A fan’s notes on 10 years of Midwest concerts
By Marc Eisen
Yeah, I got a music jones. About 500 concerts and shows’ worth over 10 years. Mostly in Madison, where I live. But also in Milwaukee and Chicago.
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 Madison weekly. A critic I’m not: These year-end perambulations are a fan’s notes.
So here are my favorite shows in Madison from 2006 to 2015; at the end, I add the Milwaukee and Chicago shows. They are in roughly descending order of my liking. My original comments (lightly edited) are sometimes 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.
That raw emotional road
Jon Dee Graham, Project Lodge, Feb. 13; with the Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis Hobart, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, April 10; and Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, Dec. 14, all 2012
Putting a twist on Eugene O’Neill, Graham’s shows are often long night’s journeys into day. His songs of darkness and personal defeat are redeemed by jewel-like moments of hope and love. Looking like the guy who hung drywall in your living room, he announced in his gravel-truck voice at his December show, “I don’t really trust you unless your life has burned to the ground twice and you started over. I’ve done it three times.”
How he manages to travel that raw emotional road in song night after night is a wonder. That he can is why I would argue that, whether drinking or holding on to sobriety, Graham is among the greatest singer-songwriters working today.
From his home in Austin, where he’s regarded as a legend (Graham played with Alejandro Escovedo in a revered punk band called the True Believers), he made four trips to Madison this year. He drew tiny crowds — less than 20 people at Project Lodge and 40 or so at house concerts hosted by Kiki Schueler. Twice he came as a solo act, once with his superb band the Fighting Cocks (I missed it) and another time in a fascinating side project — the Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis Hobart, with the estimable Freedy Johnston and Susan Cowsill — singing (mostly) songs about crap jobs and wasted youth.
Jon Dee killed in these shows. The guy is like Raymond Carver crossed with Leonard Cohen. His stories are unforgettable. His life lessons are learned the hard, dumb way. Graham is, as my friend Greg Conniff says, an imperfect soul making great music.
Also, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, July 6, 2013.
Here in his record ninth performance at Kiki’s basement concert venue, Jon Dee Graham could not have been better. He is a slashing elemental guitarist seemingly forged in a blast furnace in Gary, Indiana. For all his storied ties to rock ’n’ roll (he recorded with punk icons 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 Jon Dee 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.
Here is a great profile of Jon Dee Graham in The Bitter Southerner.
Songs from the American Wasteland
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones, High Noon Saloon, July 6, 2011
Could there be a better roadhouse band? Three long tall guys and a chick drummer pounding through the night like a howling, sparking locomotive. Not even a blown guitar amp could slow them for long. Alvin, the seen-it-all veteran of the Blasters, X and way too many cigarettes, has a flat recitative voice like Jack Webb in Dragnet narrating scenes from The Wasteland. These are great songs of American mythos — Johnny Ace’s death, Harlan County coal mining, the 1959 steel strike and a certain woman in a dirty nightgown. Alvin’s new album, Eleven Eleven, was my favorite of the year. I played that sucker over and over, because after 30-some years on the road, Dave Alvin is at the top of his game.
Also, High Noon Saloon, March 2, 2012
The noir-ish California cat who has one foot in vintage Los Angeles R&B and the other in classic Bakersfield country, has been crafting great roots albums and putting on unbeatable concerts in recent years. This pit stop at the High Noon was more of the same. His big-beat band anchored by drummer Lisa Pankratz locked into overdrive and took us on a wicked and wild ride through Alvin’s masterful songs of the dark American mythos of coal strikes, truck drivers, doomed musicians and sexy but broken women. By the time he was encoring, I thought, “Screw it!” and took out my earplugs to suck it all in. I really didn’t care if my head would be ringing like a cheap telephone the next day.
Dave Alvin was in town!
Further listening: “Harland County Line.”
Still persevering after all these years
Pat MacDonald with Melaniejane, April 9, 2010, Harmony Bar
I was scribbling notes when the woman next to me leaned over and announced that she was MacDonald’s aunt and told me that his song “Highway 42” was about his brother dying in a car crash in Door County. Wow, that stopped me, because I thought that he was channeling some old Delta lament.
But that’s Pat MacDonald for you. Into his fifth decade of termite-art perseverance, Sturgeon Bay’s finest (by way of Madison, Austin and Barcelona) has so assimilated Delta blues into his ageless tough-punk persona that you can’t tell one from the other.
With his cigar-box slide guitar and amplified foot-stomp percussion, MacDonald has fashioned a one-of-a-kind sound, and then Melaniejane squares it with her electric cello. MacDonald’s terse acid-etched lyrics sometimes recall the hard-drinking, life-at-the-edge short-story writer Raymond Carver. I’m tempted to call him Wisconsin’s most significant contemporary musician, but MacDonald’s work is much bigger than that.
The film critic Manny Farber wrote about the importance of “termite artists” who eat their own boundaries and who aren’t obsessed with fame or riches. That’s Pat MacDonald, a musician of lasting worth. Further listening: “Working,” “Drinkin’ Or Drivin’“ “Assholes on Parade.“ Also drummer Leo Sidran, Ben’s son, did a recent podcast interview. And Andy Moore’s great profile.
A star is born
Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society, Sept. 19, 2010, Stoughton Opera House
Okay, she toured with Prince this winter, but that’s not why Spalding is on the fast track. The little singer-bassist with the big bad Angela Davis hair is pushing limits like only a young artist can. I didn’t see a hipper show in 2010 than her Norksi stop. The audience might as well have been transported to a little club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.
Spalding walked on stage as her band vamped, took off her trench coat and scarf, sat down on a Queen Anne chair on the side of the stage (there was a suggestion of an apartment setting), flicked on a living room lamp, poured herself a glass of wine and listened intently.
After several minutes and a suitable dramatic pause, the 25-year-old Spalding rose to lead her unusual band — composed of a string trio, drummer, keyboard player and a vocal double— through an edgy mix of jazz and art music. Here was a confident young performer daring an adventurous program of jazzy art songs. When she sang and scatted, Spalding sounded a bit like Jill Scott, other times a bit like Dawn Upshaw. Impressively, she carved out her own musical space somewhere between Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” and Eddie Jefferson’s vocalese. It was all quite amazing.
I’ll double-down on that. I’ve since seen Spalding play straight ahead with jazz titans Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano and twice with her pop-art staging of “Emily’s D+Evolution.” The sky is the limit for Esperanza Spalding.
Peter Brotzmann and Hamid Drake, April 22, 2010, Project Lodge
This sax-drums duet exploded like a bomb. I’ve never heard two unamplified musicians blow out the windows the way these free-jazz heroes did. In a year of seeing great drummers, the cyclonic Drake was the most stunning and innovative. The German-born Brotzmann’s tenor solos were volcanic and beyond late Coltrane. At one point he grabbed a clarinet and blasted a single note for so long that Benny Goodman must have rolled over in his grave. Brotzmann-Drake played one set, but that was enough. I gotta hunch this show is headed for legend status.
All praise to the old Surrounded By Reality collective for bringing killer avant garde music like this to Madison — Ken Vandermark, Mars Williams, Joe McPeak, Jon Irabagon, Matt Wilson, and more. As for Brotzmann, his short-lived No Exit band — with Bill Laswell, Sonny Sharrock and Ronald Shannon Jackson — will peel the shellac off the door. Even your metal-head nephew will be impressed. Further listening: No Exit in concert.
The American Dream gone real bad
James McMurtry, Stoughton Opera House, March 8, 2014
James McMurtry’s angry and sometimes depressive songs of working-class life had an even sharper edge than usual. This was a surprise because he was minus the Heartless Bastards, his bar-tested band that usually propels his songs with a take-no-prisoners jackhammer rhythm. Reimagined solo acoustic, McMurtry’s songs unfolded like four-minute short stories. Revelations of human failings and crushing societal forces rule his dark universe.
McMurtry’s devilish guitar playing, especially on a 12-string, launched the songs just fine. And it was time to face facts: McMurtry is a first-rank songwriter, among the very best, and a solo show in this acoustic jewel of a venue turned into a stunning songwriter’s master class.
Like Dave Alvin, McMurtry chronicles the dark side of the American Dream. Alvin, though, celebrates the noble losers, the guys who find dignity and moments of love in a dark, dark world. But not McMurtry. His is a world of bad shit. No more so than in his sweeping cinematic portrait of America’s meth country in a song called “Choctaw Bingo.”
This is the family reunion from hell, Oklahoma-style. The family patriarch cooks methamphetamines because he can’t sell his moonshine. The men pack high-caliber pistols “made by bad-ass Hebrews” and shoot rifles with tracer bullets. The kids are lulled to sleep by the vodka in their cherry cokes. The narrator screws his second cousins two at a time. There is gunfire. There are fireworks. There are real estate rip-offs. “We’re having us a time!” goes the mad chorus. “We’re having us a time!”
Ron Rosenbaum, the great cultural historian, calls McMurtry a prophetic genius and says “Choctaw Bingo” captures America as “meth-and money-addicted, headed to self-destruction.”
That is the hawk-line vision of James McMurtry. We’re all tiny field mice about to be swept up and eaten by the raptors of American life. Even, if like me, you think that McMurtry’s world is too dark and too hopeless, his brilliance cannot be denied.
The singer as historian
Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 21, 2014
With two great albums behind her, The List and The River & The Thread, Rosanne Cash is at the peak of her powers. At age 59, she has a deep, resonant voice that wraps itself around a lyric like a second skin and brings it to life with a sureness and emotional depth that is powerful as it is effortless.
But of course, artistry is never effortless. So much has to happen first. It’s 10,000 hours behind a microphone. It’s her dad, Johnny Cash, recommending archival songs. It’s a broken marriage with the great songwriter Rodney Crowell. It’s a good marriage with the producer and guitarist John Leventhal (who backed her at this show). It’s Rodney and John writing a song with her for her new album. It’s motherhood and kids.
And now, increasingly, it’s Rosanne Cash’s fascination with Southern history. That was the root of almost all the songs she sang at this masterful show. Ken Tucker, the music writer, understood what Cash was doing on The River & The Thread: It’s “the notion that music can be a repository for history, as well as a way to heal old wounds….”
Cash talked about the road trips she and Leventhal took through the South. How history came together with spooky proximity on the Mississippi Delta, she said — the reputed grave of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, the site where 14-year-old Emmett Till was hung by racists in 1954 after he looked the “wrong way” at a white woman, even the Tallahatchie Bridge that inspired Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Cash told the sell-out crowd, quoting the famous Faulkner line. Artists like Rosanne Cash help give the past meaning. They help fit together the broken pieces. And they usually do it looking for their own truth.
Yeah, she’s great. Further listening: “Girl From The North Country.”
A star shines in Madison
Jeremy Denk, April 11, 2013 Mills Hall
Bartok, Liszt, Bach — this was a thoroughly ambitious program by a rising star of classical music. Denk, 43, was named a MacArthur “genius” fellowship winner in September, and this concert was proof enough of his brilliance. Denk is an intensely physical pianist, and his Bartok sonata was wildly percussive and dissonant. With Liszt and Bach he was a conjuror, sometimes pensive, sometimes pounding the piano so hard it seemed to quiver like a lover. He sat motionless, his hands above the keyboard as the notes, and the memory of the notes, hung in the air. This was all difficult music. Denk cracked it open to reveal its beauty.
I don’t get it. Mills Hall had a shocking number of empty seats, despite the proximity of the UW’s music department. What the hell gives? Denk is a celebrated player, also erudite (a New Yorker contributor!), hip, coolly dressed, even gay — so totally of the moment in U.S. culture. Still the empty seats were mute witness to Denk’s apparent irrelevance to Madison’s small-town music world.
If I had to pick a favorite show in 2006, this is it
Alejandro Escovedo and Robbie Fulks, High Noon Saloon, Sept. 9, 2006
Stripped of his copasetic band, Robbie Fulks as a solo opener was the complete package: awesome picker, bullet-sharp songwriter and forceful singer. Add in his manic energy, and he’s a performer anyone but a Nashville record executive would love.
Alejandro Escovedo is an Austin icon whose near-death experience has only added to his legend. His music defies easy characterization with its mix of prog rock, psychedelia, electronica and bittersweet Mexican ballads. And I certainly didn’t see a more interesting instrumental configuration in 2006 than a hard-rock band that featured a violin, cello and pedal steel. This was an end-of-the-tour finale, and the show had that combination of looseness and control from a road-tested band.
Also, High Noon Saloon, May, 21, 2012
After ripping the joint up, Alejandro Escovedo’s encore was as improbable as it was great: Mott the Hoople’s 40-year-old hit (penned by David Bowie) “All The Young Dudes,” followed by song after song until Escovedo led the band off the stage to the middle of the club to sing one last acoustic number surrounded by an exhausted, awe-struck audience. This was darn near a religious moment.
Veterans of domestic wars
Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, April 16, 2010, Stoughton Opera House
These beat-up veterans of broken love, too much drink and other depredations of lives fully if not foolishly lived are wiser for the experience.
This made for a compelling evening of confessional songs. Wainwright, whose folk career dates to the late 1960s, summoned up so many tales from his tangled family life that the stage seemed crowded with spectral presences hissing their disapproval. (His ex-wife is the late Kate McGarrigle; their children are the singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright. His father was a famous magazine editor. Suzzy Roche was his inamorata.) Thompson was every note the guitar legend, but his lyrics, often bitter and tinged with regret, registered just as loudly. This was an evening of stark, sunset-years music that was not at all honeyed by nostalgia.
I’m not a fan of English guitarists or of folk singers in general. So I was surprised at how much I liked this show. But these guys, both scarred by life’s wounds and their failures at love and career, were wiser for it.
Is jazz dead? No!
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, March 28, 2009, Majestic Theatre
This was ferocious R&B with a jazz overlay. I haven’t heard such a hyperkinetic performance since the R&B poseurs James White & the Blacks exploded on the stage of the old Merlyn’s. But sax man Karl Denson is no faker. He blows hard and long Coltraneish solos against a fierce JBish rhythm section. All the better, this was mostly a crowd of hipsters rather than graybeards like me. Denson is another reason why jazz may yet again reach a popular audience.
I showed up late after seeing the New Orleans triumvirate Porter-Batiste-Stolz at Overture Hall and missed Clyde Stubblefield’s opening act. But I got hugely lucky. The great James Brown alumnus sat in with Denson’s young lions on the opening number, and they blew through the speed limit like a team of NASCAR racers. It was hard to tell who was happier when the jam ended — the beaming Stubblefield or Denson’s crew as they hugged the legend.
“If anybody recorded this, I want a copy,” Denson pleaded. Somebody from the balcony shouted: You got it! Let’s hope they connected. That homage to Clyde was one of the sweetest moments of the Madison musical year.
Darned if I didn’t later wind up with a bootleg of the show. Killer just like I remembered it. We all have our Clyde stories. I remember him decades ago playing with Ben Sidran at the old Bunky’s and another exceptional moment when he sat in with avant garde giant Roscoe Mitchell at the old Cafe Montmartre. Wish I had a recording of that, though it would be marred by the background chatter of the clueless hipsters sitting by the windows who rudely talked their way through this historic meeting.
The clash between science and religion
Madison Opera’s Galileo Galilei, conducted by Kelly Kuo, Overture Center Playhouse, Jan. 27, 2012
Credit the hometown opera company for picking up the Philip Glass challenge. This was a very smart presentation of the Glass opera about the first great clash between science and religion: Galileo, long a favorite of church and royal rulers, finds himself late in life in anguish as the Roman Inquisition convicts him of heresy for arguing that the earth revolves the sun. The 2002 staging of Galileo Galilei that I saw in Chicago was much too literal — an opulent re-creation of the 17th-century Tuscan court. The Madison Opera version, brilliantly conceived by director A. Scott Parry and production designer Barry Steele, was set in a black-and-white minimalist world seemingly floating in space.
Given the subtly shifting patterns of Glass’ pulsating score, this was the perfect setting to experience the music. I pretty much drifted away in a mind-body melt. But it occurs to me now that the abstract setting for the opera was perfect for another reason: The issues illustrated by Galileo’s plight are not subject to time and place. The forces of intellectual repression are always with us.
I miss Philip Glass’ presence in Madison. The Overture Center is a marvelous arts complex, but its programing is suffocatingly mainstream. The old Madison Civic Center had far edgier programming, including triumphant stagings of Glass’ 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, The Monsters of Grace, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and La Belle Et La Bete.
Master at work
Paquito D’Rivera, Nov. 17, 2007, Union Theater.
I’m sure that a lot of the big crowd turned out thinking they’d be salsa dancing in the aisles. Not this night. D’Rivera knows his Latin music, but he’s a serious jazzman, and he worked his band through New York tight charts that owed more to Dizzy than to dance floor moves.
D’Rivera’s renown may be as a sax player, but I melted before his clarinet. I’ve never heard such a pure, sweet tone. The best moment was a duet with his young pianist on a Cuban contradanza. How much of it was improv and how much of it was composed I don’t know. I just wanted to hear more.
This show turned me into a Paquito fanatic. Humbling in a way. I’m a musical omnivore, but so ignorant. Time and again I get blown away by burrowing deep into a new discovery in Latin music. Piazzolla! Jobim! Golijov! Let alone jazzers like Rubalcaba, Palmieri, Lynch and Perez. D’Rivera bridges the classical and jazz worlds of Latin music like no one else. (Okay, so does Arturo Sandoval.)
Celebrating the Hill Country life
Luther Dickinson and his trio, The High Noon, Oct. 20, 2014
Impulsively, I pulled off Willy Street and headed to the High Noon. I’m a huge fan of Luther Dickinson, who’s a mainstay of the racially mixed north Mississippi/north Alabama music culture and the son of Memphis studio legend Jim Dickinson. Screw that Isthmus story deadline! I had music to hear.
I walked in the middle of acoustic bassist Amy LeVere singing a sultry “Wang Dang Doodle.” Wow! This was chicken shack music, dialed back and raw. Dickinson, a great slide guitar player and a vital artist best known for his work with the North Mississippi Allstars, has been on impressive journey that has taken him from punk to rock to jam band to blues and now to Hill Country music. Backed by a low-amp trio, Dickinson let the music, not its volume, carry the night.
Much of the material came from Dickinson’s 2014 album Rock n’ Roll Blues, which was recorded old school — live to eight-track tape. You gotta love a song about a struggling rock artist who hears God talking to him at the dog track. Loosely summarized: Get some cowboy boots, white boy! And go country because Jesus is gonna burn the honkytonk down!
What sealed the night was the light-touch drummer Sharde Thomas stepping out from her kit to play the bamboo fife — and then it hit me: Thomas was the granddaughter of Otha Turner, the renowned north Mississippi fife player who died at age 94 in 2003. This knocked me back.
Turner was the last living link to the old African American drum-and-fife bands that sprang up in the South even before the blues had coalesced into a distinct music. Musicologists see a direct connection to West African music traditions. And here was Sharde Thomas carrying it on.
Such roots! It was so American. And so like Luther Dickinson. He assembled the only album that Otha Turner ever released, and some of the songs were field recordings that his dad — who recorded everyone from Big Country to Furry Lewis to the Rolling Stones — made years earlier. These Hill people, white and black, stick together.
This is what a pro sounds like
Marty Stuart, Majestic Theater, Nov. 29, 2007
Okay, the Packers were playing the Cowboys, but, still, a turnout that barely topped 100 was pitiful. Even worse, about half of the audience seemed to be statuary trucked in from a Branson cemetery. But Stuart, a great Southern roots musician, kicked it out as if he was playing before 3,000 at the Ryman: country, gospel, bluegrass and rock all performed with a killer backbeat and even tighter backing harmonies.
Johnny Cash would have smiled; Pops Staples too. But the turnout was scandalously low. Some great country singers have died in this town in recent years (Rodney Crowell at St. Francis House, Shelby Lynne at Café Montmartre, Jim Lauderdale at Momo). What’s the problem? These genre-defying artists don’t fit in the convenient Madison marketing niches of hipster-approved alt-country or radio-friendly Nashville chart-toppers. It’s our town’s loss.
I became a stone-cold Marty Stuart fan. His annual (and always sold-out) shows at the Stoughton Opera House are not to be missed. His band’s three- and four-part harmonies are unbelievable. Their musicianship is jazz quality. And Stuart, like all great roots musicians, knows the bonding of white and black America is at the beating heart of our culture and society. His ties to the Staple Singers is character-defining; when Pops, the family patriarch, died, daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave Stuart his guitar to play. (“It was like being handed an instrument of light,” he said.) Watch Stuart’s memorable performance with the Staples on “The Weight“. And listen to Marty’s Memphis reverb when you see him live.
The victory lap
The Guarneri Quartet, Oct. 23, 2008, Union Theater.
I’m not sure how we wound up in the front row, but what a treat to be a breath away from these great musicians. Small classical groups are best experienced live and up close. Recordings never capture the subtle gestures, the hang time of notes, those singular moments when the bow hits the string and noise is transformed into music. It is magical. The sound is practically three-dimensional.
The quartet, marking an astonishing 45 years together, played a sturdy program of Hayden, Mozart and the late Beethoven in this farewell appearance. Concerts like this demonstrate how utterly critical the Union’s annual classical series is to Madison’s cultural life.
The uncertain fate of the Union’s classical series may be the most underreported arts story in Madison. Last year, director Ralph Russo told me that season subscribers had plunged to about 200 from upward of 600 at the peak. This year, subscriptions have bounced back to almost 300, though “at a hefty discounted price,” he says. Tellingly, the annual number of shows has also dropped to four from eight in the series heyday.
Russo blames the overall decline on a “a strong buyers’ market,” meaning the public has lots of other good, affordable entertainment choices. “The graying audience continues to have compelling reasons to stop subscribing,” he adds, “while the younger audience seems less interested in a traditional recital/chamber music program.”
Still, ticket sales are strong this season, including violinist Joshua Bell selling out Shannon Hall. Russo is looking forward to the concert series’ 100th anniversary in the 2019-20 season. I hope the series lasts that long.
A shining path
Sam Baker and Gurf Morlix, April 12, 2008, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music.
Morlix, a producer/songwriter/performer, is one of the Austin heavies. But it was Baker who captivated me. His songs are closely observed narratives of eccentric and marginalized people finding meaning in seemingly defeated lives — almost like Leonard Cohen’s, if Cohen had been a Baptist raised in West Texas.
There is tenderness and vulnerability in Baker’s songs, perhaps a product of his own nearly wasted life. An adventurer of sorts, he was almost killed when the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas blew up a train he was riding in Peru in 1986. Not your usual songwriter bio. Baker’s latest album, Pretty World, was one of my favorites of 2008. Moody and atmospheric, it is touched with moments of supine tenderness.
Tragedy has indelibly touched Baker. The memory of a young boy killed in the bombing. His own physical damage. I’ve seen Baker twice subsequently at Kiki’s. The first show was an off night. The next show, in fall 2015 with Carrie Elkin, was killer. They opened with “Love Hurts,” the indelible Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris duet, and it broke my heart. Further listening: Terry Gross’ interview with Baker.
Painting his masterpiece
Chuck Prophet, May 19, 2013, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music
Go ahead: Put me on that desert island with five albums and an audiophile sound system. Right next to Miles Davis, Herbert Von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, the Allman Brothers and Yo-Yo Ma, I’d be stashing Chuck Prophet and his masterpiece chronicle of the pleasurably wasted Southern California dream: Age Of Miracles.
I’m a huge fan of the former Green On Red co-leader. After the hard-living alt band crashed and burned in spectacular fashion in 1987, Prophet cleaned up and turned himself into a craftsman songwriter and studio master, releasing a series of sharply etched, very smart rock ’n’ roll albums.
The good news is how well the songs, sans band, stood up solo acoustic. He won my heart when he encored with “You Did,” as perfectly a crafted song as you’ll find. Ostensibly a love song, the druggy hypnotic rhythm is haunted by an urgent cry “I got a letter this morning…” as he reels off a series of resonant metaphors about his lover opening his heart “like a baby’s fist.”
Who cleared the static and made it sing?
Who put the wheel on the gravy train?
I got a letter this morning.
Who put the “bomp” in the bomp-shooby-dooby-bomp?
Who put the “ram” in the rama-lama-ding-dong?
Who put the “wang” in the wang-dang-doodle, baby?
I got a letter this morning.
“BUT WHAT DOES THE LETTER SAY, CHUCK?” You want to scream that as the song fades away. Of course, he doesn’t say, and he doesn’t really have to, because in our heart we already know it’s the big kiss-off. All praise to the righteous Kiki Schueler, whose rep for house concerts draws major talent like Chuck Prophet.
Kiki rules! To a surprising degree, the Madison concert scene rises and falls on the strength of a handful of exceptional individuals like Schueler. She’s promoted more than 400 house concerts. ALL of the ticket revenue has gone to the artists. Kiki’s first name might as well be “Irreplaceable,” because she is just that for Madison music. Further listening: “You Did,” “Doubter Out of Jesus.”
DeMain at his best
George Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythms by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, May 11, 2012
What a bust. This past fall I sawGershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the money-driven effort to turn the great American opera into a lucrative Broadway show. Okay, the Philistines messed with the plot, but who even cared when the tinny, tiny amplified Broadway pit band couldn’t pull off the glorious music?
Far better were the full orchestral settings surrounding the powerful operatic voices of soprano Laquita Mitchell and baritone Michael Redding in the Madison Symphony’s glorious slab of Porgy and Bess selections offered in the second half of this Gershwin spectacular. DeMain, whose national reputation as a conductor will forever be linked to the Houston Opera’s relaunching of the once controversial opera in 1976, was in all his glory.
I’m a sucker for George Gershwin. With Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams, he is the quintessential American songwriter and composer. All of them were outsiders raised in poverty who somehow gave a defining voice to singular American experiences. This was a spectacular concert — for me, the high point the Madison Symphony’s 2011-12 season.
Context is everything. If I hadn’t seen the disappointing Broadway show, I wouldn’t have raved about DeMain’s Porgy and Bess.
Genius skips a generation
Hank III & Assjack, Nov. 13, 2009, Barrymore Theatre
Like Matt Haimovitz , the acclaimed classical cellist who played Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Hank Williams III defies the conventions of genre. The grandson of country’s most storied legend, Hank III approaches country music with a thrash metal impudence. When the smoke clears and the last string is broken, what’s left is a resilient mutant music.
Way beyond radio play and country’s polite protocols, Hank III is an underground sensation. He sold out the Barrymore to a heavy mix of street punks and blue-collar kids. Long before Steve Earle became an intellectual and an icon of the political left, back in his wild and law-breaking Copperhead Road days, he might have drawn this sort of crowd.
The funny thing is that Hank’s band Assjack, excepting its industrial-strength drummer, looked like it could have been backing Del McCoury. You had your slap bassist, banjo, fiddle and lap steel. But Assjack played Dexedrine fast and ear-plug loud. I headed for the exit late in the show as the sonic apocalypse threatened.
A wag once cracked that Hank III is evidence that genius skips a generation. (No “Monday Night Football” foolishness for him.) Hank III is rewiring country music in an altogether radical fashion. When he sang granddad’s fatalistic “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” it sounded nothing less than a punk anthem for the young and the doomed. I suspect that Hank I, a devotee of reckless behavior himself and a dead man by 29, would have understood.
A few years later, I saw Hank III again and brought friends who fled in terror at the sonic onslaught. I stuck it out until “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” and then bailed. Worth it. Further listening: “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Dick In Dixie.”
The pain of life and love
Madeleine Peyroux, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 7, 2015
Early on, singer Madeleine Peyroux struggled. She missed notes, stretched for adventurous vocal tricks and mopped her face with a towel as if she might toss it in. But Peyroux, a Paris busker who found unexpected commercial success in the ’90s, was compelling in a dark and challenging way.
“I do love songs, blues songs and drinking songs,” she told the sold-out crowd. And, yes, she had impeccable taste in material, too. She began with a difficult schmaltzy Ray Charles hit “Take These Chains from My Heart” that Hank Williams originally recorded, which she rubbed raw to its original brilliance. She found the midnight despair of Randy Newman’s “Guilty.” And the resilience of “I’m All Alone,” where she sang with that scary echo of Billie Holiday: “I’ve been alone before … but tears don’t leave any scars.” Her famous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” waltzed willingly off the precipice of failed love.
But, bless her, Peyroux ended the show on a note of sublime tenderness: Bad-ass Warren Zevon’s last song, “Keep Me in Your Heart.” Mr. Bad Example, writing and recording in the shadow of approaching death, finally revealed himself as vulnerable and in love: “Hold me in your thoughts. Take me in your dreams. Touch me as I fall into view.” I will admit to tearing up. You can’t be a guy and not like how Warren Zevon lived his life and his death.
For the ever-lonely Madeleine Peyroux this was an impressive show. Give credit to her quality sidemen, guitarist Jon Herington (who plays in Steely Dan’s touring band) and bassist Barak Mori. I saw Norah Jones six days earlier at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. She’s a wholly admirable performer. But Peyroux digs deeper and reveals more of life’s inevitable pain.
I first saw Peyroux in 2007 as the headliner of the Isthmus Jazz Festival. Not impressed. She had a jazz-lite band that undercut her. I like Peyroux’s dark side. Further listening: Leo Sidran’s meaty interview with Peyroux. At a Paris cafe, no less.
A fan’s notes:
Favorite Milwaukee and Chicago shows, 2006-15
If you’re music-crazy like me, you’ll jump in the car to see a show. In roughly descending order, these are my favorite shows within driving distance of Madison from 2006 to 2015.
“Everything we have”
Leonard Cohen, the Milwaukee Theatre, March 15, 2013
Leonard Cohen was old — 33— when he released his first album in late 1967. A respected Canadian poet and fiction writer, he put aside a proper literary career at a critical cultural moment. This was risky. Many of his musical compatriots from the groovy Summer of Love were a good decade and a full generation younger.
Forty-six years later, I saw Cohen perform in Milwaukee, and it was easily my favorite show of 2013. Long of tooth but light on his feet, Cohen is a far more interesting artist today. I never cared for the somber Canadian back in the day. Never bought his albums. But I do remember Tim Hardin’s tremulous version of Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” in 1971 — a song that captures the agonizing clash of obligation and autonomy in relationships.
Twenty-three years later, when producer Rick Rubin relaunched Johnny Cash’s career by stripping his music down to its sinews, I was blow away by Cash’s reading of “Bird.” When Cohen released Ten New Songs in 2001, I was finally ready for him.
Here was the perfect package. Cohen’s voice had modulated. His songs were sly, closely observed but still enigmatic, and touched with longing and mortality. With a chorus of women singing sweet harmony (and crafting the album) and stark but copacetic arrangements, Cohen had become something of a musical Frank Lloyd Wright, enjoying an extraordinary burst of late-life creativity.
This was the Cohen we saw in his natty black suit and hip fedora
Cohen’s show was his first in Milwaukee in 38 years. I’ve never seen a concert so expertly put together. This included high-resolution video of the band projected on side screens, billowing stage curtains, his oversized art hung on the walls, Broadway-quality lighting periodically blowing his noirish shadow up to monster heights. And the band — the string players sat in comfortable overstuffed chairs around him — top-shelf players from across the globe. The Gypsy-styled violinist came from Moldova, the guitarists from Barcelona and Austin. When Cohen, at the age of 78, trotted out to the stage to start what became nearly a three-hour show, you knew magic was happening.
“Friends, I promise we’ll give you everything we have,” he announced.
There was such purposefulness and palpable joy to Cohen’s performance. And such wry self-deprecation in his patter. “Lighten up, Cohen!” he chastened himself at one point. (Would Mick Jagger smile when he made a passing reference to “the humiliations of the bedroom”?) When his bandmates soloed, Cohen sometimes dropped to his knees or put his fedora over his heart. And of course, he sang “Hallelujah,” his memorable reckoning of eternal yearnings and carnal desire, which became an improbable standard. The song, barely noticed when released in 1984, took 10 years to break out with Jeff Buckley. Now more than 300 covers are reported, including KD Lang’s drop-dead version.
For sure, it’s been a long strange trip for Leonard Cohen. He’s endured and grown long after his younger 1967 classmates — the Beatles, Hendrix, the Doors, Otis Redding, Buffalo Springfield, Cream, and more — gave up the ghost.
The American Piaf
Shelby Lynne, Nov. 28, 2008, Turner Hall, Milwaukee
Like Cassandra Wilson has transcended jazz, Shelby Lynne has risen above country. Her great phrasing and emotional investment puts her at the rarified level of the great ones. Her voice captures sadness and vulnerability but also reveals the steely glimmer of someone who’s been hurt and hurt again but carries on.
A diva by all accounts, Lynne’s career travails and tempestuous life have scared away promoters and record labels. Out of her relative isolation came last year’s rep-making tribute album to Dusty Springfield. Almost Zen-like in its spare arrangements (lovingly recorded on retro audio tape by studio legends Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt), Just a Little Loving has three or four songs that will stop people in their tracks 50 years from now.
Turner Hall’s cabaret seating turned out to be a surprisingly nice venue for Lynne’s drama. The 300 patrons more than doubled the pitiful turnout when Lynne’s poor-selling Madison show was moved to Café Montmartre in July 2005. People, listen up: You don’t know what you’re missing!
Also, Turner Hall, Milwaukee, May 2, 2010
There is so much loneliness, isolation and sadness enveloping this great country singer. In the cozy cabaret confines of Turner Hall, Shelby Lynne was backed only by a bass player and a guitarist, and the drama of her songs was even in starker relief than usual. At the end, even the band walked away, and Lynne stood all alone singing a diva-level a cappella version of the great Dusty Springfield hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” She was stripped to the bone. Yet there remained the steely perseverance of the survivor who witnessed the murder-suicide of her mother and father as a teenager and lived to keep her tears to herself. I kept thinking: Shelby Lynne is the American Piaf. She is not to be missed.
Old Man River
Allen Toussaint, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Jan. 14, 2011
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.
Not to be missed for any reason, except impending death
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price backed by Ray Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel, Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, March 24, 2007
It doesn’t get any better than this. Benson’s young guitarist had the biggest pie-eating grin imaginable. Why shouldn’t she? She was sharing the stage with country music gods. The revelation was the still-sturdy Ray Price, whose big baritone was in fine form as he nailed Willie’s masterpieces of loss and longing, “Night Life” and “Crazy.”
An underappreciated crooner of the old school, Merle was a bit too smooth this night. But, oh, how the crowd roared when Willie strolled out with a big smile during “Okie From Muskogee” to sing the lines about marijuana and LSD. Willie remains that fascinating contradiction of outlaw, traditionalist and dharma truth-seeker.
Yo-Yo Ma’s radiant joy
Yo-Yo Ma, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart conducting, Marcus Center, Milwaukee, Sept. 30, 2009
What sticks with me about this concert is not the program. That had Yo-Yo Ma take a rapturous turn at Schumann’s “Concerto in A Minor for Cello,” while newly installed conductor Edo de Waart’s expertly captained Mahler’s oversized 5th Symphony. I was instead gobsmacked by Yo-Yo Ma’s extraordinary stage presence.
A beam of heavenly light might as well have been shining down upon Ma. He so enjoyed making music, especially in his encore with MSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson. They began by playfully trading cellos and then ripping through a Jean Barriere duet with the glee of race horses showing off their stuff.
I’m tongue-tied trying to explain the delight created by Ma’s presence. Did it stem from his virtuosity? Was it his beaming smile? Were we picking up on the essential goodness of his soul? His openness to other musicians? Was it all of the above? All I can say is that the orchestra seemed as enthralled by Ma as the sold-out audience.
I’ve seen such radiant joy in a performer only a precious few times before — long-ago shows by the jazz arranger Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard in New York and in Stephane Grappelli at the old Capitol Theatre in Madison. Like Ma, these were artists whose euphoria lifted everyone around them.
A river of blood runs through it
Elektra by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and directed by Sir David McVicar, Oct. 19, 2012
No wonder the Greek economy is doomed. These people have been grappling with the horrific issues of incest, regicide, matricide and general craziness ever since Sophocles wrote up the Trojan War like a David Chase screenplay. This completely over-the-top staging of the one-act Richard Strauss opera had a river of blood flowing on the stage, dueling sopranos blasting like howitzers over a thunderous orchestra and costuming straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Things got so freakin’ intense that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Elektra (the stellar Christine Goerke) had pulled out a Kalashnikov to settle some scores with her screwed-up family.
I loved it! Not that I walked out of the Lyric humming Strauss’ tunes, but if you want a lesson in the ruinous complications of revenge and moral transgression, Elektra is your ticket. (Alternatively, you could watch reruns of The Sopranos.)
This Don Juan is a sexual predator
Don Giovanni, by Mozart, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart, Marcus Center, Milwaukee, Sept. 16, 2014
I stumbled into the Milwaukee Symphony’s opening program thinking it was performing excerpts of Don Giovanni. Instead it was the full opera, breathtakingly staged. Take a bow, director James Darrah.
The genius of his staging was to raise the orchestra pit almost to the level of the stage so the audience got a full view of conductor Edo de Waart and his orchestra. Even better was Darrah’s vision of a callous Lothario who needs women more than food to survive. There’s little that is romantic in bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch’s Don Giovanni. He is a conniving sexual predator destined for hell in the last act.
Darrah gave us a stark, shadowy bare stage save for steel chairs and six black towers. The cast was dressed in dark suits and dresses. Stripped of the costume frippery of 17th-century Spain, the plot and Don Giovanni’s disturbing pathology seem almost contemporary. I like opera (and orchestras) that takes chances.
Death and destruction
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by Francesco Lecce-Chong; the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus directed by Lee Erickson, the Basilica at St. Josaphat, Milwaukee, Nov. 14, 2015
A day after terrorists killed scores of Parisians, I found myself in a sober state of mind in a noble Catholic basilica, listening to Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” This was an emotional powerhouse of a performance. A meditation on death and family destruction. Written in 1976, Gorecki’s Third Symphony became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1990s with the release of soprano Dawn Upshaw’s heartbreaking solos in conductor David Zinman’s recording with the London Sinfonietta. So powerful, it was reported, people hearing it on their car radio would pull off the road and cry.
For good reason. Built around three texts from Polish history, including a message to her mother from an 18-year-old girl facing death in a Nazi concentration camp, the piece slowly builds in intensity until it breaks into catharsis and fades to silence. For soprano Kathryn Henry, a voice student in the UW-Milwaukee music program, this was a career-making performance. Her sad, powerful voice resounded in the basilica like a defiant victim’s last cry before the inevitable. It was almost too much to bear. I’m a big guy, but I was daubing my eyes.
For a sacred setting with extraordinary acoustics, the symphony could not have chosen a better program. A shimmering unaccompanied choral piece performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, Gorecki’s “Totus Tuus” opened the concert, followed by the orchestra joining the chorus for Bruckner’s deeply spiritual “Te Deum.” Then the sublime “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” All this, mind you, for the price of a five-dollar ticket.
The Milwaukee Symphony is doing great work.
A portal to another world
Muhal Richard Abrams (opening for the Joshua Redman Quartet), Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Sept. 22, 2013
Seeing this giant of improvisational jazz was a spine-tingling experience. At 83, Muhal Richard Abrams walked slowly to the piano, paused before putting his hands to the keys, and then — magic! It was as if his own force field descended over the hall. Reality was altered to his vision. I’ve had this experience a few times before — James “Blood” Ulmer, for one, has that kind of gravitational pull. I imagine Monk did too.
Whether the next 40 minutes was improvised or a set tune, I don’t know. But Abrams with his own idiosyncratic cadences played the silences as well as the notes. Sometimes discordant, sometime melodic, he broke the music into bright shiny shards that hung in the air with mystifying power.
Abrams co-founded the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965 in Chicago. The long tail of that group’s influence has periodically washed over the Madison scene through the magisterial presence of his compatriot Roscoe Mitchell and free jazzer Hanah Jon Taylor, whose own career illustrates how hard it is to be a jazz musician and to call Madison home.
The Country Music Hall of Fame
Ry Cooder, Sharon White and Ricky Skaggs, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee; July 17, 2015
Seeing Ry Cooder, who rarely tours, was a high point of 2015. A Zelig-like figure, the guitarist has had a remarkable career playing and producing vibrant regional music from across the globe. West Africa. Cuba. India. Not to mention Tex Mex, Delta blues, even SoCal Americana. Never a plunderer, Cooder is an explorer, devotee and celebrator. So here he was in the marvelous Pabst Theater playing deep country and gospel — barely a song less than 50 years old. What a treat!
Cooder nailed it, of course. He was joining forces with traditionalist icon Ricky Skaggs, who seemingly was born with a mandolin in his hand and shortly thereafter kidnapped by Bill Monroe; Skaggs’ wife, the singer Sharon White; and her sister and dad. Eighty-four year old Buck White was a throwback pianist (think of the parlor piano Bobby Nelson plays for Willie) and a stately presence on stage.
They sang and played the old standards of the Stanley Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Jimmy Martin and other country greats. Never a poseur, Cooder fit right in as if he been raised and trained in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and not in sun-kissed California.
But that uncanny skill of absorbing the cosmic beat explains how he’s also played and recorded with Mali’s Ali Farka Toure and Cuba’s Manuel Galiban. Ry Cooder is a wondrous musical channeler of the world’s music. And Zelig-like he’s always in the picture.