar, Manhattan) - People I trust have been telling me about Tuesdays at 11th Street Bar for a while and in the wake of Lakeside and Banjo Jim’s closing word on the street is that this is the last Manhattan outpost of the evergreen NYC alt.country scene. This year, I was lucky enough to have both my trips to the city overlap and two fascinating singers. Julia Haltigan I’d heard for a while but live with her band finely tuned, her torch songs exploded, especially my (still) favorite of hers, “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love”. For anything to make an impression on me after that towering Marc Ribot show (at the top of this list) was a marvel but that’s a set I’d see every week if I had the chance, and many people I talked to said they do exactly that. Arum Rae was a totally unknown quality to me but it was one of the most fascinating, pure voices I’ve heard since the first time I heard a young Neko Case, both in her own knotty songs and even striking on a song I’ve heard countless times, as close to a hoary standard as alt.country has, “Angel From Montgomery” suddenly sounded new and incredibly moving.
- Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, 05/12/13 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - The first appearance on this list this year of Alec Wightman’s always top notch singer-songwriter shows but not the last. He consistently books things no one else brings to town and finds an appreciative (if occasionally a little too demonstrative/friendly) audience every single time. Chuck Prophet with his full rock band proved again he’s the consummate professional and that’s no slight and not damning with faint praise. In a seated room he didn’t pander and he didn’t rein his band in but they took advantage and did a few of his softer tunes he rarely totes out in a heavier rock club and the band has such a grasp on dynamics that nothing was overpowering for the room but there was no lack of power. A clinic in the power of the history of rock songs.
- Omaha Diner, 11/09/13 (Drom, Manhattan) - Steven Bernstein on trumpet and slide trumpet (and endless charisma), Skerik on saxophone, Bobby Previte on drums (and a couple of surprising vocal turns) and Charlie Hunter on guitar doing abstracted takes on top 40 songs and it was some of the best fun I had all year. Two hour long sets covering hits I genuinely love (“Miss You”, “Single Ladies”) and kind of hate in most contexts (“One Bad Apple”, “Thrift Shop”). They found the exciting, adrenaline pieces of each of those songs and went off on flights of fancy without ever becoming disconnected from the melody I didn’t stop dancing except when I needed another beer for the entire show.
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with Sharon Van Etten, 03/17/13 (Ryman, Nashville) - I had to be talked into this, by A. of course, and of course she was 100% fucking right. I was hung up that the time I saw the Bad Seeds - the last American tour with the frontline of Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey together - was a pinnacle and I hadn’t really liked the (non-Grinderman) records since. But the new record Push the Sky Away felt like a really interesting new direction and live it was a riveting, at times meditative, overheated swamp of moody sound. Nothing overpowered anything else, and especially at the Ryman? Wow.
- The Hexers and Fort Shame, 08/24/13 (Ace of Cups) - My two favorite bands in town pound-for-pound hit new heights this year and my favorite show of either (narrowly edging out Fort Shame’s riveting set at A’s birthday show also featuring fantastic sets by Dirty Biscuits and Fes Minck’s soul cover band debut, Fes and the Black Panthers). Fort Shame's fusion of Todd May's (he of one of my top 5 records this year) soul-country ballads and explosions and acidic guitar with Sue Harshe's surging rhythm guitar and piano and almost art-songs orbiting around the vibrant, flexible rhythm section of Jamey Ball on bass and George Hondroulis on drums, with an ever expanding role for Bob Starker on tenor sax, this was one of those shows where everything clicked. Almost nothing could have bettered Fort Shame that night... Except The Hexers who took that as a challenge. With guest stars including Starker, Caroline from Washington Beach Bums on trumpet, and some guest vocals, The Hexers turned Ace of Cups into a juke joint inside the middle of a tent revival in the midst of burning down. The Sonics met Seven Seconds doing girl group songs, as good a rock and roll dance party as I've ever been to.
- Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, 04/07/13 (Valleydale Ballroom) - This wad a textbook perfect country show. The inherent charm of Robison and Willis (my pal Jason Baldwin said, "I might like them even more together.") is undeniable. Rock solid accompaniment on lead guitar/pedal steel and upright bass didn't hurt. But those songs, both Robison's own writing and their phenomal song selections - including the Blasters' "Border Radio", 70s chestnut "9,999,999 Reasons", and a haunting Terry Allen song about the death penalty - but this show rightly put their new songs on a level with their massive hits from the past.
- Bonnie “Prince” Billy, 01/25/13 (Wexner Center) - Bonnie “Prince” Billy came through town with Emmett Kelly on lead guitar and vocals and Cheyenne Mize on violin and vocals. This might have been my favorite format to see Oldham in and the setlist touched on almost everything I wanted to hear. A clinic on the pure luster of songcraft and singing with your friends.
- Los Vigilantes, 04/20/13 (Boneyard) - The Boneyard is one of the venues in town I don’t get to very often - it’s a recipe for feeling old for me, most of the time - but it’s definitely done its part to keep Columbus on the DIY punk touring circuit, providing some stability in a scene where venues don’t usually last more than a school year (aside from perennial Legion of Doom). And arguably the brightest lights in the very fertile Puerto Rican garage rock scene, Los Vigilantes, tore it up.
- Sound Prints, 09/24/13 (Wexner Center) - The best straightforward jazz set I saw all year. The first Dave Douglas record I ever bought was his sextet tribute to Wayne Shorter, Stargazer, which was also my gateway into Shorter’s compositions beyond his work with Miles Davis. And this new tribute project was every bit as good as I hoped a quintet of some of my heroes would be. Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’s frontline of tenor and trumpet and their compositions along with a few new tunes written expressly for this project by Wayne Shorter. Joey Baron’s always masterful drumming keeping everyone on stage alert. Lawrence Fields on piano and Linda Oh on bass more than holding their own despite being a generation or two removed
- Talisha Holmes Ensemble, 04/25/13 (Brothers Drake Meadery) and Lydia Loveless and the Washington Beach Bums, 06/27/13 (Ace of Cups) - These two shows are linked in my head because they both set a high water mark for artists I love in town but had some reservations about. In an hour or so each, these sets swept those reservations away. Talisha Holmes has a phenomenal voice and over the years has been a strong presence with J. Rawls’ Liquid Crystal Project, Evan Oberla Project, and Mojoflo but her larger band at Brothers Drake, featuring such Columbus heavy hitters as Adam Smith (Descendre, Dead Sea) on keys and Ron Hope on percussion, was a revelation. Her stage presence was as strong as anyone I’ve seen, and her singing had a new, stronger expressive power. But the big key was the songs, splitting the difference between the complicated joy of Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder and the lush tension of Norman Whitfield produced Tempations; some of the most complex, hooky modern soul you’ll see anywhere in town. And the Lydia Loveless set, introducing her new drummer to the Columbus audience with the same stalwart support of her husband Ben Lamb on bass and Todd May on lead guitar, her band is a well-oiled machine now and the new songs were hookier, punchier and more diverse than anything I’d seen from her before. This set took her from a “really good, what’s the rest of the bill like?” to a “must see” and I can’t wait for the new record.