Archive for the ‘Music’ category

Allen Toussaint, RIP

November 11, 2015

The death of Allen Toussaint at age 77 is a profound loss for American culture.

I saw him perform in 2011, and it was my favorite concert of the year.

Here’s what I said in a year-end music piece for Isthmus’ website:

1. Old Man River

Allen Toussaint, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Jan. 14

The crowd broke into “Happy Birthday” when Toussaint announced he had turned 73. Like a handful of other living legends I’ve seen (Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard, Alberta Hunter at the Cookery, Stephane Grappelli at the old Capitol Theater), Toussaint came joyously alive on stage, the deprecations of age seemingly banished by the magic of his art. This New Orleans icon was surrounded by an all-star band, featuring traditionalist trumpeter Nicholas Payton and hipster sax player/clarinetist Don Byron performing the wondrous songs on the Joe Henry-produced Bright Mississippi. This was an elegiac performance ranging from Louis Armstrong’s foundational “West End Blues,” to Toussaint’s own syncopated hit “Night People.” A sly and encyclopedic pianist (he mixed in a few classical licks on a long solo), Toussaint was the embodiment of American musical history. I left the show elated, knowing how lucky I was. When Toussaint passes, an era will pass with him. That’s why finally seeing Allen Toussaint was my most memorable concert of the year.

– See more at: http://www.isthmus.com/music/my-favorite-concerts-of-2011-mahler-and-mikrokolektyw-sinatra-and-sacred-steel/#sthash.ZbuZsaTz.dpuf

 

 

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Free Concerts Are Bad For Madison Music

August 26, 2015

Madison is a great town, but not always for artists. Most people seem to like their art free or cheap, if at all. That’s one reason we’re blessed and somewhat cursed by the cavalcade of free music each summer. Finding that dark cloud on a sunny day, I write in the online arts journal Tone:

[T]hese free shows… have a downside. A serious one, I would argue. They undercut the economic viability of the local music scene. When so much great free music is available from regional and even national groups, why should fans dig into their wallets to hear a local band at a corner pub? Usually they don’t, unless it’s a weekend. That’s why I sat on the deck of Mickey’s not long ago, listening to the fine gypsy swing/Hawaiian group Mal-O-Dua without paying a cover.

Yep, there was a tip jar, but that’s demeaning. Musicians shouldn’t be expected to work for charity, any more than plumbers or lawyers should. Here’s the problem. In Madison, music is often considered a free (or “nonexclusive,” as economists would say) public good. Like the Fourth of July fireworks, the parks, clean streets. We all get a free pass to share them.

Four years ago, I wrote at length for Isthmus on the failure of the local music  to take off. You’ll find that cover story here.

If you’re interested, you can search this archive to find my annual roundup of favorite concerts. This is the 2014  story.

Favorite Concerts of 2014…And Related Matters

January 2, 2015

I see a lot of live music. This is the ninth year I’ve summed up my reactions to my favorite concerts for Isthmus’ website.  Here’s the longish introduction:

Maybe it was happenstance. Maybe it was the surge line of a big trend. Either way, 2014 was the Year of the Woman for the more than 60 concerts I saw.

That was no surprise with solo singers — a traditional strong suit for women. I saw great ones: Cassandra Wilson at the Dakota in Minneapolis (May 19), Roseanne Cash at the Stoughton Opera House (Nov. 21), Mavis Staples at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18), Ruthie Foster at the Dakota (Oct. 21), Alexandra LoBianco in Madison Opera’s Fidelio at Overture Hall (Nov. 23), and two more who are aspiring to greatness: Gretchen Parlato and Lizz Wright at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8).

But it was the chicks in the band who stood out. Historically, women sidemen (yup, that’s the word) were treated as novelties, save for the classical world. Today, they can be the brains and the brawn in the band.

Drummer Lisa Pankratz powered the reunion of roots rockers Dave and Phil Alvin at the High Noon Saloon (July 25). The brilliant Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen led the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars at the Capitol Theatre (Mar. 28). Esperanza Spalding looked ecstatic playing bass with jazz giants Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (Feb. 15). Hill Country bluesman Luther Dickinson was backed by drummer Sharde Thomas and bassist Amy LaVere at the High Noon (Oct. 20). The oh-so-subtle Samantha Banks drummed for Ruthie Foster. Lap steel wizard Cindy Cashdollar backed up slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth at the Stoughton Opera House (Dec. 5). And the women-led Mosaic Project at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8) featured the formidable drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the rising alto sax player Tia Fuller, who may tour with Beyoncé but plays like Charlie Parker is whispering in her ear.

The boys in the band are increasingly girls. That’s good news. I have to think it’s changing band dynamics to the better in the same way that women managers in the workplace change the valence of team chemistry.

America’s unhealed racial wounds were also on display in 2014. I felt such despair over the Ferguson debacle that I avoided most discussions of it. It all seems so hopeless. Musically, it was another story.

Some of the best music I heard on stage in 2014 was the product of artists burrowing deep into the American cultural core to reinterpret our common history. More often than not, they find white and black sounds coupled together to create a shared national music.

Jazz violinist Regina Carter explored the Library of Congress folklore collection to find the music that her Mississippi grandfather listened to, performing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18). Roseanne Cash’s extraordinary recent work has highlighted the music of her dad Johnny’s youth. Cassandra Wilson, whose parents were Mississippi educators, has made her own deep dives into regional culture. Luther Dickinson, co-founder of the North Mississippi Allstars, keeps digging deeper and deeper into the racially intertwined world of Hill Country Blues. Alt favorite Ruthie Foster’s connection to the great gospel tradition is self-evident. Country artist Marty Stuart’s loving ties to the Staples Singers is character-defining; when Pops, the family patriarch, died, daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave Stuart his guitar to keep and to play, as he did at the Stoughton Opera House (Feb. 1).

“It was like being handed an instrument of light,” Stuart told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

My touchstone for this comingling is one of the most fascinating records in American history: Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9,” recorded in 1930 by the father of country music. But this isn’t just country music, folks. This is standout classic blues, also known as “Standing On The Corner,” and features a bouncy New Orleans trumpet solo by Louie Armstrong and a two-fisted piano accompaniment by Louie’s wife, Lil Hardin.

This song is mind-blowing — and not just for Rodgers’ yodeling solo. A few years earlier he had played and sang in the foundational recordings of country music (the Bristol sessions), just as and Armstrong and Hardin played on the foundational recordings of jazz (the Hot Fives). Yet here they are — white and black musicians — recording together at a time of punitive Jim Crow laws and a music industry that followed a strict apartheid approach to marketing records (“hillbilly” was sold to poor whites and “race” music sold to blacks).

What did they talk about in the studio? How did they navigate the racial and gender chasms? Those answers are lost to history.

What we do know is that is the in the intimacy of the studio, in the moment of creation, the music was all freakin’ one. This was the real America. We find the promise of social unity in our art even when our racialized politics exacerbates social disunity.

To read about my favorite 15 concerts,  please go here.

One more thing…here are my previous roundups: 20132012201120102009200820072006.

Music Worth Hearing In 2013

January 2, 2014

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 Sidrans autobiography, A Life In The Music, and was mightily impressed at his insights into a musicians 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, Im 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: 2012201120102009200820072006.

My Year in Live Music: 2012 favorites

December 26, 2012

Boy, I like music.

All kinds.

From opera to jazz to alt country to classical.

Put another way: Philip Glass meets Nicholas Payton meets Jon Dee Graham meets Porgy and Bess meets Ben Sidran meets Mary Chapin Carpenter.

As I wrote in this year-end wrap-up of 2012 for TheDailyPage.com:

I saw more than 60 shows this year, at venues in San Francisco, New York and many places in between. But this reprise — my eighth seventh annual for TheDailyPage.com — focuses on shows within a car drive of Madison. My tastes are catholic and open-minded, but caveat emptor: I’m a music enthusiast and not a critic. Full confession: I lack even an elementary understanding of music, can’t play an instrument and couldn’t carry a tune in a suitcase. But I love live music.

I loved how, on a hot night in Milwaukee (July 16, Riverside Theater), a superb Diana Krall encored with an impossibly fast version of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” that somehow segued into Lennon and McCartney’s “Come Together.” After ripping up the High Noon Saloon (May 21), Alejandro Escovedo’s encore was equally improbable: Mott the Hoople’s 40-year-old hit (penned by David Bowie) “All The Young Dudes,” followed by encore after encore until Escovedo led the band off the stage to the middle of the club to sing one last acoustic number surrounded by the audience. This was darn near a religious moment.

To read more about my 2012 favorite shows, please go here.

To read my previous year-enders, follow these links:

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

To read more, please go here.

Musically Speaking, 2011 In Review

December 31, 2011

I saw upwards of 70 concerts in 2011. My favorites from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago were recounted for the TheDailyPage. They include Allen Toussaint, Jeremy Denk, the North Mississippi Allstars, Mahler’s 2nd, Dave Alvin, Michael Feinstein, Ashia Grzesik and others. For details,  please go here.  Not included are fine shows  from farther afield in New York (cabaret great Barbara Carroll and country legend Cowboy Jack Clement) and in Paris (alto sax player Peter King and pianist Jean-Christophe Millot).

Here are my summaries of previous years:

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

Madison Can Support The Best Artistic Talent

September 26, 2011

I’ve followed the Madison music scene for almost 35 years, and this is what I’ve learned: The scene rises and falls, rises and falls, but the baseline never advances and success is never built upon. Invariably the best talent packs up and moves on. In a cover story for Isthmus, I make the case this can change:

Let’s imagine another reality, a parallel universe where the Madison scene is so stimulating, so remunerative, so stone-cold happening that [sax player Patrick] Breiner felt compelled to stay. Imagine if the same could be said for Carl Johns, Nate Palan, Joy Dragland, Leo Sidran, Nika Roza Danilova, Alicia Smith and a long line of other inspired performers who packed up and left?

And what about Butch Vig, for crying out loud?

That’s the case I want to make here — that Madison can attract and hold the best artistic talent if it finally starts seeing music, and the arts in general, as an industry cluster that can bring wealth, jobs and renown to the city. Surprisingly similar, in other words, to the papermaking cluster in the Fox River Valley, the printing cluster in Milwaukee and the biotechnology cluster in Madison.

But here’s the catch: To turn an “art” into an “industry,” Madison needs a change in attitude and a change in strategy. I saw just this sort of thinking in Austin, Texas, almost a quarter-century ago.

In 1988 I worked for The Capital Times. The paper sent me down to Austin to figure out why another famous university town with a state capitol and a glorified tradition of progressivism and eccentricity had vaulted ahead of Madison in population growth and high-tech development.

I heard something in Austin that I never heard in Madison. City leaders and the go-getters in the chamber of commerce loved their music scene (outlaw country was still in full flower) and saw it in utterly pragmatic terms: It was a moneymaker and a draw for the creative class. The Austin chamber had a staff member dedicated to furthering the Austin music scene, doing everything from advocating for the city’s entertainment district, to pulling together the legal, marketing, financial services and recording infrastructure for musicians.

“It’s all part of our effort to diversify the economy,” a chamber exec told me.

I hope the story prompts a smarter discussion on how to promote the arts in Madison. To read more, please go here.

As for my bona fides: Well, I’m just a fan who sees a lot of music. Here’s a link to my 2010 year-end music wrap up. Links to summary stories for earlier years  can also be found there.


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