From Kamasi to Wynonna: Best Concerts of 2017
Minus a tweak, this story first appeared in Isthmus, a Madison Wi weekly.
Just too much music.
What’s a fanboy to do?
Take Friday, Oct. 20. I wanted to hear the hipster jazz of the Joe Policastro Trio at the Arts + Literature Laboratory. Never happened.
Instead, I took in Russian piano dynamo Olga Kern with the Madison Symphony Orchestra at Overture Hall and saw her spellbinding performance of Samuel Barber’s piano concerto. At intermission, I hotfooted it over to the Union Theater to catch Dave Stoler, maybe my favorite Madison jazz pianist, lead a trio at the acoustically perfect Fredric March Play Circle. I walked in just in time for the second set and felt like I was transported to one of the great Blue Note sessions of the 1960s. Man, these cats sounded good! Rudy Van Gelder might as well have been in the corner mixing the impeccable sound.
Could it get any better? Well, yeah. Late in the night, I was blissfully walking down Willy Street toward home when — wait!!! — what’s that sound? Tani Diakite and the Afrofunkstars were locked into a tight west-African-inspired jam at Mickey’s. How could I not stop for a nightcap and a few songs?
I’ll spare you the details of the next night, Oct. 21, except to say I regretted missingWalter Salas-Humara, founder of the great roots band The Silos. He was playing an intimate basement concert at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music while I was catching — and this was a spousal command — country diva Wynonna Judd in all her earth mama glory at the Stoughton Opera house.
Yep, I’m a lucky guy. It was a fine weekend. A testament to how the Madison-area economic boom is fueling a burgeoning music scene. Somehow I saw around 100 live shows near and far in 2017. That’s a record in the 12 years I’ve been chronicling my annual listening habits. What follows are my 16 favorite nights.
To be upfront, these impressions are a fan’s notes. I’m not a critic or a musician and have less technical musical knowledge than your typical four-year-old Suzuki violin student. But I love being in the moment, and I have wide tastes. Like other concert nerds, I’m willing to travel for tunes; so you’ll see some shows are within hailing distance of Madison.
Certain other disclosures should be made. My wife, the Opry fan, sits on the board of the Madison Opera. (Go figure.) A friend does most of the (great) jazz and experimental music programming at the Arts + Literature Laboratory. Lastly, I hate banjos. I hate their sound. I look skeptically at people who love banjos. I will not be attending the Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn concert at the Capitol Theater in February. I think banjos are an overlooked cause of the opioid crisis. (“Dear Lord, please let me pass out before the banjo music starts.”) There, I said it. Tough.
The 16 musical evenings that follow are roughly in ascending order of liking.
#MeToo but not at the opera
Carmen by Georges Bizet, Madison Opera, conducted By John DeMain, Overture Hall, Nov. 3
This classic opera about a free-spirited woman and a man’s lust ending in her dramatic murder raised unsettling questions for our unsettled times. Someone smarter than me can sort out the moral quotient of Bizet’s popular 1875 opera. It chronicles a Spanish soldier abandoning his post to pursue a Gypsy girl who later spurns him for a bullfighter. The curtain comes down with the crazed soldier stabbing her to death.
This is not tragedy. This is a horror story. Then again, my reaction was shaped by the revelations that were just emerging about the sexual devilry of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Judging by the unperturbed reviews, I’m not sure that the Madison Opera staging dug as deep as it could have. A few years ago, I saw the Milwaukee Symphony do an edgy, very dark and shadowy presentation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and no doubt was left that a serial rapist was at the heart of that popular opera.
Walking home, I found myself lost in thought over how the cultural moment can radically change our perception of a supposed classic. For that reason, oddly enough, Carmen made my list.
Out on Redemption Road
Jon Dee Graham, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, Dec. 9
I missed the Austin legend’s summer stop at Kiki’s basement but heard disturbing reports that the show — his 17th for Madison’s house concert doyenne — had been a disaster. Jon Dee was off the rails. In free fall. Drinking? Who knows? But it was bad.
On this night, Graham — the only musician ever inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame three times — quickly resolved the tension that animates his extraordinary music and, it seems, his life as well: Nothing less than the precarious balance between hope and despair, between good and evil. He does not fuck around.
Within 10 minutes of taking the stage, the gravel-voiced Graham was deep into “Laredo,” his harrowing tale of debauchery. It’s a song about driving through the night with the fireflies swirling in his head. About shooting dope in a motel until the money runs out. About staring into an infinitely dark deep hole that no matter how much drugs, sex, alcohol “and Kardashians” you shovel into it, you cannot fill it up. This was scary shit.
And then, after a moment’s pause, Graham plunged into one of his great songs about redemption. It’s called “Faithless,” and it’s a recovery prayer about how you need a strong heart, a true heart — “a heart like that in a world like this” — so you don’t lose faith.
The tone was set for the night. Graham would be more than okay. He would be upbeat. He would tell stories. He would crack jokes. He would sing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” He would pull us tight into his world and warn us that it could all fall apart, but not if we kept the faith.
A legend comes to Stoughton
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, Stoughton Opera House, Sept. 27
Herb Alpert is killer.
Sure, he’s best remembered for several dozen catchy instrumental hits — “The Lonely Bull” and “Taste of Honey,” among them — from decades ago with his faux Mexican band, the Tijuana Brass. But as former Isthmus music editor Dean Robbins and I mused afterward: Jazz snobs who stayed away missed how sneakily good Alpert is as an improviser, especially with the painterly way he uses his mute to dab emotional color.
Besides, here was a chance to see a music industry legend — co-founder of one of the rare independent labels, A&M Records, to go toe to toe with the majors before he cashed out big time in 1989. Online reports put Alpert’s fortune at $850 million. He is now a major philanthropist.
Why at the age of 82 he’s on the road with his singer wife — Hall is an old-school belter who toured with Sergio Mendes — is testament to Alpert’s unsated creative drive. This was an artfully balanced show that honored both his schmaltzy hits and his jazzman instincts.
It included an ace trio of backing musicians, film clips of the Tijuana Brass from the wild and crazy Sixties, and enough anecdotes and reminiscences of the old days to make us all feel a bit like insiders. Strangely, Alpert talked very little of his serious career as a painter and sculptor, though his work was highlighted, uncredited, in the mixed-media backdrop.
Herb Alpert is killer.
Jazz 100: The Music of Dizzy, Ella, Monk & Mongo (featuring Danilo Perez, Chris Potter, Avishai Cohen, Wycliffe Gordon, Lizz Wright), Overture Hall; also Chuck Prophet & Mission Express, High Noon Saloon; both shows March 16
Other than the calendar, what united these disparate concerts was talent and craft trumping the spectacle of stardom. I just about ran from Overture to the High Noon so I could catch them both.
A great job of packaging — celebrating the 100th birthdays of four jazz legends — put a group of well-regarded but publicly incognito jazz stalwarts on the big stage for a star turn. Never mind that Cohen, a hipster-thin and razor-sharp Israeli trumpeter with several moody and dramatic ECM projects to his name, has little in common with the expansive bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Or that the gospel-inspired Wright is not the scat singer that the agile Ella Fitzgerald was.
But the absolute skill and passion of their music — well, who could argue with that? Gordon, who’s built like a football lineman, dominated the stage with his trombone. Bandleader Perez brought the requisite Latin feel to the music. Sax man Potter, best known for his work with Dave Holland, had a quiet authority that turned heads.
I must hurry on!
Fresh from a European tour, Prophet’s band was road tested and machined to perfection. One of those crazy punks who crashed, burned and was resuscitated without the benefit of Narcan, Prophet now has the hard-earned second-sight of a middle-aged songwriter who avoided the morgue.
His newest album Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins has a cultural reference that you get or you don’t. (Look him up!) Come to think of it, cultural references are always coins in Prophet’s pocket from “Jesus Was A Social Drinker” to “Ford Econoline,” his tribute to an oil-burning beat-up band van.
His set was polished, irresistible and very smart, capping with the perfectly constructed and maddeningly mysterious getting-dumped song “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp).” The only bummer was that I missed Prophet’s opener, the always-reliable Bottle Rockets, who are gritty rock ‘n’ roll lifers like Prophet.
Isn’t that the point? Making great music in the shadows of stardom is a good place to be.
At peace with Bach
Richard Goode, Shannon Hall, Nov. 4, 2017
Admission here: My thinking grows ever more chaotic and disorganized. (“Associative and circling” is a less harsh description.) Hence my enchantment with Bach’s intricate musical architecture. The overlapping contrapuntal structure of his keyboard work calms and focuses me. It unfolds darn near like one of those generative music apps that avant-garde hero Brian Eno creates with his soundscapes. Goode was so caught up in his solo piano that he sometimes hummed along with the music. His marvelous Steinway filled the hall with “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” I was transported to another realm. The Alban Berg that followed flashed with the occasional 20th-century dissonance and anxiety. The Beethoven sonata, of course, occupied a sublime world of its own.
This just in
The Chris Speed, Dave King, Chris Tordini Trio, Arts + Literature Laboratory, Dec. 17
Just my luck. I had this story plotted out when I caught this show and realized I had to recalibrate. This music was too good to slight. Credit Minneapolis’ Dave King, co-founder of the mighty Bad Plus, the rare Midwest group to kick its way into the front ranks of jazz.
Great drummers usually come in two sizes. There are cats who work in the groove and polish it like a brass railing, and there are cats that run like hounds leading the pack in search of the elusive fox.
Dave King is definitely of the second variety. He fully drove the band down as many twisting alleys as he could find. The surprise was tenor saxman Chris Speed, who somehow maintained a smooth almost Lester Young-ish sound, despite working the avant-garde side of the street. Chris Tordini’s firm bass provided the ballast.
Both Speed and Tordini are New York rad players. It says something that on this night they were playing a little art gallery in Bumblefuck before 50 or so people. But it was also par for the course. ALL had a great year bringing in rad musicians.
I’m hard-pressed to list them all, but they include the muscular sax improvisations of Ken Vandermark (June 22), budding alto stalwart Greg Ward’s more melodic approach (March 17), the world beat of Trio Mokili with celebrated drummer Makaya McCraven (March 3), the extraordinary percussion duet of Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph (April 21), the inventive guitar looping of young Ian Ethan Case (Nov. 10), AND more.
Long story short: The ALL series is exhibit A in the growth of the Madison musical scene.
Alejandro Escovedo, Orton Park Festival, Aug. 26
What do you do if a hurricane separates you from your band, and you’re closing a major neighborhood festival? For the seen-it-all-before Escovedo, who had just finished a tour with alt-country hero Joe Ely in Chicago, Hurricane Harvey stranding his band in Texas meant tapping his Windy City buddy Joe Tremulis for a quick trip to Madison and mostly acoustic wing-and-a prayer versions of Escovedo’s s breathtaking songs.
I loved it. The lyrics popped with a poignancy they wouldn’t have buried in the buzz-saw electronics of his great band. Escovedo tends to frame his songs as novelistic escapades from the pages of life, and the stripped-down setting only heightened that rawness. Brutal cartel murders in Tecate, Mexico, become indelible in “Sally Was A Cop (Now She Is A Soldier).” The doomed crazy Sid Vicious and the junked-up artists he hung with at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978 sounded real enough to be chilling down the block from Orton Park.
Under the dark night sky some of us leaned in to hear Escovedo tell how three years ago, on a wedding trip to Baja, Mexico, he and his new wife got caught up in an epic hurricane that washed their cottage into the ocean and brought him to the point of calling his family back home to tell them he was about to die.
This was not your ordinary stage patter.
Buckle your seatbelts
Frank Catalano-Jimmy Chamberlin Quartet, Shitty Barn (Spring Green), Aug. 23
Talk about a hurricane, these Chicago warriors roared out of the starting block like a Category 4 event. What’s left of my hair stood on end tingling. Only the great ones go from zero to 150 mph in the blink of an eye. The soft-spoken Catalano was an ambidextrous tenor sax monster who slid masterfully from soul jazz to Coltrane to standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Chamberlin, who’s best known for his work with Smashing Pumpkins, was a driving, fanatically precise drummer who could turn on a dime and still honor the cool groove when Catalano dimmed the lights for some “Mr. Magic” languor.
The duo should not be missed. Neither should the stupidly named Shitty Barn musical series, which runs from May to October in a folksy wooden warehouse with wide-open doors just outside of Spring Green. This is a good scene, but be aware that performances (tickets are limited to 110) often sell out, including for this jazz show.
Yes, jazz sold out the house in Spring Green.
Bring ’em back to town
Sinkane, Bassel & the Supernaturals, The Frequency, Oct. 29
This was an unexpected pleasure — the best double bill of the year. The fact that I knew nothing about the bands save for a gut feeling to check them out based on a few hurried YouTube minutes made it all the better.
Straight outta Chicago, Bassel & the Supernaturals was a neo-soul, seven-piece band led by sweet-singing Syrian-American Bassel Al-Madani. He was just filled with positivity and the kind of crazy belief in his craft that makes you think, hey, he might just make it.
What can you say about a guy who had played two shows the previous day in Washington, D.C. — including a benefit at the Kennedy Center for the admirable war-relief efforts of the Syrian American Medical Society — and traveled halfway across the country the next day all to play a rabbit-hole club in Madison before fewer than 50 people? This is dedication.
Sinkane, a savvy Sudanese-American musician, had his own thoroughly global musical DNA. This was throbbing club music played impossibly loud. (A friend clocked it at more than 120 db.) It lifted me into a hypnotic cloud. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. The five piece band — featuring a ferocious keyboard player named Elanna Canlas — mixed African rhythms, dub, techno and god knows what else. I was reminded of Tom Tom Club of more than 35 years ago and its irresistible ode to dance-floor mindlessness: “Wordy Rappinghood.”
Advice to local bookers: Both bands would be great acts for Madison’s summer festival circuit.
In the presence of greatness
Yo-Yo Ma, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Symphony Center (Chicago), March 11
A few years ago I spotted a distinguished gentleman in a very expensive topcoat beaming as he walked through the crowded Impressionism galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma on his day off. He was alone, unbothered by the throng, obviously enthralled by so many paintings of Paris, which is the city of his birth.
Ma had the glow. That same aura he brings to the stage. Something that seemingly emanates from both his soul and from the heavens. Is there any doubt that Ma is one of the great artistic presences of our age?
On this night, the hard working Ma was debuting a new cello concerto written by Salonen. This was a challenging piece — addressing nothing less than the birth of consciousness in humankind, as the conductor told us — and ended with a totally wild and unexpected jam between an exuberant Ma and percussionist Cynthia Yeh while the orchestra wailed behind them.
I’ve seen Ma perform a half-dozen or so times. They rank among my most memorable musical moments — right up there with several Bruce Springsteen shows in New York and Milwaukee in the mid-’70s.
Just say no to fame
Hayes Carll, High Noon Saloon, Feb. 15
Is Hayes Carll too good to be a star? The thought occurred to me at this stellar solo performance. One of country’s smartest songwriters and a beguiling performer, Carll seems an easy step away from playing stadiums and arenas. Like Sturgill Simpson, he might even do it without going all Nashville and selling out.
Or maybe not. Evidently, stardom is not his thing.
Carll seemed utterly comfortable in the role of a simple singer-songwriter. He was showcasing a passel of new songs from the Joe Henry produced Lovers and Leavers, his first album in five long years. He sounded mournful, battered by love, a bit lost in life, always sardonic but very purposeful in his music.
Just like the last time I saw him, Carll failed to sing his outré hit “She Left Me For Jesus.” Sigh. (She left me for Jesus and that just ain’t fair/ She says that he’s perfect, how could I compare?/ She says I should find him and I’ll know peace at last/If I ever find Jesus, I’m kickin’ his ass.)
But he did sing a “Drunken Poet’s Dream” (co-written with the great Ray Wylie Hubbard) and “Sake of the Song” (co-written with the equally great Darrell Scott). Carll has great taste for musical partners, including John Evans, his old roommate from the scuffling-to-survive days.
Evans opened the show with his own impressive set of bemused and love-weary songs. He returned for Carll’s encore, and they sang “Ain’t Enough of Me To Go Around.” It was a sexual libertine’s moment of awareness: “When I pick one up I let another one down.”
Carll wore his vulnerability (and perhaps his guilt) well.
A check mark on the bucket list
Steve Reich with the Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Percussion Ensemble; Pick-Staiger Concert Hall (Evanston, Illinois), Feb. 9
Is there reputable science to it? I dunno. I just have a gut feeling that certain music connects to our limbic system — the so-called paleo-mammalian portion of our ancient brain that controls our emotions and memories. Got nothing to do with our calculating Descartian brains.
I think this is why I have always been drawn to the great minimalist composers and their patterned repetitions. I love how the music imperceptibly moves and changes like the like subtly shifting waves hitting a beach. I get pulled in and float along for the ride as I did for this magical concert honoring the trail-blazing composer Steve Reich and his residency at Northwestern University.
This was a shimmering heap of Reichian riches — the idiosyncratic “Clapping Music,” which saw the 80-year-old composer take to the stage to join the clapping musicians; “City Life,” which curiously made me think of Gershwin; and finally his epoch “Music for 18 Musicians,” with its brilliant mix of pianos, marimbas, xylophones, women’s voices and woodwinds precisely merging into the strangest of trips. That the genial Reich answered audience questions at the intermission made the concert all the more extraordinary.
A musical life force
Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry, Arts + Literature Laboratory, Sept. 2
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s I bought Cecil Taylor’s free jazz Conquistador!, played it two or three times, and quickly put the album away, repelled by the seeming cacophony. Never touched it again until I stupidly sold my entire LP collection 25 years or so later to Dave Benton of MadCity Music Exchange.
And, oh yeah, Andrew Cyrille happened to be Taylor’s drummer.
As I write, Conquistador! is streaming on Tidal, and three things occur to me. First, what a big dummy I was for selling my records. Second, Conquistador! sounds a heckuva lot better today than it did 50 years ago. And, third, I’m thinking how much I loved Cyrille’s Madison performance. His mastery of the drums and his telepathic duet with horn man Bill McHenry sent me home on a cloud.
Now 78, Cyrille is clearly one of those musicians tapped into the rhythm of the universe. His drumming channels it all. The life force flows through his sticks. What a great foil for McHenry, who had a marvelous round tone and a knack for compositions that hum with warmth and intelligence.
This was a great year for duets. McHenry and Cyrille were among the best I heard.
A diva at her best
Wynonna and The Big Noise, Stoughton Opera House, Oct. 21
Within moments, any skepticism I had for this country star was blown away. Yeah, the glory years of The Judds have passed, and Wynonna is basically touring secondary and even tertiary markets. But what a voice! What a presence! And her four-piece band — led by husband and drummer Cactus Moser — purred and roared like a high-performance sedan cruising the Appalachian roads.
Second song in, Wynonna was ripping the old drugged-out Blind Faith hit “Can’t Find My Way Home” from the patchouli narco zone into a powerful country-blues confession of loneliness and loss. The whole night was like that. Wynonna was in diva mode, shaping every song to highlight the tightrope she walks between vulnerability and empowerment.
Sound familiar? Well, yeah. It’s Oprah world. Was it true when she said she’s appeared 18 times with TV’s great confessor? I’m thinking yeah, because Wynonna has the same confessional bond with her audience that Oprah has with hers. Wynonna’s fears, failures and triumphs are out there for all to share. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Wynonna’s search for self-understanding is something we all seek in our own grubby little lives.
Still, there is such a thing as over-sharing. Was it necessary for Wynonna to pull Cactus out from behind his drum kit, put him center stage and have him — with a big smile on his face — roll up his pants leg to show us his prosthetic leg?
Damn, that came as an Oprah-style surprise!
David Murray and Kahil El’Zabar, Cafe Coda, June 18
Murray’s deeply morose tenor sax instantly set the tone. El’Zabar’s African percussion and finger piano carried the weight of centuries. I heard a lot of abstract, striking music in 2017, but this concert knocked me back into a world of emotion and place.
No question that jazz is both a musical language and attitudinal code that traverses borders and cultures to an astonishing degree. You can be in France, you can be in Indonesia, you can be in Brazil and there are deep jazz cats to be heard.
But hunkered in this dark, intimate jazz club another truth was also clear: Jazz is very much a product of African and African American culture. El’Zabar comes out of Chicago’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Murray is a co-founder of the storied World Saxophone Quartet. These are all deeply serious musicians from a particular tradition.
Cafe Coda, founded by another musician whose roots run deep, Hanah Jon Taylor, had a short but successful run on State Street. For me, this show will be a lasting memory of its accomplishment.
An artist afire
Kamasi Washington, Majestic Theatre, Nov. 8
James Friedman, eminent First Amendment attorney and music fanatic, was desperately prowling the sidewalk on King Street. “Anybody got an extra ticket?” Who would believe that a jazz artist would sell out Madison’s busiest college music showcase?
But tenor sax colossus Kamasi Washington is an artist afire. Bonaroo. Pitchfork. Coachella. Glastonbury. His three-CD first album — The Epic — is a sweeping Mingus-like statement with up-to-the-moment resonance. Expectations were huge for his Madison debut. And they were met. Washington’s stripped-down band of seven — featuring two drummers, a masterful Jamael Dean on keys, the expressive Patrice Quinn on vocals, a bass phenom named Joshua Crumby and two killer horns — blew out the walls. I’ve never seen fervor like this before in Madison: A mostly young audience leaning into a ferocious set of jazz, cheering wildly for an imposing kimono-clad genius.
I dialed back more than 40 years to 1974 when Charles Mingus brought one of his great bands — Don Pullen! Dannie Richmond! George Adams! — for a legendary stand at a little hippie club called Good Karma on State Street. Mingus was a big, imposing man with a swirling cape and an armful of ambitious Ellington-quality compositions.
Kamasi Washington has the greatness of Mingus in him.
And poor Jim Friedman? Well, he found a loose ticket and said he loved the show. It certainly ranked as my concert of the year.
Other 2017 musical memories
Here and there observations on my year in music.
I delighted in the small pleasures at:
Hearing jazz songstress Gerri DiMaggio’s embrace of “Besame Mucho” at a Cardinal Bar fundraiser for the Madison Jazz Consortium (Jan. 15).
Catfish Stephenson capturing the heartbreak of Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” (March 1) at the Weary Traveler.
Chanteuse Robin Pluer’s world-weary interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” at La Fete de Marquette (July 16).
The classic high lonesome voice of singer-songwriter Mike Wheeler (Sept. 15), who entertained a handful of people at Mr. Roberts who really didn’t care.
Tenor sax hero Hanah Jon Taylor’s achingly beautiful version of the chestnut “Cherokee” to end his show at the North Street Cabaret (Dec. 2).
The passion and unrestrained gospel joy of the Mount Zion Levites singing at a dinner honoring African American magazine publisher Milele Chikasa Anana at the Goodman Center (Feb. 25).
In Chicago, watching 91-year-old Joe Segal, who founded the venerable Jazz Showcase in 1947, still on the job as he introduced the still vital pianist Barry Harris, who’s 88 (July 20).
Witnessing the Madison music community rally for a fundraiser for soundman Jack LeTourneau, including Butch Vig and Duke Erikson back in town for a Spoonerreunion. (May 31). The well-regarded LeTourneau died on June 27 at age 65.
Witnessing the Madison music community rally to honor the life of drum legend Clyde Stubblefield, including a monster jam that would have made the Funky Drummer smile (Feb. 27). The James Brown sideman died on Feb. 18 at age 73.
Asking jazz giants Bobby Watson and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, who did a tour stop at the First Unitarian Society with the MVP Quartet (Feb. 19), what they thought of Stubblefield. “How much time do you have?” Watson shot back. Smith proceeded to demonstrate Stubblefield’s legendary drum break, saying that it had been copied far and wide in the studio, and that the Funky Drummer “never got credit, never got paid” for it.
When did salsa conquer Madison?
I found myself pondering that question at the North Street Cabaret. Ten years ago, I remember Madisalsa drawing hundreds of swaying fans to the Isthmus Jazz Festival on a pleasant summer night on the Union Terrace — but only three couples were actually salsa dancing. Times have changed.
On August 7, the club was filled with happy dancers who turned out for Tony Castañeda’s great band and the visiting Cuban group Septeto Santiaguero. The dancers — well-dressed one and all — came in all shapes, all ages, all colors. Not a common sight in culturally stratified Madison. Call it the democracy of the dance floor. I found it heartening.
As to the popularization of salsa in Madison, the person most responsible was out on the dance floor cutting an elegant figure: former Cardinal owner Ricardo Gonzalez.
My musical complaint for 2017: Bad sound.
It makes me cranky.
The Drive-By Truckers are an important Southern band if only for upholding the region’s underappreciated progressive traditions. But the Truckers’ lyrics were lost in the roar of the Majestic Theatre (Jan. 31). At the end, I scribbled in my notebook: “Didn’t understand a word, but it was glorious.”
At Shannon Hall (June 17), I walked out of Terence Blanchard and the E Collective’s show after a few songs. The trumpeter’s amplified jazz was a disastrous mix dominated by a muddy, thudding bass. Our seats up front had horrible sound. The empty seats we tried in the rear were just as bad. I regret not hearing piano phenom Fabian Almazan under better circumstances.
I’m not a singer-songwriter fan, but Aimee Mann has a Nora Ephron-ish bite and gimlet eye. Damn if I ever hear her under the right circumstances. Her Barrymore show was a sonic disaster (May 2). I couldn’t catch her lyrics. Her opener, Jonathan Coulton, was better miked than she was. (That never happens in the concert world.) I compensated by drinking too much.
I hereby publicly apologize to the soundboard tech. Telling him how wretchedly he did his job seemed like fair comment. (I mean, what’s going on here?) But I did it jerkily five or six times as our conversation seem to keep repeating at louder decibels. Sorry ’bout that.
A shout-out for four singers.
Big-voiced Ruthie Foster is the best known. She was touring with the Heritage Blues Orchestra. I missed their Madison show but caught them in Waukesha at the Wilson Center (March 10). Foster can rattle the rafters with her blues and gospel. Sarah Potenza is much further down the fame ladder. But the 20 or so people who paid the cover at Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson (May 7) heard a singer with astonishing Janis Joplin pipes. Blues woman Cathy Grier dials it down a notch or two from these two and nails it with chiseled vocals and a deft blues guitar. Every note counts. The former New York City busker has settled in Sturgeon Bay as a member of the pat mAcdonald posse of musicians. I caught her at the Stone Harbor bar (May 11). Lastly, Bonnie Whitmore, with songs saucy, wise and sometimes angry, lit up Kiki’s House of Righteous Music (Dec. 9) as Jon Dee Graham’s opening act.
Hopes for 2018.
Jazzman Hanah Jon Taylor gets a chance to open a new club.
I check out new and different DIYer music presenters.