I see a lot of music, and for the past eight years have written an annual overview of my favorite shows for Isthmus’s online face, TheDailyPage.com. My musical interests cover the waterfront — jazz, country, opera, rock, classical, and weird experimental stuff. So 2013 found me reveling in Leonard Cohen, Renee Fleming, Cyndi Lauper, Muhal Richard Abrams, Buddy Guy, Jeremy Denk, Jon Dee Graham,Tosca and a lot more.
Here’s one example:
A tribal storyteller
Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, July 6
I missed what I’m told was this Texas legend’s euphoric show at the Orton Park Festival this summer. But, here in his record ninth performance at Kiki’s intimate basement concert venue, Graham could not have been better. He is a slashing elemental guitarist who might as well have been forged in a Gary, Ind., steel furnace. But for all his storied ties to rock ‘n’ roll (he played in the True Believers with Alejandro Escovedo, recorded albums with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, and is a three-time member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame), Graham is something more important: a tribal storyteller. He gathers his listeners around the campfire to tell harrowing stories of danger and depravity and finally — this comes late in the night — songs of redemption and love. Yeah, we’re talking catharsis straight out of the old Greek playbook.
How he does this night after night is beyond me. Graham sings songs and tells anecdotes of divorce, drug abuse, mental collapse, car crashes, impoverishment and greasy music industry executives. Yet he ends with those songs of renewal and even innocence. I’ve seen Graham countless times over the years and have repeatedly written about him in these recaps. I can’t get enough of the guy. He gives travel tours of hellish places we all want to avoid but sometimes encounter.
You can read the story here.
Because of the design parameters of TheDailyPage.com, the sidebar was pasted onto the main story. Here’s how that secondary story would read if it were presented on its own:
Here and there in 2013 music
Sometimes I stumbled into really sweet musical moments in 2013. After a night at the Madison Symphony (Nov. 15), I stopped for a nightcap at Tempest and found the under-appreciated singer Alison Margaret holding court with a little band that included piano stalwart Dave Stoler and a new-to-town flugelhorn player named Paul Dietrich, who’s definitely a cat to watch.
I met friends at Mickey’s and became the 2,384th person to discover its neat music scene. On this night (Nov. 13), Mali native Tani Diakite was leading a jam and playing his banjo-like kmele n’gone before a happy crowd. Following a Nov. 16 Milwaukee Symphony concert, I strolled late-night into Alchemy to find a packed house cheering on the last set of adventurous guitarist Fareed Haque. And what a pleasure to hear the world-class alto player Richie Cole (July 9) sitting in with Ben Sidran during Sidran’s summer salon at the Cardinal Bar.
All great stuff, for sure. But here’s the problem. None of these shows had a cover. Or even a prominent tip jar. That says something bad about Madison: We’re too cheap to pay even $5 to see a local band, even if it’s led by an international artist like Sidran. I’ve written before about this rinky-dink behavior. The good news is that the Madison Jazz Consortium has hired a program coordinator, bassist-about-town Nick Moran, to work with local musicians and venue managers to come up with steps to make a working musician’s life something better than a beggar’s existence.
From cabaret to hellbilly: Can you imagine a hellbilly like Hank Williams III meeting suave cabaret singer Steve Ross? Well, that’s not going to happen. But I thought of the speed-metal country scion when Ross encored with my favorite Cole Porter song: the sublime “Let’s Do It” (Nov. 21, Capitol Theater). The night was now complete for me just as it was when Hank3 (Oct. 30, Barrymore Theatre) sang the spookiest song in the canon of that other great American songwriter: Hank Williams. My ears ringing from the hellaciously loud sound mix, I packed up and left wondering how Hank3 processed the knowledge that his grandfather was dead in the backseat of his Cadillac one month after he released “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.”
The Bebel Gilberto fiasco: Easily the most reviled show of the year was Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto’s erratic performance at the Capitol Theater (Aug. 10). Who knows what her problem was? She talked too much, fiddled with her mic, wandered off the stage, and just didn’t maintain the flow. Just a quirky show? I don’t think so. I saw the same temperamental behavior on display last year at a New York club.
But here’s my bottom line: As damaging as this behavior is to her career, I’d pay money to see Gilberto tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. She’s a great singer, capable of mesmerizing stagecraft and her smart updating of the classic bossa nova and samba sound with an electronic sheen is irresistible, even if she isn’t.
A lesson from Ben Sidran: Ten years late to the game, I finally read Ben Sidran’s autobiography, A Life In The Music, and was mightily impressed at his insights into a musician’s life and art. As a college rocker in the early ’60s, he writes, “I discovered the power of laying down a simple groove and watching people step out of themselves. It’s what happens when you take your heartbeat and project it into a room full of people. When you get into that hypnotic space, a lot of magic can happen.”
Oh yeah! This is the glory of the People Brothers Band. The eight-piece soul band led by exuberant singer Teresa Marie honored the groove at the Harmony Bar (Sept. 7). This joyous troupe had a big crowd up and dancing. The magic was happening. (The band returns to the Harmony on New Year’s Eve.)
In contrast, the indie group Wild Belle did not honor the groove at the High Noon Saloon in September. I was curious about the brother-sister team of Elliott and Natalie Bergman. Their music has a swaying reggae-afrobeat thing, and lead singer Natalie is a promising talent with beguiling traces of the cat-like Eartha Kitt in her voice. (Elliott led the band and was quite the figure: He looked like a medieval prince in a smoking jacket.) But, boy, their set never built any momentum. Each song seemed to clock in at 3 minutes and 45 seconds, followed by 60 seconds of puttering around on stage.
Disappointments: In the bummer column: The Surrounded By Reality collective, the presenter of so many provocative free jazz concerts in recent years, faded away, and the Wisconsin Union Theater, for so long the premier music presenter in Madison, retrenched and lowered its community profile. The ongoing renovation of the theater has prompted the UW venue’s noble series to retreat to smaller, less accessible spaces on campus instead of stepping up and booking, say, the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center. I understand there are financial issues in play. But was painful to see how small a crowd the great pianist Jeremy Denk drew to the shabby setting of Mills Hall. Even worse was the embarrassing failure to provide a raised stage for the Gerald Clayton Trio in the flat floor DeLuca Auditorium in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. (My email query on what happened was never answered.) Both concerts were among my favorites of the year, despite the staging.
Kudos for the Milwaukee Symphony: Finally, I’m a subscriber to the Milwaukee Symphony and am gobsmacked by its excellence. No offense to the Brewers and Bucks, but the symphony is Milwaukee’s preeminent big-league institution. Here’s hoping that its recent financial retrenchment doesn’t damage programming. And more to the point, that the belt-tightening prompts Milwaukee’s deep-pocketed donors to step forward. The Milwaukee Symphony is a benchmark of Milwaukee’s greatness, and that struggling city needs to protect it.
One more thing…here are my previous roundups: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.