One Writer’s Favorite 2013 Concerts in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago
Leonard Cohen was old — 33 — when he released his first album in late 1967. A respected Canadian poet and fiction writer, he put aside a proper literary career at a critical cultural moment. This was risky. Many of his musical compatriots from the groovy “Summer of Love” were a good decade and a full generation younger.
Forty-six years later, I saw Cohen perform in Milwaukee, and it was easily my favorite show of 2013. Long of tooth but light on his feet, Cohen is a far more interesting artist today. Was I surprised? You bet. I’m a late-arrival Cohen fan and have seen a ton of concerts — approaching 500 in the nine years I’ve written this fan’s annual accounting — and Cohen’s was one of the best.
Overall, I saw 68 shows in 2013, beginning New Year’s Eve, after midnight, with Tony Castaneda’s irresistible Latin band at Sardine and ending in mid-December with alt-country icon Jon Dee Graham at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music. Put simply, I’m a live-music guy. I love being part of that firing synapse that connects artist, sound and audience in a millisecond.
What follows are — within a drive of Madison — my favorite shows of 2013. FDA labeling requires that I say these are the musings of a fan and not of a critic. Caveat emptor: I can’t read music, I can’t play music, and my singing voice is even worse than Cohen’s. But, hey, my tastes are far ranging, from opera to opry, from jazz to cross-cultural rave-ups. Like Jim Dickinson, the great Memphis maestro, said on his deathbed: “World boogie is coming.”
‘Everything we have’
Leonard Cohen, Milwaukee Theatre, March 15
I never cared for the somber Canadian back in the day. He was too folky, too serious — a freaking downer. Never bought his albums. But I do remember Tim Hardin’s tremulous version of Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” in 1971 — a song that captures the agonizing clash of obligation and autonomy in relationships. Twenty-three years later, when producer Rick Rubin relaunched Johnny Cash’s career by stripping his music to its sinews, I was blown away Cash’s reading of “Bird.” When Cohen released Ten New Songs in 2001, I was finally ready for him.
Here was the perfect package. Cohen’s froggy voice had modulated into a baritone whisper. His songs were sly, closely observed but still enigmatic, and touched with longing and mortality. With a chorus of sweet women singing harmony and stark but copacetic arrangements, Cohen had become something of a musical Frank Lloyd Wright, enjoying an extraordinary burst of late-life creativity.
This was the Cohen I saw in his natty black suit and hip fedora.
Music fans knows his recent storyline (details are in Sylvie Simmons’ fine Cohen biography, I’m Your Man): Several years of disciplined work and meditation in a Buddhist monastery were followed by the revelation that Cohen’s business manager had stolen his money. So at the age of 74 in 2008, Cohen took to the road to rescue his finances, playing and touring on his terms only. He’s since re-established his patrimony, but along the way he discovered liked the focus and shared mission of a touring band. Leonard Cohen meets Willie Nelson.
Cohen’s Milwaukee show was his first in Brewtown in 38 years. I’ve never seen a concert so expertly put together. This included high-resolution video of the band projected on side screens, billowing stage curtains, his oversized art hung on the walls, Broadway-quality lighting periodically blowing his noirish shadow up to monster heights. And the band — the string players sat in comfortable overstuffed chairs around him — were top-shelf players from across the globe. The Gypsy-styled violinist came from Moldova, the guitarists from Barcelona and Austin. When Cohen trotted out to start what became nearly a three-hour show, you knew magic was happening.
“Friends, I promise we’ll give you everything we have,” he announced.
There was such purposefulness and palpable joy to Cohen’s performance. And such wry self-deprecation in his patter. “Lighten up, Cohen!” he chastened himself at one point. (Would Mick Jagger make a wry observation about “the humiliations of the bedroom”?) When his bandmates soloed, Cohen sometimes dropped to his knees or put his fedora over his heart. And of course, he sang “Hallelujah,” his memorable reckoning of eternal yearnings and carnal desire, which eventually became an improbable standard. The song, barely noticed when released in 1984, took 10 years to break out with Jeff Buckley’s breathless version. Now more than 300 covers are reported, including k.d. lang’s drop-dead version.
For sure, it’s been a long strange trip for Cohen. He’s endured and grown long after his younger 1967 classmates — the Beatles, Hendrix, the Doors, Otis Redding, Buffalo Springfield, Cream, and more — gave up the ghost.
Painting his masterpiece
Chuck Prophet, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, May 19
Go ahead: Put me on that desert island with five albums and an audiophile sound system. Right next to Miles Davis, Von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, the Allman Brothers and Yo-Yo Ma, I’d be stashing Chuck Prophet and his masterpiece chronicle of the pleasurably wasted southern California dream: Age of Miracles.
I’m a huge fan of the former Green on Red co-leader. After the hard-living alt band crashed and burned in spectacular fashion in 1987, Prophet cleaned up and turned himself into a craftsman songwriter and studio master, releasing a series of sharply etched, very smart rock ‘n’ roll albums.
The good news is how well the songs, sans band, stood up solo acoustic. He won my heart when he encored with “You Did,” as perfectly a crafted song as you’ll find. Ostensibly a love song, the druggy hypnotic rhythm is haunted by an urgent cry, “I got a letter this morning,” as he reels off a series of resonant metaphors about his lover opening his heart “like a baby’s fist”:
Who cleared the static and made it sing?
Who put the wheel on the gravy train?
I got a letter this morning.
Who put the “bomp” in the bomp-shooby-dooby-bomp?
Who put the “ram” in the rama-lama-ding-dong?
Who put the “wang” in the wang-dang-doodle, baby?
I got a letter this morning.
“BUT WHAT DOES THE LETTER SAY, CHUCK?” you want to scream as the song fades away. Of course, he doesn’t say, and he doesn’t really have to, because in our heart we already know it’s the big kiss-off. All praise to the righteous Kiki Schueler, whose rep for house concerts draws great talent like Prophet.
An emotional knockout
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with Richard Thompson opening, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, March 19
This show was a marvelous demonstration of mature artists pushing forward but being mindful of the past. That’s to say they revisited old favorites but championed great new material. Thompson, the Brit folk-rocker whose legend will forever be linked to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” was showing off Electric, another excellent Buddy Miller home production. His singing of “Saving the Best for You” was the humble offering of a romantic bounder finally pledging his love. Tenderness is not something you associate with Thompson.
Crowell and Harris’ long-awaited album, Old Yellow Moon (they first played together nearly 40 years ago), was one of the best of 2013. Their treatment of Matraca Berg’s heart-in-the-throat “Back When We Were Young” was an emotional knockout. But the real goose-bump duet turned out to be “The Return of the Grievous Angel,” as they summoned up the hallowed, posthumously released 1974 collaboration of Gram Parsons with the then-unknown Harris.
The drug-overdose death of Parsons — at age 26 in 1973 — was one of the great wounds in American popular music. Parsons had brought rebellious long-haired rockers to the unwelcoming streets of conservative Nashville through the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. This was fistfight of a culture clash. But today, with those old battles forgotten, rebels like Parsons and Townes Van Zandt have become enshrined in the new country traditionalism.
This was a staggeringly good show. Thompson, always a stiletto-wielding guitarist, was whipped along by the adventurous drumming of Michael Jerome. I’ve always preferred Emmylou in small doses, but the presence of Crowell polished some of her high lonesome edges, and their duets were something new and interesting.
So many other high points… They include Thompson joining the headliners on Crowell’s paean to the reckless life,”Ain’t Living Long Like This,” which is pretty much the coda to the Parsons story. Harris and Crowell encored with a heartbreaking “Love Hurts,” another of her famous Parsons duets. And the second encore was Crowell’s dreamy-happy “Stars On The Water,” where a beer joint on the bayou becomes the best place in the world when the moonlight is just like “stars on the water, let it rain.”
A star shines in Madison
Jeremy Denk, UW Mills Hall, April 11
Bartok, Liszt, Bach — this was a thoroughly ambitious program by a rising star of classical music. Denk, 43, was named a MacArthur “genius” fellowship winner in September, and this concert was proof enough of his brilliance. Denk is an intensely physical pianist, and his Bartok sonata was wildly percussive and dissonant. With Liszt and Bach he was a conjuror, sometimes pensive, sometimes pounding the piano so hard it seemed to quiver like a lover. He sat motionless, his hands above the keyboard as the notes, and the memory of the notes, hung in the air. This was all difficult music. Denk cracked it open to reveal its beauty.
Three faces of jazz’s future
Gerald Clayton Trio, H.F. DeLuca Forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, April 7
Clayton’s dense, complex piano solos fit perfectly in the swirling rhythm section of drummer Justin Brown and bassist Joe Sanders. These cats locked together like an intricate Swiss watch yet were joyfully improvisational. So young, so copacetic — how do they do it? (Well, they started playing together in high school.) The Clayton trio was the best jazz show I saw in Madison in 2013.
Heavenly music in Brewtown
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Musica Celestis with guest conductor Andreas Delfs, Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee, Sept. 20
Now this was a gutsy statement: The Milwaukee Symphony began its fall season with a star turn by its great string section — take a bow, violinist Frank Almond and viola player Robert Levine. Minus woodwinds, brass and percussion, the string section breathed life into a gorgeous meditation called Musica Celestis by contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis. This heavenly music was emotionally wrenching like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus for Benjamin Britten.
All of 13 minutes had passed, and I was already floating in the clouds.
I love it when I get turned on to new music. The first thing I did when I got home was order Kernis’ album. As for the rest of the concert: just killer. Jeremy Denk (him again) turned his formidable powers on Liszt’sConcerto No. 1, and Delfts, whose joie de vivre is inspiring to audience and orchestra alike, did a whirlwind Tchaikovsky — his Fourth Symphony — that featured thunderous brass and that marvelous string section again.
A tribal storyteller
Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, July 6
I missed what I’m told was this Texas legend’s euphoric show at the Orton Park Festival this summer. But, here in his record ninth performance at Kiki’s intimate basement concert venue, Graham could not have been better. He is a slashing elemental guitarist who might as well have been forged in a Gary, Ind., steel furnace. But for all his storied ties to rock ‘n’ roll (he played in the True Believers with Alejandro Escovedo, recorded albums with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, and is a three-time member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame), Graham is something more important: a tribal storyteller. He gathers his listeners around the campfire to tell harrowing stories of danger and depravity and finally — this comes late in the night — songs of redemption and love. Yeah, we’re talking catharsis straight out of the old Greek playbook.
How he does this night after night is beyond me. Graham sings songs and tells anecdotes of divorce, drug abuse, mental collapse, car crashes, impoverishment and greasy music industry executives. Yet he ends with those songs of renewal and even innocence. I’ve seen Graham countless times over the years and have repeatedly written about him in these recaps. I can’t get enough of the guy. He gives travel tours of hellish places we all want to avoid but sometimes encounter.
This could be the start of something big
Tony Monaco Trio featuring Fareed Haque and the Jimmys, Brink Lounge, Nov. 30
Nothing is cooler than a hot organ trio in a dark club. Think of the legendary groups that came out of Detroit and Philly in the 1960s. Madison had its evening of glory here. I had seen Hammond B-3 master Tony Monaco and guitar wizard Haque repeatedly this year either individually or together — at the Marquette Waterfront Festival (June 8), the Brink Lounge (Oct. 27); and Alchemy (Nov. 16). But this show blew the roof off.
Credit an explosive drummer, Chicago’s Greg Fundis, for setting the furious pace. These guys were like Porsches roaring down a twisting mountain road with Monaco’s three Leslie speakers smoking. All the better there was a big crowd whooping and hollering through the tight turns and breakaways. For that, local heroes the Jimmys deserve some credit. This big, eight-piece blues-rock band with a four-piece, razor-sharp horn section and Jimmy Voegeli’s keys seemed to bring their own crowd, who filled the dance floor.
This was a big night for Madison music. Not just jazz and blues packing the joint, but the fans willing to pay $25 at the door for the privilege of hearing local and regional players. (Monaco is based in Columbus, Ohio; Haque is in Chicago). I walked out wondering: Was this a one-shot deal or is the Madison audience turning a corner?
She played, she conducted, she blissed out
Mitsuko Uchida, playing piano and conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Mozart program, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, March 28
I’m not a Mozart guy and didn’t have high expectations. But, wow, my seat on a main-floor wing allowed me to see Uchida’s face while she simultaneously played and led the CSO. What intensity! What joy! I haven’t seen anything like it since the 1970s, when the irrepressible Gil Evans led his big band at the Village Vanguard. Uchida was deep into the music, and hey, who could possibly not be enthralled by “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”(A Little Night Music) when the string players stood to perform? I surrendered willingly to the serenade of Mozart.
A Scarpia to die for
Madison Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca, conducted by John DeMain, Overture Hall, Nov. 1
I saw the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s great Tosca in 2010. This local production grabbed me more. Soprano Melody Moore, as Tosca, killed on the broken-hearted “Vissi d’arte.” But it was Nmon Ford as the supremely manipulative Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police, who stole the show. From the moment Scarpia stepped on stage he radiated an ominous demonic power. The second act, tautly directed by A. Scott Parry, was a livewire dance of sexual extortion. Scarpia alternatively beseeches and threatens Tosca as she begs him to save her lover from execution. He wants sex for the favor. She stabs the SOB to death. In the end, as in all good operas, everyone dies.
Hot jazz for today’s people
Alfonso Ponticelli with Swing Gitan, Midwest Gypsy Swing Festival, Art in the Barn, Fitchburg, Sept. 1
The vibrancy of hot jazz can’t be beat. This artifact of 1930s Paris cafes has broken free of the dead hand of archivalists to morph into a vital, evolving music, but still honors the memories of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. (Willie Nelson’s version of “Nuages,” featuring Johnny Gimble’s fiddle, is a sublime example.) Ponticelli’s set nicely captured the genre’s creative ferment.
Ponticelli is a dazzling guitarist with a star-like flare and a poet’s pensiveness. He’s surrounded himself with virtuosos like violinist Steve Gibons, who ripped off bravado solos with a casual insouciance. The Chicago band was particularly juiced this night, aided by guest cimbalon player Alex Udvary. The cimbalon is one weird instrument, sort of a hammered dulcimer for eastern Europeans. The last time I saw one was in a Florence square where a gypsy band played for spare euro. All I needed on this night in Fitchburg was a couple shots of Palinka, and I might have asked the dark-haired beauty across the barn to dance. (Or so I fantasized.)
A great opera with incidental music
A Streetcar Named Desire, Lyric Opera of Chicago, music by Andre Previn, libretto by Philip Littell (based on the Tennessee Williams play), conducted by Evan Rogister, Civic Opera House, Chicago, March 30
Put bluntly: Previn’s music sounded like a movie score out of the ’50s… mere background music to accent Tennessee Williams famous drama. Shocking, there was not a memorable aria to be heard. Yet this stark, studio-like presentation (the orchestra was placed in back of the stage) completely enthralled me. The magnificent Renee Fleming seized the stage as the faded Blanche DuBois (and how brave for a diva to play a character so vulnerable and deluded). There was a palpable sexual tension between her and bad-ass Stanley Kowalski (baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes), and when the story wound down to its inevitable funeral pyre of personal destruction, I had tears in my eyes.
A portal to another world
Muhal Richard Abrams (opening for the Josh Redman Quartet), Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Sept. 22
Seeing this giant of improvisational jazz was a spine-tingling experience. At 83, Muhal Richard Abrams walked slowly to the piano, paused before putting his hands to the keys, and then–magic! — it was as if his own force field descended over the hall. Reality was altered to his vision. I’ve had this experience p few times before — James “Blood” Ulmer has that kind of gravitational pull. I imagine Monk did too. Whether the next 40 minutes was improvised or a set tune, I don’t know. But Abrams with his own idiosyncratic cadences played the silences as well as the notes. Sometimes discordant, sometime melodic, he broke the music into bright shiny shards that hung in the air with mystifying power….