Live Shots From Madison and Milwaukee 2015: Ry Cooder, Jim White, Ben Sidran
(First published at Isthmus online.)
MADISON WI: I searched for musical extremes in 2015. Jon Mueller’s prog drone (Shitty Barn, Spring Green, June 10), Gangstagrass’ confounding bluegrass hip-hop (the Frequency, Oct. 16), Tim Berne’s avant garde jazz (West End Conservatory, Milwaukee, Oct. 22), Dutch mouth-sound experimentalist Jaap Blonk (Threshold, Nov. 2), drummer Victor DeLorenzo’s duets with cellist Janet Schiff (Tempest, Oct. 17). And more recently, electronic jazzers Jonah Parzen-Johnson and the Andy Fitzpatrick/Rob Lundberg duo at Mickey’s (Nov. 24).
I was looking for disruptive and challenging music. Some of this, frankly, was a reaction to our politically pissant times. They make you want to holler, to cite Marvin Gaye. If I were still writing about politics, I’d be tempted to raise my hand at press conferences and politely ask our leaders: “Are you fucking serious?”
Dark edgy music, at least on some nights, was where my head was at. It didn’t help I was playing Ben Sidran’s fine new album Blue Camus nonstop on my car’s beat-up CD player. Displaying a jazzman’s innate outsider sensibility, Sidran nailed the gestalt of certain precincts in Madison (and elsewhere) — a profound weariness and frustration with politics.
“If they would just back it up or pack it up. Lead, follow or get out of the way,” he exclaims in “Wake Me When It’s Over,” before delivering his homily. “Because sometimes good things can happen to bad people. But, man, baaad people happen to good people every day.”
I was at the Cardinal Bar in July catching the pianist’s weekly summer salon with my oldest daughter, home from Bucharest, when Lauren said something that hadn’t occurred to me. “He does spoken word.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that? She was right. Sidran’s jazz version of the talking blues, something he’s been soloing with for 50 years in Madison and across international stages, are just another branch in the long recitative tradition. The oral tradition. Artists testifying to their audiences. Telling the communal story. It hasn’t changed since Aeschylus. Rap and spoken word are the modern day Greek chorus.
Nothing I heard in 2015 was as head turning as the two rappers in Gangstagrass dropping their rhymes behind a bluegrass band and a beats track. The Kentucky hollows met the dirty urban streets in this Brooklyn band’s breakout sound.
Stephane Wremble, an extraordinary gypsy-style guitarist, delivered the most far-out version of the musician as the village prophet (May 17, the Brink Lounge). Lost in the stars, the Frenchman expounded on the billions of tiny suns and billions of tiny planets in the universe. This was Sun Ra (and Carl Sagan) cosmology in all its otherworldly glory. “Let there be light,” Wremble said at an opportune moment. Welllll, there was certainly lightning in his flamenco-inspired playing, though only around 40 people showed up.
For sure, music should be more than entertainment. The best music connects to our souls and reveals our yearnings. Sometimes it’s personal. Sometimes it’s political. And sometimes there’s a price to be paid for it, as Sidran learned two years ago.
He was back for the 20th anniversary of the Jazz at Five summer jazz series on State Street when he called out Gov. Scott Walker in the midst of “Can We Talk?,” an easy-groove jam made for spoken word exultation. After the set, a concert organizer got in his face, jabbed him in the chest and loudly berated him for criticizing the governor. It was ugly, an observer told me at the time. A heated Sidran told the suit that nobody dictates what he says on stage.
“It was a watershed moment for me,” Sidran said recently. “The moment when I discovered jazz [in Madison] no longer belonged to the people but was a vanity project by the monied class.”
Sidran, who played the Jazz at Five every year for its first 15 years, says he’s finished with it. In the small and sometimes fragile world of Madison jazz, this is worth noting, even belatedly.
These are a fan’s notes, the 10th time I’ve written this yearly roundup of favorite concerts. I saw more than 70 performances in 2015. Like any other fanatic, I’m willing to jump in the car to hear a show in Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and all points between. In roughly ascending order, these are my favorite shows. Note: I’m not a critic. I can’t read music. I’m not a musician. I’m just a guy in the audience with a drink in his hand and a notebook in his pocket. And I always carry earplugs.
Death Blues of a termite artist
Jon Mueller, Shitty Barn (Spring Green), June 10
As Milwaukee drummer Jon Mueller’s small group performed his tightly scored drone-heavy music, I kept thinking of critic Manny Farber’s wildly original take (written in 1962) on termite artists being “stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” (In contrast, “elephant artists,” Farber said, made spectacles for the masses.) In Mueller’s case, he spent four years exploring mortality on a mixed-media project he called Death Blues. This included a manifesto that came after experiencing a visionary moment in post-Katrina New Orleans. I can’t say that I got his thing. Or that I even loved the music. It was static and formal in that prog rock way and lacked the powerful undertow that flows beneath the great minimalist compositions of Philip Glass and Steven Reich. But I admired Mueller’s intensity and dedication. I’m pretty sure gaining other people’s approval is not why he pursued Death Blues.
“Things is always better than they seem”
Jim White with Paul Fonfara, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, Dec. 3
When the southern gothic artist Jim White opened for Lucinda Williams in 2004 in Milwaukee, he told a questioner after his spellbinding set that Lucinda picked him for the tour because “we both have ecclesiastical issues.” I was at the edge of the crowd in the Pabst Theater lobby when he said that. I thought: Huh?
Eleven years later, I asked him about it as he set up to play a basement concert at Kiki Schueler’s place. White remembered the Milwaukee show. He remembered driving a beater car from Minneapolis to get there. He remembered the tour manager screaming at him. But, hmm, did he say that about Lucinda and him? Well, maybe he was just goofing with the questioner, he posited. But after a moment… yeah, both he and Lucinda did have ecclesiastical issues. You always have ecclesiastical issues when you come from the Deep South. It’s that defining moment when you figure out just what your relationship is with Jesus.
For White, it meant walking away from a life in Pentecostalism and into the world of a New York cabdriver, film student, outsider artist (with periodic mental health challenges) and recording artist. In a series of intriguing albums (2004’s is named Drill a Hole in That Substrate & Tell Me What You See), White revealed a particular dark southern weirdness nestled somewhere between Carson McCullers and Harry Crews. He sees weird shit all around him. David Byrne has been his advocate.
At Kiki’s, White was backed by Paul Fonfara, a Minneapolis musical polymath who played guitar, keyboard, clarinet, bass clarinet, and who whistled — amazingly — a perfect “Cattle Call.” It was not White’s best night. Nearing 60 (and surprised that he’s alive), he sounded at times like an indie artist who’s growing tired of the struggle to keep his career afloat.
But he sang one of his cosmically transcendent songs, “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi.” It’s a tale of crazy white boys, a smashed TV floating in the motel pool, blood on the door, blaring police sirens and the narrator somehow at peace with his in extremis situation:
I’m handcuffed to a fence in Mississippi
My girlfriend blows a boozy good-bye kiss
I see flying squirrels and nightmares of stigmata
Then awakenin’ to find my Trans Am is gone
Still, I’m feelin’ pretty good about the future
Yeah, everything is peaches but the cream
I’m handcuffed to a fence in Mississippi
Where things is always better than they seem
Me, I was just happy to have my question answered.
When Piazzolla met Berlioz
Madison Symphony Orchestra; John DeMain, conductor; Sara Sant’Ambrogio, cello; Overture Hall, Nov. 20
Ho-hum. The Madison Symphony’s “Valses” by Ravel seemed limpid to my untutored ears. I love cello, but Sara Sant’Ambrogio’s handling Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 1 did not pluck my soul. But, oh my, she encored with two solos of Piazzolla’s fiery nuevo tango pieces, “Oblivion” and “Libertango,” and stole my breath away.
She got it. All of the Argentinian’s passion and drama — the tension between control and release that is downright sexual. Who knows if there was a connection? But the symphony came back in the second half, and under Maestro John DeMain’s confident baton, powered through Berlioz’s big, bruising “Symphonique Fantastique.” This featured a breathtaking performance by the string section. I was knocked back by the orchestra’s power and mastery. I don’t think DeMain and his orchestra had a better moment in 2015.
The Lesser Lakes Trio, Harlem Renaissance Museum, Aug. 15
This was gutsy: a piano-less trio playing the music of the singular pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. For these cats it was just another night on the bandstand. They cut Monk’s tricky and challenging compositions like a knife through a cake. No worry. Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick delivered concise solos that never faltered. I loved drummer Devin Drobka’s rolling rhythms and unexpected accents. Bassist John Christensen was the anchor holding the house to the ground. Special word for the setting: The back shop of the old Great Big Pictures operation on East Washington Avenue had a casual loft-jazz feel. In the room next door, the Harlem Renaissance Museum was exhibiting paintings by Martell Chapman and artifacts of Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer’s sojourn in Baraboo (on loan from the State Historical Society). This was an appropriate setting for an evening of challenging music from a great and idiosyncratic African-American composer.
Rock is wasted on the young
Bad Luck Jonathan, Orton Park Festival, Aug. 30; Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, High Noon Saloon, Aug. 15
The best rock show I saw in 2015 was the Jon Langford side project, Bad Luck Jonathan, which included members of another of his side bands, the alt country Waco Brothers. Langford, a Welshman turned Chicagoan, is famous for the crit-feted punk band the Mekons.
He’s a rock lifer, a protean figure who mixes radical politics and visual art with his tune-making. How had I missed him for so long? IT’S SIMPLE: I stopped listening to rock ‘n’ roll decades ago. The Pretenders were the last new band I listened to — and that’s when Ronald Reagan was the presidential candidate with the orange hair. Yet here I was (at Kiki Schueler’s urging) soaking up the big crunching riffs of rock ‘n’ roll yore that Langford and company had dusted off and repurposed. I liked it!
These were battle-worn smart-ass cynics on stage, decorated rock soldiers from earlier campaigns who knew the drill. The big beefy drummer Tom Camarillo looked like a guy who worked the day shift at the Chicago stockyards. I liked that. All of them looked like they had been around the block more times than they could remember (save for the Serbian harp player).
These were grown-ups, not kids playing dress-up. They were rocking out and singing a few ballads. The old hippies from the Marquette neighborhood dug it. And so did I.
Chuck Prophet, the incendiary guitar player and singer in the crashed-and-burned Green on Red, has been the exception in my no-rock music zone. Prophet rose from the valley of the dead, stoned and drunk, to become in sobriety one of the smartest songwriters/performers around. If there is a better written, better performed and better recorded rock song than “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp),” you better point it out to me.
Prophet’s show at the High Noon was a delight. Hard to imagine a better set of rock ‘n’ roll. One smart hook-heavy song rolled out after another. When he ripped into “I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See,” I said fuck it, took out my earplugs and willingly surrendered to the glorious roar. (And, yes, my ears were ringing the next morning.)
I had the same thought about Prophet that I later had with Langford: Rock ‘n’ roll is wasted on the young. More to the point: Rock is not a carton of milk. There is no expiration date. You can live it and like it until you die of senescence.
A night of surprises
Hanah Jon Taylor Trio, Thorp’s, May 22
Who would have thought that a hair salon would be the site of the best show I’ve seen avant garde saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor put on in his 20-plus years of roiling the Madison music scene?
Maybe it was me opening up to Taylor’s music. Maybe it was him hitting a new plateau. But I’d never heard Taylor play with so much breadth and authority. This perfectly structured show, presented as part of the Strollin’ Schenk’s Corners jazz crawl, was a “best of” menu of his musical facets. Backed by drummer Dushun Mosley and bass player Alex Wing, Taylor showed how deep and wide his interests are. Not just a free blower howling at the moon, Taylor played soft, he played loud and he switched back and forth from flute to tenor to soprano sax to an electronic horn.
Mosley was a revelation on drums. He could swing subtly while laying down a polyrhythm. Wing, a supportive bassist, also played loud — the perfect complement for Taylor’s forays into Middle East flute music. Taylor couldn’t have had better bandmates.
Taylor’s uncompromising jazz hasn’t always won him fans in Madison. But on this night, he played to the room like a pro and finished with a rollicking, honking solo that sounded like one of those tenor madness breakouts from the early ’50s. I never expected that from Hanah Jon Taylor, but it was a night of surprises.
The Allman Brothers, 1AD
Greg Allman Band, Northern Lights Theater (Milwaukee), March 25; Tedeschi Trucks Band, Orpheum Theater, March 28
You’d be dead wrong to think that Greg Allman had run out of gas when the Allman Brothers Band called it quits in fall 2014 after 45 years. His Milwaukee show was a spirited rebuttal. Allman’s voice remained a powerful blues clarion, his eight piece band — with a razor-wire three piece horn section — was a tightly wound rhythm and blues machine. The surprise was the new twist they gave to the classic ABB canon that remained at the heart of the repertoire. This band put its own stamp on the music.
Hearing a smoky muted trumpet float over standards like “Midnight Rider” and “Stormy Monday” brought a smile to my face. Allman and his musical director Scott Sharrad had taken the familiar and subtly reimagined it. All the better: Allman still had that cavernous blues howl that gives goose bumps.
Three nights later, I saw another ABB spinoff, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, at the Orpheum. I love guitarist Derek Trucks. I’ve flown across the country to hear him play. He’s a transcendent guitarist who nightly summons the spirit of Duane Allman, John Coltrane and other musical avatars. But the sprawling TTD tribe has a problem: It tries to recapture the communal juju of Joe Cocker and Leon Russell’s long-ago Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and Sly Stone’s magical Family Stone band of the late ’60s, but TTD doesn’t quite hit the note. The horn section lacks precision and the percussion players never catch fire. I’ll take the Greg Allman Band.
Remembering Bobby Short and the Great American Songbook
T. Oliver Reid, Capitol Theater, April 23
Bobby Short was the essence of Manhattan sophistication. I saw his cabaret show in the early ’80s when he held court at the Cafe Carlyle on the Upper West Side. You liked Cole Porter? Bobby Short was the Porter interpreter you had to hear. You wanted sophisticated patter? Bobby Short was your man. You want someone to perform a tribute to Bobby Short, who died in 2005? Say hello to the tuxedoed T. Oliver Reid.
It was a coup for the Overture Center to book this up-and-coming Broadway talent. His version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” started with a hushed whisper, grew in urgency and then subsided. It was typical of the evening. Reid had a Sinatra-like approach. Everything he did was in service to the lyrics. He sang every word of Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” as if it was the story of his life. His version of Porter’s “I Got You Under My Skin” captured all the yearning and mounting urgency of infatuation. This was a very good evening for the Great American Songbook.
The Country Music Hall of Fame
Ry Cooder, Sharon White and Ricky Skaggs, Pabst Theater (Milwaukee); also Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, High Noon Saloon, both July 17
Seeing Ry Cooder, who rarely tours, was a highpoint 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.
Before bar time descended, I hightailed it back to Madison and rushed into the High Noon in time to catch the final two songs of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. They were the perfect complement to Skaggs, Cooder and White — another country-deep duo making heartfelt music. Campbell has played with Dylan and Levon Helm; Williams with Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples. But sadly, on a night when trustafarian darlings the New Pornographers played for free on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., only 40 or so people thought the real deal of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams worthy of a cover charge. Oh, Madison.
The pain of life and love
Madeleine Peyroux, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 7
Early on, singer Madeleine Peyroux struggled. She missed occasional 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, and 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 New York 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.
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
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 UWM 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.
When Jose met Billie
Jose James, Capitol Theater, Jan. 16
Great show. Bad audience.
Rail thin, cucumber cool and well hidden behind his sunglasses, singer Jose James never connected with a crowd that seemed either unimpressed or ignorant of him and Billie Holiday. This show only sold a couple hundred tickets, and the house was papered with freebies.
The crowd’s indifference to a fine young singer’s tribute to Lady Day on the 100th anniversary of birth was enough to break your heart. Madison just isn’t a jazz town anymore when it fails to turn out for smart show like this. The same thing happened last year when a troupe of powerhouse jazzers led by drummer Terri Lynne Carrington bombed at Shannon Hall on campus.
James has a seductive baritone. That he wrapped his silky voice around the legendary songs of the preeminent female jazz singer in history had an element of audacity. Ditto you don’t sing “Body and Soul” and “God Bless the Child” unless you can own them, for fear of being exposed as a wannabe. James owned them. He got it. He honored Billie but gave his own languorous touch to her songs.
His Holiday tribute album Good Morning Heartache is one of the best of 2015. Recorded straight-ahead style with a team of younger lions (Jason Moran, Eric Harland, John Patitucci), it reveals how self-assured and fully formed Jose James’ vision of Billie Holiday is.
So did his Capitol Theater show, despite the crowd.
Breaking the speed limit
The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman, Shannon Hall, Nov. 17
This was a scorching show by some of the best younger players in jazz. No corners were cut, no compromises made. This was fierce, bracingly fresh jazz played by virtuosos. Even better, it drew nearly 600 people, most of them younger than the grey-bearded oldsters (like me) who usually show up at jazz shows in Madison.
Joshua Redman is in the front ranks of the young players revitalizing the jazz world. (He was a founder of the estimable Bay Area SF Jazz Collective, which puts on the best jazz concert series in the country.) The Bad Plus, a hipster cool trio originally out of Minneapolis, keeps pushing the limits. (They’ve recorded a jazz version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”)
Their music — captured on an Emmy-nominated album — was tightly composed and rollercoaster fast. Drummer David King, clad in his Brooklyn lumberjack boots, powered the thrill ride. Not a timekeeper, King was a drill sergeant leading these cats on the trickiest of curves. Redman, meanwhile, was a fascinating quicksilver soloist, sometimes resembling the great Roscoe Mitchell in his breath control and other times summoning up his dad Dewey Redman’s ferocity or employing a velvet tone of Lester Young. (I’m betting he eventually records a ballads album with a Billie-like singer.)
This just in: Don’t believe the doomsayers. Reports of jazz’s demise in Madison just aren’t true.
The shock of the new… and the old
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater, Pabst Theater (Milwaukee), May 21
You never pass up an opportunity to hear Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s a shining cultural benchmark of western civilization. Even the most casual listener knows its snap-to-attention da-da-da-DA opening. Listening to it in the ornate Pabst Theater, my pick for the best venue in southeastern Wisconsin, was irresistible.
But what made this epic performance my favorite show of 2015 was the gutsiness of guest conductor Edwin Outwater. He framed the Fifth with a bold program of new music from the late 20th/early 21st century. These were the cutting-edge compositions that traditional classical fans would normally never hear. Cadwaller, who is music director of Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, chose jarringly fresh pieces by young upcoming composers Sean Shepherd and Nico Muhly and even brought Shepherd on stage to discuss his music. (I would gently suggest that the Madison Symphony Orchestra could learn from this sort of adventurous programming.)
But tellingly, it was his choice of new music legend Morton Feldman’s short ethereal “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety” that touched off the explosion. This is a meditative piece that hangs in the air like the silence at dusk of a summer day. I was lost in a mind-body reverie when Outwater pulled the trigger, and the symphony burst into da-da-da-DA. Not even a millisecond of transition. My head just about exploded. Outwater, who had earlier discussed the new music connection between Beethoven and Feldman (it made no sense to me), was making it overt for all to hear. It was thrilling — like a speeding rollercoaster. I was gobsmacked.
It was exactly the sort of musical challenge I looked for in 2015.
Other thoughts on 2015’s music
In praise of local heroes
Guitarist Cliff Fredricksen, a Madison jazz institution, sang and played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Tennessee Waltz” with casual mastery when I met a friend one evening at the Elk’s Lodge. It was always a good night when Catfish Stephenson played his exquisite National Steel guitar at the Weary Traveler. After catching him with Gerri DiMaggio, I thought pianist Paul Hastil was the best accompanist a songstress could hope for in Madison. Mal-o-Dua, the Hawaiian/swing guitar duo of Cedric Baetche and Chris Ruppenthal (often with accordionist Tom Klein), turned out to be my favorite band to hear at local bistros.
Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes (Overture Hall, March 17) was an unbridled force of nature. I kept thinking of Janis Joplin.
Young gun pianist Daniil Trifonov lived up to the hype. The Russian phenom gave a bravura performance of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #1 with the Chicago Symphony (April 16).
Young bluesman Jerekus Singleton showed himself to be an Allman Brothers quality guitarist at the Waterfront Festival (June 14).
I stopped pulling weeds in my backyard and raced over to Yahara Place Park to see who was setting off the fireworks when his band took the stage.
Rhiannon Giddens: a nice voice wasn’t enough (Capitol Theater, April 27).
Royal Southern Brotherhood: Too much rock, not enough soul (Central Park Sessions, Sept. 1).
Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea: Winging it didn’t win the night (Symphony Center, Chicago, April 17).
Hayes Carll: Dammit! He didn’t sing “She Left Me for Jesus”! (Majestic Theatre, June 19).
On the upswing
The local jazz scene. The three “Strollin’” minifestivals in the Schenks Corners, Hilldale and South Park Street neighborhoods were successes. Ditto for the InDIGenous jazz shows on campus. Credit the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium and the Madison Music Collective (I’m a member of both). Johannes Wallmann, director of the UW’s jazz studies program, is another jazz-scene plus. He shows up at local shows and plays piano around town, and I even saw him at a tiny Milwaukee venue when he brought a half-dozen students to hear the great improviser Tim Berne.
On the downswing
The Union Theater’s venerable fine art series, now in its 96th year. Director Ralph Russo says subscriptions have dropped from upward of 600 at its peak to about 200 today. A pitiful turnout of 307 for the great classical pianist Joyce Yang (Oct. 15) tells the story: Shannon Hall was almost two-thirds empty. Russo suggests the problem is that the classical concert market is over-saturated in Madison. He also says the greying audience has compelling reasons to stop subscribing.
“I’m not saying the series is at risk,” Russo cautions. “But it’s going to take some effort to see it continue.”
The votes are in. (Mine at least.)
The remodeled Shannon Hall in the UW Memorial Union, now in its second season, has extraordinary acoustics for piano. In back-to-back concerts this fall, I loved the rich, lingering sound of Yang and jazzman Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.
No gamble here
The 500-seat Northern Lights Theater in the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee is the best concert venue in Milwaukee or Madison to hear amplified music. That’s my take after seeing Greg Allman perform there. Killer sound. Killer sight lines. Comfortable seats. And you can order drinks from your seat while the band rocks on. Question: When will Madison get a grown-up venue like this?
Bet he never had that happen before
Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville has been playing New Orleans music for what seems like hundreds of years. But judging from his look of amazement when the band’s crunching rhythms at a Central Park Session (July 10) were accented by the blaring horn of a train slowly moving down the rail corridor, this was something new for a guy who’s seen it all.