Archive for the ‘Music’ category

A Fan’s Notes: Concerts 2019

January 28, 2020

This is the 14th year I’ve written an annual roundup of my favorite concerts for the online edition of the Madison weekly Isthmus. I’m guessing I’ve seen close to 900 shows over the years. Yeah, I do love live music.

My 2019 faves lean to jazz and Americana. They range from rising jazz stars Makaya McCraven and Isaiah Collier to icons John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Alejandro Escovedo.

Here’s a sample of how I saw things:

Forgotten history no more

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 3, 2019

I was never a fan of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and its take on old-time string-band music. I dislike revivalism. I don’t want to hear how the music was played in the old days. I flee from Dixieland bands. I shudder at musicians wearing period clothes while recreating Finnish logging songs from northern Wisconsin. I want to hear fresh takes on old music, or the real McCoys making it.

But now I’ve changed my tune, to a degree. Increasingly I think recovering historical memory is essential for identifying the good and bad of our shared cultural legacy. Rhiannon Giddens, the ex-Chocolate Drops singer and banjo player, is not just blessed with a gorgeously rich voice, but she’s engaged in a necessary campaign to reconnect the rich history of country music with its purposely obscured African American roots.

And, yeah, that means giving an honest nod to demeaning minstrelsy and how white musicians in blackface began to bring African American music into the broader Southern vernacular, while mostly forgotten black musicians were simultaneously remaking the Scots-Irish tunes for their own purposes,

All this sounds much more pedantic than Giddens’ performance. Good music is good music. Giddens is great because she can break your heart singing Patsy Cline as well as Nina Simone ballads, not to mention the sad old Scots-Irish laments that became foundational to the “high lonesome” sound of country music

Hey, it probably helps that Giddens, this quintessential American musician, lives in Ireland.

You must remember this

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Symphony Center (Chicago), Feb. 23, 2019

I heard lots of symphonic music in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. None better in 2019 than the august Riccardo Muti at the helm of the world class Chicago Symphony performing Mozart’s Requiem. Certain pieces just blow me away. I might as well be strapped in my seat for safety reasons. We’re talking sensory overload. A huge chorus. Massive orchestra. Opera soloists (led by soprano Benedetta Torre) who shook the walls. This was the music of transcendence, a meditation on death and God.

But Muti, shaped by his Italian upbringing, had something else in mind for the concert opener: a requiem of another sort marked by raw anger and pain. This was not Mozart’s calming acceptance of fate. Muti wanted to honor the victims of the Le Fosse Ardeatine massacre outside of Rome on the 75th anniversary of the event..

He chose little-known American composer William Schuman’s 9th Symphony. This somber, dissonant and sometimes clamorous piece was inspired by the memory of 335 Italian civilians summarily shot, killed and buried unmarked in an Italian quarry by the retreating German SS in 1944.

At Muti’s direction, Symphony Center’s rotunda was filled with artifacts and photos documenting the Nazi outrage. When I wrote the first draft of this concert review, it dawned upon me how much Muti has in common with Rhiannon Giddens. They are two artists — though different in their talents — who deeply believe music is a vessel of cultural memory.

To read the full story please go here.

My older roundups are here, assuming the links remain true: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 201420132012201120102009200820072006.

Memorable Concerts 2018

February 8, 2019

Here’s the recap of  my favorite  concerts of 2018. Yeah, I’m late in posting it. But 13 years into writing this annual piece for Isthmus online. I can say my passion hasn’t cooled for live music.

Take a bow Charlie Hunter, Rodney Crowell, UW Opera, Laurie Anderson, Chicago Symphony, Joe Lovano, Vijay Iyer, Dara Tucker, Emanuel Ax, Dave Alvin, Jon Langford, Jimmie Dale Gimore, Gil Shaham, Tracy Nelson, Ben Sidran, Boz Scaggs and, yes, other great artists.

I write:

In the course of 85 or so shows I saw in 2018, I found lots of momentsof transcendence, revelation, pure joy, mindless boogie and dark insights into the crooked timber of human nature.

That’s to say, the music I like is more than notes. It’s more than entertainment. It’s also about casting a spell. Where time seems to be suspended. Where the faithful gather around the campfire to hear stories of danger and epic romance. Where the magic falls gently over us like a mist. I had those moments in 2018.

None more so than hearing John Luther Adams’ minimalist masterpiece Become Ocean performed on April 7 by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee. There was no more perfect match of music and setting than hearing the shimmering tidal-like movements in the glorious domed basilica. The music floated up and around and washed over the audience like the waves of an ocean before slowly receding. Lost in the experience? That was me.

Adams (no relation to minimalist icon John Adams) deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean in 2014. The Alaska-based composer is mightily influenced by the experience of raw, overpowering nature. This is compelling yet humbling music that left me in a state of awe.

It was my favorite concert of the year.

To read more, please go here.

As you’ll see, all of the concerts s are within driving distance of Madison. That excluded a quick trip to Austin where I managed to squeeze in shows by R&B stalwart Lou Ann Barton, the magnificent Shelby Lynne and Mike Flanigin’s greasy organ trio featuring Jimmie Vaughan. Marvelous one and all.

Wynonna to Kamasi: Favorite 2017 Shows

January 9, 2018

I’ll just spill it out…some the musicians whose concerts I enjoyed most in 2017:

Jon Dee Graham. Steve Reich. Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. Wynonna. Hayes Carll. Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin. Yo-Yo Ma and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Alejandro Escovedo.  Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry. Sinkane and Bassel & The Supernaturals. Kahil El’Zabar and David Murray. And most of all: Kamasi Washington.

As I explained in my annual Isthmus roundup:

Somehow I saw around 100 live shows near and far in 2017. That’s a record in the 12 years I’ve been chronicling my annual listening habits. What follows are my 16 favorite nights.

To be upfront, these impressions are a fan’s notes. I’m not a critic or a musician and have less technical musical knowledge than your typical four-year-old Suzuki violin student. But I love being in the musical moment, and I have wide tastes. Like other concert nerds, I’m willing to travel for tunes; so you’ll see some shows are within hailing distance of Madison.

To get the full 5,000-word treatment, please go here.

pat mAcdonald’s Long Game

June 26, 2017

For years, I’ve thought pat mAcdonald (that’s his idiosyncratic spelling)  is a musician of lasting merit. The kind whose recordings will be played 50 years from now and whose songs are a good bet to be revived decades from now by musicians not yet born.

Last summer, when I was having a casual drink at the Weary Traveler in Madison and chatting with bartender Josh Harty, who’s a stellar singer-songwriter in his own right, I learned that mAcdonald  had a bad case of cancer.

That’s when I decided I had to profile him. I wanted to shine a light on his work.

Here’s how my story started in Isthmus:

Oh, he’s lost a few things during 40-plus years of living the Bohemian life of a musician. For instance:

— That Mussehl & Westphal musical saw, the renowned Cadillac of musical saws. The young Pat MacDonald bought it in 1974 in Fort Atkinson from Clarence J. Mussehl himself, then a nonagenarian and long-ago vaudevillian, who tossed in a free lesson.

— That autographed album the great country tunesmith Billy Joe Shaver gave him in Nashville in 1973 after hearing MacDonald’s demo songs at singer Bobby Bare’s music offices: “To my friend Pat MacDonald: the last of the great songwriters.”

This scrawny long-haired troublemaker from Green Bay was all of 20 at the time, knocking around Madison, making music to survive after an unsuccessful try at drug dealing. His future was not yet clear.

At some point in the intervening decades of countless moves — including his 1984 journey from Madison to Austin with wife and musical partner Barbara Kooyman in their soon-to-be celebrated band Timbuk3, and later his sojourn in Barcelona, to lick his wounds, after their marriage and band broke up — he lost the damn saw and his records.

But not much else, it turns out. “I’m kind of a pack-rat,” mAcdonald says over coffee recently in Sturgeon Bay, in picturesque Door County on Lake Michigan. “Who could throw out a Christmas card that was sent with love?” We’re at his 18-unit retro cool Holiday Music Motel, an improbable but genius choice as a base camp for a cultural shaman like him. And, yes, note the typography of his moniker. Tired of the habitual misspelling of his last name as “McDonald,” he now labels himself pat mAcdonald.

Who’s to argue with this single-minded artist? Especially when in the space of 24 hours I meet three musicians who, trusting their instincts, packed up from good lives in San Francisco, New York City and Madison to be part of mAcdonald’s creative circle in this out-of-the-way port city.

These artists — and a whole bunch more from across the country — will be front and center at the Steel Bridge Songfest June 8-11 that mAcdonald puts on annually in Sturgeon Bay. (For details see page 18.)

“This place is like a dream incubator,” bassist and longtime Madison blues stalwart Tony Menzer tells me. It’s late night, and he’s packing up after backing a powerful blues singer named Cathy Grier at the Stone Harbor Bar across the street from the motel. Menzer put in 10 years with Clyde Stubblefield and 15 years with the Westside Andy-Mel Ford Band. Three years ago, at mAcdonald’s invitation, Menzer bailed from Madtown and moved his music equipment business from a Madison storage facility to a rambling warehouse showroom that mAcdonald and his investors own next to the motel. But I digress….

It’s legacy that weighs on pat mAcdonald’s mind, and we eventually get around to the spook in the breakfast nook. It’s not just that he turns 65 in August, but that 2016 found him confronting Stage 4 cancer — non-Hodgkins large B-cell lymphoma — and 10 months of on-and-off chemotherapy that exacted its own toll on his body. He’s now in remission and getting stronger.

That face-off with cancer — “It’s hell going through that shit,” he says matter of factly — has compelled him to not just put his creative work in order but to advance it, while there’s time.

To read more, please go here. Alternatively, the story can also be found on the No Depression website. I also wrote about mAcdonald in a recap of my favorite concerts .

 

When Clyde Met Karl

March 7, 2017

That would be the great funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield sitting in with jam band leader Karl Denson at the Majestic Theatre in Madison on March 29, 2009. Stubblefield’s death prompted me to rummage through my musical archives to find an audio of their meeting. It’s killer.

I wrote about it for Tone Madison, the online arts chronicler:

When the jam ended, Denson’s band of young African-American players gathered around Stubblefield to shake his hand and hug him. They were in the presence of their hero. “That was a big deal for me,” a blissed and happy Denson told the cheering crowd. “If anybody recorded that, I need a copy. Throw that up on YouTube right away. You know what I’m saying?”
I don’t have the video, but here—eight years later—is the audio of that perfect moment in the late Clyde Stubblefield’s extraordinary life in American music.

You can read the post and hear the jam here.

A Fan’s Notes: 10 Years of Great Concerts

January 19, 2017

I started logging notes on concerts when I was hanging out with Clark Anderson.   He was a childcare worker, union organizer and a dear friend from the old days in Kenosha. Talking music was easy because I was a fan and Clark was a  gifted slide guitarist. I started taking notes.

Clark died in 2010. You can read about him and (hear his music) here. This ten-year retrospective of favorite concerts, written for my old paper Isthmus,  is dedicated to Clark.

The story begins:

Yeah, I got a music jones. About 500 concerts and shows’ worth over 10 years.

I love being caught up in the moment of live music. Swept away and transported. Lost in the shared sway of the cosmic boogie. In jaw-dropping awe of masters like Yo-Yo Ma and Leonard Cohen. Melting before Cassandra Wilson. Transfixed by Shelby Lynne. Glimpsing the abyss with the fearless Jon Dee Graham. Zoning out with Philip Glass. Stunned by Greg Allman’s howl of pain. Brought to tears by Beethoven’s 9th and Gorecki’s 3rd.

I’m there. I’m all in. It might be jazz. it might be country. It might be opera or classical. Or even freaky-deaky electronica. For 10 years I’ve written a year-end summary of my favorite shows for Isthmus. A critic I’m not: These year-end perambulations are a fan’s notes.

So here are my favorite shows and artists in Madison from 2006 to 2015; at the end, I toss in a few more from Milwaukee and Chicago. They are in roughly descending order of my liking. My original comments (lightly edited) are followed by italicized afterthoughts and music links.

I will ’fess up that I seem to be drawn — how to delicately put this? — to guy music, alt-country division. Am I telling a secret here? That all guys know deep down that temptation, chaos, despair and ruin are always lurking around the corner. Yep, even if we live the most proper lives imaginable, those bad-boy songs resonate with us. Like the compelling and scary songs of Jon Dee Graham.

To read about Jon Dee Graham and lots more great musicians, please go here.

Favorite Concerts of 2016

January 1, 2017

Well, hey there, here’s my 11th annual roundup of favorite concerts for Isthmus.

I got around in 2016. Upwards of 80 shows in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond. I listened to jazz, alt country, rock, classical, experimental — none of it was the stuff that dominates the music charts.

And sometimes I just I stumbled into a felicitous and serendipitous musical moment:

Harris Lemberg’s weird but enjoyable surf/instrumental band, Compact Deluxe, at Tempest (Jan. 22). Jim and Mike Blaha of Shadows in the Crack raising the roof at Mickey’s late one night (Oct. 28) with their noisy twin guitars. Madison’s grande dame jazz singers — Gerri DiMaggio, Jan Wheaton and Lynette Marguiles — trading choruses and killing on “Summertime” at Genna’s (July 23).
Or walking through Atwood Fest (July 31) with my dog Blue and hearing keyboard monster Jimmy Voegeli with horns and thinking: I gotta see this guy more often. Or 15 minutes earlier, breaking into a big smile hearing Jane Lee Hooker — an all-female southern soul band out of New York — rave up, howl and seize the music that may be the last redoubt of male privilege in the music world: southern boogie.
Or poking my head into the Harmony Bar music room (Dec. 8) during a fundraiser for a sick musician at the exact moment “Westside Andy” Linderman unloads a perfectly sculpted harmonica solo that stops me in my tracks.
There’s a lot of good music out there.

You can read about my favorite shows at the Isthmus website.

My older roundups are here: 2015, 201420132012201120102009200820072006.


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