A Fan’s Notes on 2016 music: 16 Nights of Great Shows in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago
This story first appeared in the online edition of the Madison weekly Isthmus.
By Marc Eisen
Well, that was embarrassing! I nodded off listening to overly ambient music at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, the great new creative space at 2021 Winnebago St. on Madison’s near-eastside. Was I snoring, for crying out loud? Did someone slip me Ambien for the ambient music? Who knows? As the small crowd milled around Marielle Jakobson (Sept. 3) post-concert, I felt a compelling need to head for the door and get a shot of refreshing mescal and a couple of tacos at Tex Tubbs’s down the street.
All the better I found Andy Moore there, chowing down with the missus. He’s a talented musician, writer and TV producer, but known better to me simply as “Crazy Neighbor Andy.” Soon we were careening down the street towards home when we were stopped in our tracks by music wafting in the air from Mr. Roberts. Hey, man, we gotta check this out.
The exuberant, tight as a rubber band Chaos Revolution Theory (Sept. 3) was waving the rock n’roll flag to 20 or so people. We settled in for a nightcap and a few tunes. CRT had a steel tight rhythm section, a manic percussion player and a guitarist who picked his spots like a surgeon. What a delight!
It got me thinking how often I stumbled into a felicitous and serendipitous musical moment in 2016, 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 Mickey’s roof late one night (Oct. 28) with their noisy twin guitars. Madison’s grande dame female 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 Voegli 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.
I will have seen upwards of 80 shows and performances in 2016 by the time you read this, a high water mark in 11 years of writing this annual roundup. These favorites are a fan’s notes; a critic I’m not. (I have zero musical training.)
But as a fan I’m like other music fanatics in Madison. We’re crazy enough to regularly jump in the car and head to Chicago, Milwaukee, Fort Atkinson, Spring Green or even Minneapolis for a show. Not to mention occasionally to New York, San Francisco and even (gulp) Appleton, where I saw a superb concert (5/13) by underground guitar hero Kurt Rosenwinkel at Lawrence University.
Here are 16 good nights of music from 2016.
20 Feet From Stardom
Kandace Springs, Majestic Theater, Aug. 17
There were moments this night when I would have bet the farm Kandace Springs is bound for glory. Backed by an agile drummer and bassist who moved from pop to jazz, this young singer/ keyboardist had serious jazz chops, a beguiling voice, and an eye-popping stage presence.
My table of jazz fans was impressed at how conversant she was with the jazz standards associated with Oscar Peterson, Mal Waldron and Ella Fitzgerald. (Their music is not exactly every-night fare at the Majestic.) But Springs to mixed result is also under the spell of Norah Jones and other young women singers who’ve burst into prominence.
Clearly, Blue Note records promoted her new album, Soul Eyes, with the hope it would be a commercial breakout. But that’s the problem. Recording two Jesse Harris songs — he is a somewhat a self-absorbed songwriter associated with Jones — is just too obvious. The album disappoint even if the title song, Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” is a languid beauty with an outstanding Terence Blanchard trumpet solo.
Her Majestic show was meatier than her new release. Her great promise was so obvious. But Springs’ challenge is honing an honest musical identity while shooting for stardom.
Guitars and more guitars
Robert Fripp and the Chamber Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, First University Society of Madison, June 3
This show was like a mid-summer’s night dream. The famous King Crimson guitarist led a troupe of 31 acoustic guitarists in a choreographed performance that seemed as much a pagan ceremony as an entertainment.
The mostly black-clad orchestra spiraled through the audience playing as they moved among the several hundred attendees. How much of he music was scored and how much was improvised — I have no idea. Fripp sometimes stood in the back taking it all in; other times he was among the various sub-bands that broke off from the orchestra
It was all quite remarkable. The pristine church acoustics produced a gorgeous surround-sound ambience, The musicians, who introduced themselves at the outset, spoke in German, French, Spanish, and Japanese as well as English. Fripp, who has an international following of guitarists, talked briefly of music healing the world for our children. It was all very mysterious.
In and out of the comfort zone
The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Overture Hall, April 1
The Madison Symphony under Maestro John DeMain rarely performs works from the latter 20th century, let alone the 21st century. So what a surprise and pleasure to hear its adventurous take on Steven Stucky’s 1st Symphony from 2012. Stucky, a prolific composer who won a Pulitzer Prize for a concerto, died in February. This one movement piece was deeply emotional (take a bow, string section), complex and thoroughly modern. I liked hearing the symphony get out of its comfort zone.
But on this night that comfort zone was sounding good too. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a familiar face to Madison classical fans, made Brahms’ Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, a personal showcase for his calm mastery. The first movement was sublime. The orchestra’s thunderous outpouring was tempered by Ohlsson’s pensive but powerful Steinway. I loved his sound.
Yeah, I was taken by Brahms. I heard a lot of it this year from the Milwaukee and Chicago symphonies, too. The Madison Symphony did itself proud.
Nils Bultmann, Arts + Literature Laboratory, Dec.2
To my jaded thinking, mixed-media performances are usually better in concept than in practice. But Nils Bultmann, an impressive San Francisco Bay area viola player with Madison roots, proved me wrong. This ALL show mixed stunning solo viola (Bultmann has a great, rich tone), wall-sized video projections, modern dance (Jin-Wen Yu) and Mongolian throat singing (db petersen). Killer! This is exactly what an experimental arts space should be doing—pushing limits and breaking barriers. (Kudos to ALL founder Jolynne Roorda.) And I did not fall asleep even for a second.
Making it look easy
The Mack Avenue SuperBand, Wilson Center, Brookfield, Feb. 13
From the first note these cats were roaring down the track. The matter-of-fact excellence of jazz frontliners like these players is always breath taking. This was accessible, straight-ahead jazz played with élan and precision. They made it look easy.
Bass giant Christian McBride was the main man as the music director, but trumpeter Sean Jones’ dazzling solos were star worthy. Sax player Tia Fuller blew hard from bop to Trane. Vibist Gary Burton, the band’s eminence grise with seven Grammy awards, was a marvel of technique. Drummer Carl Allen, back home in the Milwaukee area, was sublime with the brushes. This was a fine show that drew a large turnout in a venue of 619 seats. (Sadly, I suspect a Madison show would have drawn a much smaller crowd.)
This was my first time at the Wilson Center. It’s a great cultural asset and evidence of how the suburbs are building their own significant arts institutions. Credit Wilson for holding Milwaukee area jazz masters class led by Fuller, whose day gig is as a professor at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. And, oh, yeah, she also plays in Beyonce’s road band.
Brainy music for a cold night
Ches Smith Trio, Gates of Heaven Synagogue, Feb. 21
What an otherworldly experience. I hadn’t heard music this adventurous since the heyday of the Surrounded By Reality collective bringing world-class avant-garde jazzers to Madison. This sonic landscape — precisely sculpted by drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith, violist Matt Maneri and keyboard player Craig Taborn — was straight out of the ECM library of brainy music for cold lonely nights in the frozen tundra. Dead silence and crystalline notes — periodically disrupted by Smith’s furious drumming– filled the acoustically perfect old temple. I happily surrendered to its spell.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Symphony Center, Chicago, Feb. 26
Bird Calls, a marvelously ambitious album of improvisations inspired by Charlie Parker’s towering beebop legacy, was a star-making moment for alto player Rudresh Mahanthappa. Back home in Chicago, where he earned his bones in the Second City’s competitive jazz scene in the 1990s before his inevitable move to New York, Mahanthappa was the picture of calm and confidence, basking in a returning hero’s welcome. He led his ferocious rhythm-section of Rudy Royston and François Moutin with trumpet phenom Adam O’Farrill and pianist Joshua White through his tricky spins and take-offs based on Bird’s masterworks. These cats got it down. Mahanthappa even seemed a little sentimental, reminiscing about the old days of eating tacos post-gig at 4 am at Lazo’s over on Western. This was a good night for Chicago jazz. The apprentice returned home as a star.
Where beauty and order are prized
Hillary Hahn, violin, with Cory Smythe, piano, Shannon Hall, March 24
Such exquisite tone. The Mozart sonata Hilary Hahn played transported me to another world where beauty and order are prized and life’s unruly passions are vanquished. And then Bach’s violin Sonata No. 3 in C Major, with the hint of passion and urgency, kicked it up a notch. Bach and Mozart — hard not to think how their royal patrons must have loved the cultural veneer they provided their all-powerful courts.
The second set pivoted into the unruly 20th century, featuring Tina Davidson’s fetching “Blue Curve of the Earth” and Aaron Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano profound sense of yearning. And just a dash of dissonance in the Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril’s partita. This was a perfectly calibrated program to display Hahn’s superb taste and talents.
In complete control
Roscoe Mitchell Trio, Arts + Literature Laboratory, June 18
Roscoe Mitchell, 76, has such a presence about him that it seems he carries his own force field. An elegant small man, the great horn player moves with a sense of purpose and deliberation that seems antithetical to the sometimes wildness of his experimental jazz. But that’s really the point. Mitchell has carefully built a far-ranging discography of challenging music that moves from Afro-centric collaborations with the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to abstract academic classical pieces that are distinctly dry and modern. His appearance at ALL was a major event, signaling the little arts space on Winnebago Street has arrived. Mitchell, who has lived on and off in the Madison area, brought a drummer and bass player with him. They broke into a sweat playing his furious jazz on this warm summer night, though Mitchell himself — famous for his circular breathing and his impossibly long sustained notes — was calm and in complete control.
A man of empathy
Kenny Barron Trio, The Dakota, Minneapolis, Nov. 15
Hard to imagine this scene in small-town Madison. Here was a big crowd of around 400 total for two shows filling a high-buck music club (that, no less, serves good food) to hear one of the jazz world’s piano masters. I stuck around or both sets. The telepathic interplay of Barron with fill-in drummer Lee Pearson (Spyro Gyra, Chris Botti, et al) and longtime bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa was too good to leave. I love Barron’s piano. He’s an empathetic player who ventures far but never abandons the melody. I choked up when he played the late Charlie Haden’s “Nightfall” from their great collaboration The Night and The City. This was a sad, pin-drop moment. Pearson’s brushes were painterly. Kitigawa’s solo was anguished. Barron’s notes echoed like stones falling into a deep well. Silence enveloped the room. (One thousand one, one thousand two.) Then the fervent applause of a thankful audience. Just a great moment, but that’s Kenny Barron for you.
So that’s what they’re singing
The Bottle Rockets, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, Aug. 19
This was fitting. The great roots band The Bottle Rockets played Kiki Schueler’s 200th house concert. Nobody has fanned the flames of Americana in Madison as much as the irreplaceable Schueler. All the better these veteran road warriors played acoustically, which put the emphasis on their songwriting.
These are great, closely observed songs, too. Tales of a 17-year-old welfare mother struggling for dignity, a guy humping at the Chrysler factory “he doesn’t care how they turn out/ he’s got bills to pay,” and that sad girl “smoking 100s alone/ thinking about the man that done her wrong/ happy that she kicked him out/ but sad that he is gone/ she’s smoking 100s alone.”
Roots music? Americana? Alt-country? Hell, just great bar music when I’ve heard the two guitarists open up the jets and blast those songs out. Now in their third decade, the Bottle Rockets will never be famous and never be hip. But they are forever important because they help tell the American story every time they take the stage.
Philip Glass, The Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, Nov. 3
A Philip Glass solo piano recital remains one of my favorite memories of the old Madison Civic Center. The great minimalist composer was once a regular visitor to Madison. Usually it was one of his trippy mixed-media stagings — for instance, his new score for Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête was performed live by Glass and his ensemble as the movie played. But it was the piano gig in the intimate Isthmus Playhouse that sent me to heaven. To be so close to genius — to music so abstract yet so overpowering like the waves of an ocean.
But those adventurous bookings aren’t part of the Overture Center’s strategy, which is why I joined friends in a trek to Chicago to see the 79-year-old Glass in a rare solo show. He played four pieces from different decades of his lengthy career. His music, as the program notes put it, immerses the listener “in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.” Importantly, it is also music for the body as well as the head.
I wish Glass had performed an encore, and I wish he hadn’t finished with a spoken word collaboration with the late Allen Ginsberg. The poet’s taped monolog reduced the live music to an accompaniment. But this is a quibble. I’m a lucky fan who in recent years saw Glass’ restaging of his famous opera Einstein On The Beach in Brooklyn and one of his joint concerts with his minimalist peer Steve Reich. I only wish I had seen Philip Glass perform in Madison again.
Philip Glass with muscle
Colin Stetson and Sara Neufeld. Shitty Barn, Spring Green, Aug. 10
This violin-big horn duo was as compelling a show as I saw all year. The circular recurring planes of sound suggested Philip Glass with muscle. Stetson, who travels in the Justin Vernon/Bon Iver circle, broke into a yeoman’s sweat wrestling his over-sized bass saxophone into musical expression. This was abstract patterned music of the highest order. Neufeld, who plays in Arcade Fire, was pretty much Stetson’s foil and counterpoint. They locked into one another’s gaze and cooked into the night at this open-doored warehouse outside of Spring Green. It was glorious. Their show has stuck in my mind like few others in 2016. Stetson is an audacious talent who rescored Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony — the famous Sorrowful Symphony of Dawn Upshaw fame — with guitars and drums. Purists howled. I wish I had seen it when he did shows in Minneapolis and Chicago this fall. Stetson is doing great work. Madison really needs to host him in 2017.
A country teacher taught him to love poetry
Bill Joe Shaver, Shank Hall, Milwaukee, Aug. 16
At 8:40, Billy Joe Shaver’s bus pulled up. Kinda late, eh? But he and his three- piece band walked through the crowd Texas cool and unflustered. He nodded, tipped his cowboy hat, shook a few hands, climbed the stage and within five minutes was singing a capella as the band unhurriedly set up around him. One or two acoustic songs followed. Within ten minutes the band was plugged in and rocking. It was honky-tonk time with a Texas legend.
Was it anything special? Well, it was Shaver’s 77th birthday. You got the feeling he’d be doing this until the day he dies. In 2004, I saw Shaver at the High Noon. He had more gravitas and engaged in more truth telling than any four country singers combined. He ended the show on his knees, singing a Jesus song. He knocked me out.
Still does. He’s got a story.
Shaver was born dirt poor in Corsicana, Texas, Had an upbringing straight out of Hillbilly Elegy. His father disappeared. His mother was in and out of his life. Raised by his grandmother. A country teacher taught him to love poetry. Two fingers (on his guitar hand) were mangled and lopped off in a sawmill accident. Wrote Waylon Jennings’ breakout album “Honky Tonk Heroes” in 1973. (Great album! It launched outlaw country.) Drank and drugged. Did this a lot. Married the same tempestuous woman three times. (They divorced twice.) Nursed her through her death. Lost his guitarist son Eddy to heroin. Longtime buds with Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall, who sang his great song of transcendence “I’m Going to Live Forever” in the movie “Crazy Heart.” Shot a guy in 2007 who hassled him. (Denies he asked him before firing: “Where do you want it?”) Beat the charges. Found Jesus along the way. And here Billy Joe Shaver, on his 77th birthday, was playing his great songs in Milwaukee.
I felt lucky to be in his presence.
T for Texas
The Flatlanders, Stoughton Opera House, and Alejandro Escovedo, The High Noon, both Nov. 11
This was a great night. I saw the storied Lubbock, Texas, songwriters triumvirate of Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock (with Robbie Gjersoe, a UW School of Music alum, on lead guitar), then put the pedal to the metal on my speedy 2003 Subaru Forester to catch the last five songs of their Austin compatriot Alejandro Escovedo and his hot new touring band.
The Flatlanders was the trio’s short-lived band in the early ’70s before they went on to solo success. Gilmore remains the ethereal dharmic cowboy, Hancock the farmer who steps off the tractor with a new song scribbled on the feed bill, and Ely is still the country boy with a poet’s sensibility and a rocker’s style. Why does Texas seem to produce more great songwriters, often from hardscrabble beginnings, than the other 49 states combined? I dunno.
Their stories were good, their songs even better but there was an air of nostalgia with the Flatlanders’ tributes to Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen and Guy Clark. They never quite got out of the easy chair of reminiscence. I got the burst of energy I wanted when I stepped into the High Noon to hear the insistent rhythm and frustrated love of “Sally Was A Cop.” Escovedo always embraces the magic and drama of rock n’ roll.
He’s pushing 66, but his young power trio of Jason Victor (guitar), Shawn Peters (drums) and Aaron McClellan (bass guitar) was pushing him. There was a gunslinger swagger to this band. You want rave-ups? Escovedo and Victor, who plays with Dream Syndicate and The Silos, were ready to duel.
Escovedo paid his respects to fallen comrades, too, (“Chelsea Hotel” was a crackling encore), and he turned sad recalling the fallen Canadian. (“There was not a time I did not have Leonard in my life.”) But this was rock n’ roll that was not going quietly into the good night. They ended the show in a blaze of defiant guitars.
Late for the party
Ray Wylie Hubbard, Stoughton Opera House, April 7
I ordered tickets fearing Ray Wylie Hubbard was a one-hit wonder.
He wrote “Red Neck Mother” for Jerry Jeff Walker back when the kickers were fighting the hippies over country music. “Up against the wall, redneck mother” became the hippie call to arms. It was darn near anthemic in the early ’70s. But, really, it was just a well-timed novelty song soon forgotten as country music’s culture war dissipated on Willie’s bus. (Everybody loved Willie, dopers and beer drinkers alike.)
Not to worry! Hubbard turned into superb storyteller once he broke free of his addictions. Just great songs about life, death and carrying on despite it all. That included “The Red Badge Of Courage,” his song about the Vietnam War. (“We were just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men.”) The sell-out Stoughton crowd got the full tour.
Hubbard’s country is rooted in the back-woods blues. His keep-it-simple drummer was heavy on an ominous kick drum that was downright funereal. That defined the tone. There was even a song set in the gates of hell on New Years’ Eve where Hubbard sang he could smell the burning flesh of a record executive who ripped him off. (He means you, Jimmy Perkins.) Yes, he was settling scores, but Hubbard was also making amends.
None more so than in the epic account of his life and tribulations in “Mother Blues,” that begins with him as a hot-shot 21-year-old guitarist with a fine stripper girlfriend and a Gold Top Les Paul guitar. There are complications. Their feverish love does not last. But Hubbard, who’s enjoyed a modest late-career revival (he’s 70) and has written songs with young country heavy Hayes Carll, has come out okay, including having his son Lucas playing that same Les Paul on this night.
“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations,” he rumbled in his tough-guy voice, “well, I have really good days.”
I was listening.
Hubbard’s show became my favorite for 2016. His two most recent albums — The Ruffian’s Misfortune and The Grifter’s Hymnal — are filled with tall tales and 750 ml of distilled wisdom. They are in heavy rotation in the trusty Forester along with Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamoderns Sounds in Country Music. Still cranky I couldn’t get Sturgil tickets for his sold-out 2015 Majestic show.
Bullet points on the musical year
— Roscoe Mitchell’s far-reaching sway on jazz and experimental music is one of the take-aways of this list. Three picks either are influenced by him or studied under this great artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Colin Stetson and Nils Bultmann. Sax player Ken Vandermark, whose solo show at ALL (Sept. 30) was another high point, dedicated a song to Mitchell.
— I avoided the nostalgic acts at the Overture Center in 2016, except for Tony Bennett (Oct. 28). At 90 Bennett has lost the pleasing roundness of his voice and has become more of the saloon shouter of his youth and less the sensitive cabaret crooner of his great mature years. But, oh, Bennett still has the same impeccable taste for the Great American Songbook and was backed by an exemplary quartet that included County Basie’s old drummer, Harold Jones. All I can say: Tony is forever.
— Shannon McNally, who puts her country voice in the service of the blues, caught my ear at the acoustic stage of the Waterfront Festival (June 11). She’s got deep soul. All the better she’s got the taste to put out an album of songs by the forgotten Bobby Charles.
— When Americana legend Jon Dee Graham left his band, The Fighting Cocks, back in Austin, he tapped Madison bass guitarist Chris Boeger and local drummer Mark Haines (both of Cash Box Kings and other groups) to back him at the Waterfront Festival’s main stage (June 12). I’ve seen Graham’s bands many times, and I can confidently say: Boeger and Haines didn’t miss a beat. A pleased Graham declared they would now be known as “The Madison Cocks.”
— Six months later, there were tears in Graham’s eyes as he choked up telling a packed crowed at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music that Chris Porter, his planned-for opening act on his winter tour, had been killed in a traffic accident while traveling with his own band. Graham, who always walks the emotional high wire in his shows, gave another of his heart-in-the-throat performances (Dec. 9).
— Amy Cook, who filled in as Graham’s opener, revealed herself to be an acrobatic vocalist with a passel of solid songs and grit in her soul. Cook is definitely someone to hear live.
— Yo-Yo Ma is always a revelation. His bravura performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto #1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 27) was astonishingly physical. By the end he looked like an exhausted but exultant marathoner in the moment of triumph. It was a glorious performance.
— Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who worked at the sufferance of a capricious Stalin, became a thing for me in 2016. His music’s dark undertow and anguished highs speaks to a conflicted life. The Madison Symphony’s vigorous performance of his sweeping 5th Symphony was one of its season highpoints (Nov. 11).
— Ben Sidran may be better known in Paris and Madrid jazz circles than Madison’s, but the pianist’s annual summer salon at The Cardinal Bar (June 28, July 12, Aug. 9) remains a fascinating exercise for his devotees as he works out a new collection of songs for recording.
— I saw the pianist Naughton twins (Christina and Michelle) with both the Madison and Milwaukee symphonies (Nov. 11 and 19, respectively). Their joint pianism is a crowd pleaser. But the repertoire for two pianos is limited, and, to me at least (as a non-musician) it seems gimmicky.
— Tif Ginn, a big-throated singer from Texas, and Fred Eaglesmith, a gruff iconoclast from Canada, put on their typically provocative show at Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson (Aug. 23). Between songs, Eaglesmith pronounced himself happy that none of the greybeard guys in the audience sported a man bun. (“I hate the man bun the way my dad hated long hair.”) He also mocked the idea that politically disaffected Americans would pack up. “You ain’t moving to Canada,” he growled. That’s vintage Fred. Be aware that he is the best cult country performer you’ve never heard.