Mavis, Marty, McMurtry and Much More: A Midwest Perspective on 2014 Concerts
Music tells a truer story of America than our politics does.
Maybe it was happenstance. Maybe it was the surge line of a big trend. Either way, 2014 was the Year of the Woman for the more than 60 concerts I saw. That was no surprise with solo singers — a traditional strong suit for women. I saw great ones: Cassandra Wilson at the Dakota in Minneapolis (May 19), Rosanne Cash at the Stoughton Opera House (Nov. 21), Mavis Staples at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18), Ruthie Foster at the Dakota (Oct. 21), Alexandra LoBianco in Madison Opera’s Fidelio at Overture Hall (Nov. 23), and two more who are aspiring to greatness, Gretchen Parlato and Lizz Wright at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8).
But, it was the chicks in the band who stood out. Historically, women sidemen (yup, that’s the word) were treated as novelties, save for the classical world. Today, they can be the brains and the brawn in the band.
Drummer Lisa Pankratz (pictured) powered the reunion of roots rockers Dave and Phil Alvin at the High Noon Saloon (July 25). The brilliant Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen led the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars at the Capitol Theatre (Mar. 28). Esperanza Spalding looked ecstatic playing bass with jazz giants Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (Feb. 15). Hill Country bluesman Luther Dickinson was backed by drummer Sharde Thomas and bassist Amy LaVere at the High Noon (Oct. 20). The oh-so-subtle Samantha Banks drummed for Ruthie Foster. Lap steel wizard Cindy Cashdollar backed up slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth at the Stoughton Opera House (Dec. 5). And the women-led Mosaic Project at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8) featured the formidable drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the rising alto sax player Tia Fuller, who may tour with Beyoncé but plays like Charlie Parker is whispering in her ear.
The boys in the band are increasingly girls. That’s good news. I have to think it’s changing band dynamics to the better in the same way that women managers in the workplace change the valence of team chemistry.
America’s unhealed racial wounds were also on display in 2014. I felt such despair over the Ferguson debacle that I avoided most discussions of it. It all seems so hopeless. Musically, it was another story.
Some of the best music I heard on stage in 2014 was the product of artists burrowing deep into the American cultural core to reinterpret our common history. More often than not, they find white and black sounds coupled together to create a shared national music.
Jazz violinist Regina Carter explored the Library of Congress folklore collection to find the music that her Mississippi grandfather listened to, performing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18). Rosanne Cash’s extraordinary recent work has highlighted the music of her dad Johnny’s youth. Cassandra Wilson, whose parents were Mississippi educators, has made her own deep dives into regional culture. Luther Dickinson, co-founder of the North Mississippi Allstars, keeps digging deeper and deeper into the racially intertwined world of Hill Country Blues. Alt favorite Ruthie Foster’s connection to the great gospel tradition is self-evident. Country artist Marty Stuart’s loving ties to the Staples Singers is character-defining; when Pops, the family patriarch, died, daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave Stuart his guitar to keep and to play, as he did at the Stoughton Opera House (Feb. 1).
“It was like being handed an instrument of light,” Stuart told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
My touchstone for this comingling is one of the most fascinating records in American history: Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9,” recorded in 1930 by the father of country music. But this isn’t just country music, folks. This is standout classic blues, also known as “Standing On The Corner,” and features a bouncy New Orleans trumpet solo by Louie Armstrong and a two-fisted piano accompaniment by Louie’s wife, Lil Hardin.
This song is mind-blowing — and not just for Rodgers’ yodeling solo. A few years earlier he had played and sang in the foundational recordings of country music (the Bristol sessions), just as and Armstrong and Hardin played on the foundational recordings of jazz (the Hot Fives). Yet here they are — white and black musicians — recording together at a time of punitive Jim Crow laws and a music industry that followed a strict apartheid approach to marketing records (“hillbilly” was sold to poor whites and “race” music sold to blacks).
What did they talk about in the studio? How did they navigate the racial and gender chasms? Those answers are lost to history.
What we do know is that is the in the intimacy of the studio, in the moment of creation, the music was all freakin’ one. This was the real America. We find the promise of social unity in our art even when our racialized politics exacerbates social disunity.
So down to business
I’ve be been writing this annual roundup for nine or so years now. I do it because I find it a writerly challenge to organize my thoughts on the musical year. If there is any value to these musings, it may be in their wide range. I’m a musical omnivore who loves both Puccinni’s arias and alt-country icon Jon Dee Graham’s laments. I appreciates sonic outlaw Bill Laswell’s corpus as much as I do stately Duke Ellington’s.
What I’m not is a critic. I’m totally ignorant of musical architecture. Your seven-year violin-playing daughter knows more than me. But I love the spells that live music casts. I treasure being in the moment of live performance.
This annual survey is based on concerts I saw within a drive of Madison, from Minneapolis to Chicago. (My assumption is that any true fan will gladly hop into the car in pursuit of a musical adventure.) The shows are noted in a roughly ascending order.
You’ll find my top 15 shows and lots more at the Madison-based Isthmus website, where this story appeared originally. Just skip the intro I’ve pasted here on the No Depression site and cut to the top shows. Note this is a long story– more than 5,700 words.
So pack a lunch.