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My most memorable concerts of 2008 in Madison and Milwaukee
Shelby Lynne, Derek Trucks, The Guarneri Quartet, Sam Baker and Gurf Morlix, The Tender Land, and more
Is there a greater affirmation to life, liberty, art and the mystical connection to a Higher Being than “Ode to Joy”? <i>Uh-uh.</i>
Is there a greater affirmation to life, liberty, art and the mystical connection to a Higher Being than “Ode to Joy”? Uh-uh.
Credit:Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Certain pianists (think Horowitz, think Ray Charles) seem to pull the notes out of the keys. They caress the ivories like lovers. But not Yefim Bronfman. The burly Israeli, who played with the Madison Symphony on April 25 in an all-Russian program, had an entirely different tack.

Looking profoundly annoyed (had his connecting flight from Chicago been delayed, or what?), he pounded the keys with a ferocity I've never seen in a classical artist. He finished his work with a powerful staccato tattoo, jumped up and almost kicked over the piano bench. My god, if Jerry Lee Lewis played classical music he'd be Yefim Bronfman!

I wandered over to Magnus for a post-concert drink deep in thought (Jerry Lee Lewis playing Rachmaninoff -- what would that sound like?) when I could hear the serpentine sound of a clarinet a half-block away. Could it be? Yes. MSO's Greg Smith had somehow hightailed it over from the lux-tux world of Overture to join in the manic craziness of his klezmer band Yid Vicious.

This was truly trippy, as the Yiddish party band featured a surf guitarist straight out of The Ventures and a Theremin player making those eerie electric wooooooing sounds you hear in 1950's space alien movies.

It was a marvelous moment, yet another reason why I love live music. The pleasures are visceral, surprising and life affirming. It's why I headed for the concert hall and the clubs 50-plus times in 2008, culminating New Year's Eve at Uihlein Hall watching the Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus performing Beethoven's awe-inspiring 9th Symphony.

I admit it: I can get all gushy and lightheaded with Beethoven. Is there a greater affirmation to life, liberty, art and the mystical connection to a Higher Being than "Ode to Joy"? Uh-uh. This is it -- the grand statement of Enlightenment values. My wife tends to tear up at every performance.

I had other deeply satisfying moments in 2008: hearing country iconoclast Robbie Fulks perform in Kiki Schueler's basement, of all places; Allison Moorer's drop-dead great versions of "Both Sides Now" and "A Change is Gonna Come" at the Barrymore; Willie Nelson connecting with his inner Django Reinhardt on an exquisite "Nuages" at the Crystal Grand Theater in Wisconsin Dells; Joe Jackson's still spirited rendition of "Stepping Out" at the Pabst; Lucinda Williams' heartfelt "Tears of Joy" at the Orpheum; Angelique Kidjo's unexpected "Gimme Shelter" at the Union Theater; and Alejandro Escovedo's naked and unabashed love song "Rosalie" at the High Noon.

But let me confess, as I did in my two previous yearly recaps for 2007 and 2006, that I know nothing about music. Can't read it. Can't play it. Barely have the rudimentary language to describe it. But music still gives me sublime pleasure.

That said, here are my ten favorite experiences from 2008 in Madison and Milwaukee music with a few observations to follow.

Top Ten

Move over Frank, Ray, Patsy and Billie for...
Shelby Lynne, Nov. 28, Turner Hall, Milwaukee.

Like Cassandra Wilson has transcended jazz, Shelby Lynne has risen above country. Her great phrasing and emotional investment puts her at the rarified level of the great ones. Her voice captures sadness and vulnerability but also reveals the steely glimmer of someone who's been hurt and hurt again but carries on.

A diva by all accounts, Lynne's career travails and tempestuous life have scared away promoters and record labels. Out of her relative isolation came last year's rep-making tribute album to Dusty Springfield. Almost Zen-like in its spare arrangements (lovingly recorded on retro audio tape by studio legends Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt), Just A Little Loving has three or four songs that will stop people in their tracks 50 years from now.

Turner Hall's cabaret seating turned out to be a surprisingly nice venue for Lynne's drama. The 300 patrons more than doubled the pitiful turnout when Lynne's poor-selling Madison show was moved to Café Montmartre in July 2005. People, listen up: You don't know what you're missing!

If Duane were Coltrane, he'd be...
Derek Trucks, Sept. 11, Majestic Theatre.

What a thrill to hear slide guitarist Trucks whip through Coltrane's signature "Afro Blue" and "My Favorite Things" to the cheers of 400 or so ecstatic fans. I've had reservations about Trucks' touring band, but not this night. These boys have locked into something special. Not just consummate blues, southern rock, R&B and jazz, but the occasional references to African and south Asian melodies showed just how dizzyingly trans-cultural Trucks' musical vision is.

For good reason he holds the hallowed slide guitar chair in the Allman Brothers Band and has been anointed by Clapton and Santana as the keeper of their flame.

The victory lap:
The Guarneri Quartet, Oct. 23, Union Theater.

I'm not sure how we wound up in the front row, but what a treat to be a breath away from these great musicians. Small classical groups are best experienced live and up close. Recordings never capture the subtle gestures, the hang time of notes, those singular moments when the bow hits the string and noise is transformed into music. It is magical. The sound is practically three-dimensional.

The quartet, marking an astonishing 45 years together, played a sturdy program of Hayden, Mozart and the late Beethoven in this farewell appearance. Concerts like this demonstrate how utterly irreplaceable the Union's annual classical series is to Madison's cultural life.

A shining path:
Sam Baker and Gurf Morlix, April 12, Kiki's House of Righteous Music.

Morlix, a producer/songwriter/performer, is one of the Austin heavies. But it was Baker who captivated me. His songs are closely observed narratives of eccentric and marginalized people finding meaning in seemingly defeated lives--almost like Leonard Cohen's, if Cohen had been a Baptist raised in west Texas.

There is tenderness and vulnerability in Baker's songs, perhaps a product of his own nearly wasted life. An adventurer of sorts, he was almost killed when the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas blew up a train he was riding in Peru in 1986. Not your usual songwriter bio. Baker's latest album, Pretty World, was one of my favorites of 2008. Moody and atmospheric, it is touched with moments of supine tenderness.

Mourning Prayers:
Rossini's Stabat Mater, March 7, Madison Symphony and Chorus, Overture Hall; Verdi's Requiem, Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus, March 9, Uihlein Hal, Milwaukee (also Mozart's Requiem and Arvo Part's Magnificat, March 20, Orchestra della Toscana with chorus, Florence).

The Catholic Church isn't my pew, but I can understand how someone would fall under its spell just for the great music the liturgy has inspired. I saw these three death-inspired concerts in the space of two weeks, and I was humbled by the overpowering glory of a large orchestra paired with a chorus celebrating religious experience.

Music for the ages:
Midwest Midwinter Gypsy Festival, Feb. 8-9, Brink Lounge.

I loved this celebration of swing jazz so much that I came back for the second night. Sponsored by veteran hot jazz proselytizers Harmonious Wail, the festival featured young out-of-town guitar phenoms Robin Nolan and Alfonso Ponticelli plus the Hot Club of Detroit and Madison's Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble.

How impressive that music that was so much the product of a particular time, place and players -- Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in ebullient 1930s Paris -- has proved so resilient and open to transformation 70 years later.

No longer an archivalist music (as Dixieland remains), swing jazz is vital, compelling and intensely listenable. I was smiling like a kid. At one point, I jotted down that Harmonious Wail's oh-so-fluid and expressive Maggie Delaney-Potthoff could be the best jazz singer in Madison.

Small was big:
"The Tender Land" by Madison Opera, Feb. 29, Promenade Hall in the Overture Center.

I saw a lot of great opera in 2008, but this intimate studio-staging of Aaron Copland's rarely performed story of a Midwestern farm girl breaking free of her family captured my heart. Soprano Kathryn Skemp's "Laurie" had a sweet earnestness that reminded me of Carrie Coon's memorable performance of the doomed "Emily" in the Madison Rep's presentation of Our Town a few years ago.

All praise to maestro John DeMain for his use of a small orchestra. Intentional or not, the staging connected to those iconic John Steuart Curry paintings of Midwestern farm life that he painted while an artist in residence at UW-Madison in the 1930s. Yet another reason why this performance was special for Madison.

Tango meets the symphony:
Astor Piazzolla's "Concerto for Bandoneon," Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Oct. 4, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee.

What a pleasure to finally hear Piazzolla's music performed live. For North American ears like mine, listening to the recorded music of the great Argentine new tango composer 15 years ago came with the smack of a revelation. Oh, wow, how had I missed this?

The concert was a first. I had never before seen Piazzolla's featured instrument, the bandoneon, an ungainly squeeze box that Daniel Binelli somehow manipulated into achingly beautiful solos. Not to be slighted was first violinist Frank Almond's jaw-droppingly beautiful solo on his Stradivarius.

I'll say it out loud: I'm a big fan of the Milwaukee Symphony. Its programming is far more venturesome than the Madison Symphony's. Our town's group has yet to come to grips with late 20th century composers like Piazzolla, John Adams, Phillip Glass and Arvo Part, to its detriment.

Okay, okay, I'll also admit that it wasn't cool of me to start yammering about this when I spotted a symphony viola player at the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings concert at the Barrymore. Really, it wasn't the setting to make the case for the Madison Symphony performing Part's mesmerizing "Cantus For Benjamin Britten."

Still the incorrigible bad ass:
Pat MacDonald with Melaniejane, Nov. 7, The Harmony Bar; also March 8, Mr. Roberts.

For someone who's been around for 30 years, MacDonald retains the admirable hard edge of a young, uncompromising innovator. I can remember him as a youngster dueting with Tracy Nelson at a benefit for the Madison Press Connection at the old Church Key. The brief incandescent success of Timbuk 3 in the mid-'80s only seemed to inure him to the further lures of commerciality.

MacDonald uses an amplified "stompbox" for a big-beat rhythm and plays a reverb-heavy, raw, swampy guitar that would make Sam Phillips smile. He has a one-of-a-kind sound: Cynical smart-ass lyrics set against an acid-y Delta guitar. Melaniejane's amplified cello just adds to MacDonald's back-road/art house uniqueness. She ended her solo set at Mr. Roberts with The Beatles' "Come Together." I mean this was strange coming from a cellist. The only thing stranger was the mixed, late-night crowd of tattooed lesbians, bikers and east-side bohos.

Alisa Weilerstein (with Inon Barnatan), Dec. 13, Union Theater.

I'm a fool for cello. The somber tone, the resonance, the extraordinary range of sound all tap into my DNA. This young piano-cello duo caught me by surprise with its vibrant Beethoven and Chopin pieces. But it was Weilerstein's star turn on a Kodaly sonata for solo cello that dropped my jaw.

Only 26 and with star-maker looks, Weilerstein played with a carnal look of pleasure that reminded of pictures of the ecstatic Jacqueline Du Pre' in performance. She wrenched out just about every possible cello sound, from a deep bassy rumbles to high-pitched whines. It was a tour de force. Weilerstein might as well have laid her instrument down on the stage when she finished, soaked it in with lighter fluid and set it on fire.

Runners up

A singer to watch for:
Gretchen Parlato, Feb. 15, Union Theater.

The jazz world is blessed with great female singers both young and old. Add Parlato to the youngster list. She sings, almost coos, in a little-girl voice with just extraordinary breath control. Sometime she scats, sometimes she slides into bossa nova. Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke, who she met as a fellow student at the Monk Institute, was a subtle and innovative accompanist. I wish now I had bought his CD. He's going places as well.

Music is his life:
Paul Cebar (opening for Nick Lowe), Oct. 12, Barrymore Theatre.

Just Cebar and his guitar was an unexpected throwback to the long-ago days when he played the Café Palms. Stripped of his heavily percussive and groove-happy New Orleans band, Cebar's sweet soul singing was on full display. He seemed as happy as could be, an R&B connoisseur who still delights in bringing forgotten gems to life. If only the rest of us could take such pleasure in our life's work.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's show time!
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Dec. 3, Barrymore Theatre.

This retro eight-piece soul band hit the right notes for a large and enthusiastic audience. Jones defiantly calls herself "too short, too fat, too black... and too old" for the record business. But she is a pure dynamo who could have been a third tier act on the legendary Stax-Volt tour of Europe in 1967 -- I'd say following Arthur Conley but before Sam and Dave and the mighty Otis Redding.

I walked out of the Barrymore with reservations. Dap-King mastermind Gabriel Roth has lovingly recreated a classic sound, but not really updated it. And my jazzer bones didn't like the fact that no soloists were featured.

A world of sound:
Bon Iver, Dec. 19, Barrymore Theatre.

I felt guilty scoring a ticket for this sold-out show. How many teenagers were morosely locked in their bedrooms bemoaning their absence from this sad indie hero's show? Then I heard the album and sighed for having gotten suckered into the falsetto-singing world of the Dunn County recluse. But band leader Justin Vernon got me at the show.

It was the music, it was the sound, it was the constant melancholy groove that sucked me in. (I couldn't make out the lyrics for the life of me.) Vernon has a very particular artistic vision. With a three-piece band that shifted effortlessly from string instruments, to percussion to keyboards, he created a world in sound, and I can respect that.

Music at the precipice:
Jon Dee Graham, May 13, Kiki's House of Righteous Music.

Nobody grabs a song by the throat like this rough and tumble Austin singer. So often Graham stands at the emotional precipice looking down at chaos and ruin, then cracks a sardonic joke or admits to a moment of grace and tenderness. I find him to be utterly compelling. But I got a bad, bad premonition when an audience member passed Graham a hefty glass of whiskey, and a few moments later he dropped his guitar pick, ruining a song.

If I had more time I would tell you that I've never seen the collective Madison music scene so hick-like, so positively rube-like, than in its pummeling of the formerly famous rock critic John Mendels(s)ohn, who washed up on our shores for a few months to write for Isthmus and other pubs. Sure his writing could be over the top and outré flamboyant, but he nailed any number of truths about the local scene.

Among them was that talented local troubadour Blake Thomas was dumbly courting detox and destruction. I've seen Thomas a half-dozen or more times and have grown tired of his diffident stage manner. The guy is talented enough, but he isn't serious enough. Enough of the "I'm a rambling man, and I break young girls' hearts" songs. See Sam Baker and Pat MacDonald for pointers.

On a happier note, let me end at Mickey's, where I heard my former Isthmus colleague and alt-country treasure Kelly Pardekooper's farewell show (with the fine Josh Harty supporting) on June 24. Midway, it hit me.

What a nice time I was having thanks to the smoking ban. Back in the day, Mickey's had been a just hellish smoking pit, the sort of place you were tempted to burn your clothes after a night out and check yourself into Tellurian for tobacco detoxification. For my money, the smoking ban has been the best thing to happen to Madison night life in years.

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