Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Live Music

“We eulogize autumn, we long
for a better world, we seek to deliver
a purer hemidemisemiquaver,
the one brief note that says we mean,
roughshod and winged, to last forever.”
-Maxine Kumin, “Finding the One Brief Note”

The end of this year's wrap-up, my favorite shows of the year. This is the post I always write and post last because there are always a couple things in December that leave me speechless. I never want to write anything off before the solstice.

Left off this for the same reason I used to leave off Twangfest (in case anyone has been reading these for so long, going back to the LJ era) is Big Ears Festival - but I don't want to make light of that. It was so immense if I tried to carve out discrete pieces, half the list would have gotten subsumed in its tide. The most musically fulfilling and enriching music festival I've been to since the combination of Winter Jazz Fest and Globalfest in 2013 (look for a return to that in 2016 if everything goes well) or, if you think that's cheating, since Terrastock in 2008.

Again, loss colored a lot of this the way it colored a lot of the whole year - some of the people gone this year I got to know from going to shows. Even though I brought this up on the records list, let's take another moment to remember Joey Moore from The Girls!. That band only shows up on this list for FemmeFest - their first performance with the very good replacement guitarist, Joe Rosenblum, doing a damn fine job in a nigh-impossible situation -  because I was out of town for their record release in April and the few months beforehand I missed several shows because, well, I knew a record was in the can and I assumed I'd have plenty of time.

The other large-looming loss for Columbus music was Mark Flugge, pianist and educator without whom I don't think this town would be nearly as vibrant or full as it is. I didn't know Mark well but I was always overjoyed to see him and he taught many, many of my musician friends. His playing and writing were a revelation to me, one of the first great piano players I ever heard live and even as my ears got more seasoned his Firehouse tributes to Monk, Horace Silver and others were still eye-opening. I wrote up his January quintet show at Natalie's without being aware that he was struggling and it was a beautiful evening of great Monk compositions.

Not to make this about me but I was pretty stunned when Flugge's longtime sideman (and also a very fine pianist in town in his own right) Dave Dewitt read a piece of my review during the public memorial at Capital University. It reminded me that people are listening and it does matter to hear some publicly expressed praise and criticism and it's part of my impetus to start "Hey, Fred" to draw attention to things coming to town and in 2015 to review more. To try to engage in the dialogue as things are happening.  Hold me to that.

You can't exhaust yourself trying to see everything but you can't take what's in your town right there in front of you for granted either. I'm trying to remember that - or even re-learn it.

  1. La Mecanica Popular, 04/18/14 (Nublu, Manhattan) - Obviously, everything related to fame or just desserts is a crapshoot but this is the one thing I saw this year in a small room that I feel confident saying there is no justice in this world if they aren't at least Sharon Jones huge. A tight eight-piece band reinventing classic Fania-style salsa with no horns but with layers of thick distorted guitars, synths and echoey dreamlike vocals. The gauzy distortion on the vocals - like something unstuck in time - created a womb, the hard guitar was pulsing blood and the interlocking conga, bongos and timbales were the kind of heartbeat you couldn't help but move your hips to. Packed midnight and 2am sets with everyone getting beautifully, tightly, loose to instantly identifiable new classics like "La Paz del Freak" and "Guajiro".
  2. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue with Soul Rebels, 12/13/14 (Newport Music Hall) - Soul Rebels, one of the finest of the new-school brass bands took the stage in total darkness and exploded. 8 pieces - 5 brass (two trombones, two trumpets, sousaphone), one tenor sax, and two percussionists - playing the kind of ecstatic cacophony that makes you glad to be alive. Voices (both instrumental and verbal) overlapping and undercutting each other, slipping from unison to harmony to delicious, electric dissonance and back again. A multi-headed beast with one mission, slipping in chunks of contemporary hip-hop (the chorus of Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" made an appearance) with classic call and response and some '70s-reminiscent R&B and choreography, making the entire crowd lose their minds. The bass drum/timbales/cowbell from Derrick Moss drenched in the reverberations of Edward Lee's sousaphone and cut through by the brightness of Lumar LeBlanc's snare kept my body twisting for a solid hour. When Trombone Shorty came out to lead his band Orleans Avenue (tenor and bari sax, bass, drums, guitar, and the man himself on trombone and trumpet) it was maybe the clearest case of a headliner proving their dominance after a band almost no one else could have followed since the Hives played after the Dirtbombs on that stage almost 10 years ago. A dynamic stage show with lights worthy of an arena but intensely human. Trombone Shorty never has a crisis of confidence. letting every one of his band members shine because there's never any doubt who you came to see and his rich, warm trombone tone and tenor voice are riveting. As good a modern funk band as I've ever seen and it's nice to see a real crowd show up once in a while for music this good; I love my seven people I see at some shows (even some shows on this list) but being in the middle of a thousand people I don't know can be a beautiful thing.
  3. Rebellum, 04/25/14 (Rumba Café) - The stripped-down pop-funk splinter cell from the mighty Burnt Sugar Arkestra sent me straight into space with their dissected takes on every good danceable funk style from the last 30 years with the same biting acid wit that characterizes the rest of the Burnt Sugar universe. Immediately graspable songs that had deep meaning inside those hooks, from the raw call and response of "Bush, baby, bush / Baby, where's your friend?" on "Start Thinking Like an Afreakun" to the icy slow soul as glimpsed through a haze of memory on "Somebody to Love You" with co-lead-singer Shelly Nicole making my blood run cold. Other general in the front vocal line, Mikel Banks, cut through whatever bullshit was in your head on songs like "Spank a Lick" and a fiery cover of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel". The rhythm section of Ohio native Jared Michael Nickerson on bass, Hiroyuki Matsuura on drums and Ben Tyree on guitar moved like a shapeshifting dragon, filling that little club with a holier than holy vibration. But the icing, the neon and the red paint, what threw it over the top, was the astonishing horn section of Paula Henderson on bari and Lewis "Flip" Barnes on trumpet and backing vocals (and a stunning lead turn on the second cover of the night, Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne") - complexity in the service of pure, raunchy, jukejoint nastiness in the best sense of the word and Leon Gruenbaum on the keys held it all together, sometimes supporting the rhythm, sometimes churning out gorgeous hooks that stuck for days. My jaw was in my lap for hours and I was indescribably jealous of those people who made it to the Used Kids instore earlier in the day.
  4. Tune-yards, 10/20/14 (Newport Music Hall) - I'm amazed something as outre, as beautifully weird and full of sharp edges as Merrill Garbus' tune-yards project can bring 1000 people into the Newport singing along and finding their own catharsis in lyrics as knotty or personal or irony-drenched as "My man likes me from behind / Tell the truth I never mind" or the staccato call and response of "No, no, no / You'll never come to my hood / Because danger is crawling out the 'wood". While I missed the horn players on record this go-round, her three backing singers doubling on percussion gave it a rich textured feeling that almost reminded me of the Boredoms or even a little bit of Neubauten but wrapped in a delicious Tom Tom Club glaze. The kind of show that makes me glad to be alive.
  5. John Paul Keith, 09/25/14 (Bosco’s, Memphis) - Almost stealthily, over the last few years and three albums, John Paul Keith has quietly established one of the best song catalogues in American music. And as good as some of what I saw at Gonerfest (the reason A. and I were in Memphis) was - and don't mistake me, Outdoorsmen, Gooch Palms, Nots, and Golden Pelicans blew my lid off - this was the best thing either of us saw all weekend. With no real expectations for a three-piece playing two sets at an Oktoberfest celebration at a brewpub (though let it also be said, it was a pretty great brewpub several of the Goner folks had turned us onto), this was a clinic on everything that's good about that kind of music and a lesson in the rivers of song and how they intertwine in American history. Going through sultry ballads like "New Years Eve" and greasy stomps like "Baby, We're a Bad Idea" with a couple detours to great, unexpected covers like Allen Toussaint/Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights". A fantastic rhythm section including a young drummer from New Orleans.
  6. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, 11/14/14 (Subculture, Manhattan) - I'm sure it's getting boring for people to keep seeing Argue's big band on this list but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. I keep being lucky enough to have my NYC trips coincide with their shows and they keep blowing me away. This was a set entirely made up of unrecorded material, some of which I'd heard before like the tribute to Laurie Frink which has sharpened to an even sweeter, holier place, and the piece in honor of Levon Helm which capturI'med Helm's easy confidence and R&B fire with a loping swing and a charm you can't bottle. Some of which I hadn't yet, like "Tensile Curves" which they'd premiered at the Newport Jazz Festival this year and is the clearest link between Ellington's arranging and Argue's own vocabulary, it was magical, or a tribute to Alan Turing I didn't catch the name of that had a rage in its deep pockets. Come on, someone bring this band to town or at least Cleveland or Cincinnati? They're a natural for some art center love.
  7. Marissa Nadler, 07/18/14 (Rumba Café) - This year Rumba Cafe reasserted themselves as my favorite spot to see singer-songwriters of a certain draw and this took the cake. I've been a massive, drooling fan of Marissa Nadler since she was announced to play Terrastock 2008. She later canceled but by that time her records Songs III: Bird on the Water and Ballads of Living and Dying were in my bone marrow and it was a long six years waiting for her to play Columbus. While I would have liked to hear some earlier material, I think her record this year, July, is her best songwriting, reaching a new level of purity and communication and empathy and she delivered those songs perfectly over sparse accompaniment. On a sweltering July night after a terrific Mucca Pazza set downtown at the Jazz and Ribs Fest and before a backyard party at a wonderful friend's house, I spent an hour watching Nadler dig deep into my (and everyone else in the bar's) rib cage. Conjuring Cai Guo Quiang's gunpowder paintings and the singed edges of your brain on "Firecrackers" with lines like "We have drunk our summers away / Firecrackers burned into heaven on the floor". The kind of finely-honed character study straight out of Carver or Marge Piercy on "I've Got Your Name" - "Changed in a rest stop into my dress / Be sure not to touch the floor / I've done that kind of thing before". There's a grappling with and distrust of equanimity in these songs and feeling them breathe through me as the sweat of the day doesn't quite get the chance to evaporate was magic that's not based in wildly reinventing the song live but in trusting the song and knowing if you play it like it matters, it will matter.
  8. Reigning Sound, 08/31/14 (Ace of Cups) - Reigning Sound came back through town for the first time in quite a while - I think the first time since Greg Cartwright recruited the Jay Vons as the current iteration - and proved that "professional" doesn't have to be a dirty word. This was the most comfortable I've ever seen Carwright on a stage and while I missed some of the wildness of earlier tours, and the slightly larger band filled out his new more '60s soul-inspired material beautifully. For almost two hours, fascinatingly drawing heavily on Too Much Guitar the record the least like his terrific new one, Shattered, they found a through line of consistency and emotional directness and cemented Cartwright's status as possibly the finest American singer-songwriter of the last 20 years. Giant hooks, dancefloor stomps, and a newfound sweetness; this drove the songs home in a way someone who'd never heard them before would want to sing along to at the top of their lungs and with the smoothing out it didn't alienate those of us who came in during Time Bomb High School but, I think, brought back to the fold the fans of the earlier Everly Brothers inspired material like Break Up Break Down. A marvelous act that could do revues into their 80s and I'd still be coming out as long as my legs hold out.
  9. Mavis Staples, 08/22/14 (Scioto Mile) -  The legend in town for free with a tight trio behind her led by blistering guitarist Rick Holmstrom and featuring great Chicago chanteuse Kelly Hogan singing harmonies, in a voice that has some life on it but with that same uncommon beauty and power, trained right toward your heart, at least mine. Raunchy rave-ups including a knock-the-wind-out-of-you cover of Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That" and hits of her own including "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself", this was a class in how to communicate without giving up any of yourself.
  10. Sinkane, 10/30/14 (Wexner Center for the Arts) - A homecoming show for one of Columbus's most acclaimed sons didn't disappoint in the slightest. Ahmed Gallab led a perfectly simpatico four-piece band from guitar and keys and with his supple high tenor voice occasionally exploding into a crystalline falsetto on classic songs old like "Runnin'" and new including most of the new record. Highlights included the simmering ballad "Mean Love" with Johnny Lam's lacerating pedal steel, the slinky dance party "How We Be" and the gorgeous "Son". The trend of the last 10 or so years in which the Wexner highlights local acts breaking through on a national stage - and beloved expatriates - is phenomenal and it's not charity. It warms my heart to hear something this great on a sound system worthy of it.
  11. Marisa Anderson, 05/20/14 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - Anderson came through town on her terrific records on Mississippi and took everyone to school on an electric guitar (occasionally switching over to resonator) virtuoso performance that linked everything from Charlie Christian to Robbie Basho to Mary Halvorson to Muddy Waters to Greg Cartwright. A phenomenal set list of (great) originals and perfectly chosen standards including "Hard Times", "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning", the antiwar medley of "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" and "Bella Ciao", a gospel medley in tribute to Elizabeth Cotten, "Deep Gap" in tribute to Doc Watson and "See that My Grave is Kept Clean". A meditative, somber but grippingly full of life instrumental performance.
  12. Oneida with Cheater Slicks and Hyrokkin, 07/29/14 (Double Happiness) - A show that doubled as the wedding reception for my great friends Fred (he for whom "Hey, Fred!" was named) and Stephanie and the first time Oneida had come through town in my memory and it was just about perfect. Hyrokkin, from Yellow Springs, played first, doing their brand of raw, spiky free jazz with heavy drone and groove elements. Local heroes Cheater Slicks played with more fire than I'd seen in a while in a long set that touched on every era of their 25+ year career. And Oneida set the air on fire, with extra punch from James McNew (Yo La Tengo) doing their blend of krautrock minimalism with psychedelic acid trails, it was an evening of heavy grooves that left me blissfully exhausted and happy.
  13. Bad Sports, 07/02/14 (Ace of Cups) - As perfect a three-piece punk show as you're likely to see anywhere. We were lucky to have Orville Neeley to come through town a couple of times and as good as the OBN IIIs set of thick, muscular '70s rock was, this made me dance and bounce until I was sore. His electric guitar shooting metaphorical sparks and his yelp built for delivering hooks you can barely get out of your head. Radioactivity who followed were also very good but after Bad Sports they had a hard, hard act to follow.
  14. Anais Mitchell, 10/02/14 (Rumba Café)- One of my favorite singers in, as I said above, one of my favorite rooms for a singer-songwriter did not in any way disappoint. Touching on her last record, Young Man in America including the title track, several rearranged songs from her folk opera Hadestown, parts of her Childe Ballads work, and even revisiting the first song of hers I ever heard, a song that still haunts me, "Cosmic American". It ran the gamut from sly seduction to acerbic criticism to plainspoken stories and observations and it did all of these moves seemingly effortlessly.
  15. King Khan and the Shrines with Red Mass, 06/12/14 (Ace of Cups) - Canadian collective Red Mass were a pleasant surprise, a modern updating of X's "metal period" Ain't Love Grand with unison male and female vocals, churning guitars, and big, heartfelt hooks.  But as good as they were, King Khan and the Shrines held that almost sold out crowd in their sweaty palms and played the audience as much as they played anything on the stage. A more midtempo new record still had stickier hooks than might have been immediately apparent and when he let the guitarist and horn section lean into something they can sink their teeth into, like "Land of the Freak", it was unstoppable. A rippling ball of furious energy.
  16. Bombay Rickey, 04/16/14 (Barbes, Brooklyn) and As Lolas, 11/12/14 (Nublu, Manhattan) - Two bands whose sets summed up what I love about visiting NYC, whole bands investigating other country's scenes, stirring in their own influences, and playing tiny bars for crowds ravenous to hear something. Bombay Rickey turned the back room of Park Slope stalwart Barbes into a sexy jukejoint with people (me among them) dancing for the entire set. A five-piece led by Kamala Sankaram on accordion and one of the most striking voices I heard all year, a soprano full of blood and sugar but pure as a blue flame; her foil Drew Fleming on guitar and backing vocals who touched on everything from Marc Ribot to Richard Bishop to Don Rich; Gil Smuskowitz on fluid, driving bass; Jeff Hudgins' alto sax that could do everything from noir atmospherics to R&B stomps with alactiry; and Brian Adler's swinging drumming on a small kit. Over that hour-plus they did Western swing, Bollywood themes, spaghetti western ballads, boleros, cumbias and even covered Yma Sumac, but never for a moment did they feel like anything other than themselves. As Lolas were in the beginning of a residency at Nublu when I saw them, one of the few clubs keeping interesting scenes alive in Manhattan, and their blend of the Runaways doing Os Mutantes-style raw, rocking tropicalia was infectious, the intersection of those two things opened them up to take whatever struck their fancy from '70s rock, Motorhead basslines popped up to get dissolved in Allman Brothers guitar harmonies or P-Funk explosions, but again, they sounded like nothing so much as themselves.. Led by ferocious frontwoman Viva DeConcini with a voice almost too big and rich for a room that size, flanked by Elaine Amherd on vocals and twisted guitar leads and Fabiana Masili on vocals and percussion with one of the tightest rhythm sections I saw all year behind them, Dawn Drake on bass and Rosa Avila on drums, this was an ass-shaking, sweat-matting-your-hair-down carnival on a Wednesday night.
  17. Travis Laplante Quartet,  04/18/14 (Shapeshifter Lab, Brooklyn) - Travis Laplante I've kept up with since he was in the band Little Women, his tone keeps getting more refined and his constructions more fascinating. This was a perfect quartet with Mary Halvorson on electric guitar, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. Everyone was perfectly in sync, sly little fills adding to the whole, mutual love and appreciation from four musicians who have played together in various combinations for many years, Laplante's tenor and Halvorson's guitar leaping off one another like dancers but the solos always knew where to melt back into the whole picture. Magical.
  18. FemmeFest (various venues and nights)  - I love when this town comes together and I wish there'd been a few fewer shitty events that made us do it this year. In reaction to the laughable, badly-organized carpet bagging corporate festival Fashion Meets Music Fest's first year and specifically to the touchpoint of them bringing alleged predator R. Kelly to town (then canceling, then apologizing but not apologizing...), some of my dearest friends got together to organize a smaller, donation-only festival at a handful of rock venues to raise money for the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. It was one of the best cross-sections of what's good in Columbus I've seen in quite some time, especially impressive for the limited lead time. There was room for Sarah Cooperider, rising folk singer, and the Reverbalines (the new band growing out of Nom Tchotchkes from the core of Eva Owen and David Banbury, with guests like guitarist Matt Benz and multi-instrumentalist Virginia Pishioneri) in Kafe Kerouac; bubblegum-country The Salty Caramels and Nico-flavored drone soundscapes Cosmic Moon at Little Rock; and the centerpiece, an Ace of Cups evening with rapper Dominique LaRue who was a star, great songs sold with an uncommon energy and charm, Bloody Show with their awesome metallic Stooges stomp featuring Laura Bernazzoli and Elijah Vasquez from Day Creeper; the first public show by The Girls! with the new guitarist in an emotional, cathartic set I think most of us needed; and occasional Runaways tribute band Neon Angels with some of the best players in town. Not to mention shows I didn't make it to with synth-dance darlings Damn the Witch Siren, dark folk band Saintseneca, blues-rock Time Lords, raw stomps and harmonies from The Ferals and so many more. I hope there's another year of this because I'd love to see what this group does with more lead time and lessons learned from this year, but if they're exhausted the point was made and made well - what we do for ourselves is always better than what's brought in by outside forces.
  19. Fairfield Four, 06/17/14 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - This year Natalie's kept cementing their reputation for bringing groups no one else is and this intimate brunch show by the a capella juggernaut Fairfield Four was a case in point. Drawing the connections between doo wop and sacred music, preaching and acceptance, this was the kind of glowing proclamation of love that made my heart swell and hearing those five-part harmonies bouncing around Natalie's room made even a nonbeliever like me lose his mind.
  20. Aoife O'Donovan and Noam Pikelny Quartet, 11/08/14 (Lincoln Theatre) - I also saw a show of O'Donovan at the Rockwood in Manhattan with her usual quartet but this collaborative show with banjo modernist Noam Pikelny (Robbie Fulks, Punch Brothers) on banjo and resonator guitar, Aoife O'Donovan on guitar and vocals, bassist and vocalist Barry Bales (Alison Krauss and Union Station), and master fiddler Shad Cobb (John Cowan, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith) was an exploration of all the shades bluegrass can take. Moody chamber music, light, dancing jigs and reels, lyrically driven singer-songwriter work (covers of Tom Waits' heartbreaking "Fish and Bird" and an elasticized, gorgeous take on Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio") and close-harmony vocal group classics.


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