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My 17 favorite concerts of 2010, from Milwaukee to Stoughton to Madison
Shelby Lynne, Esperanza Spalding, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, and more
At the Stoughton Opera House, Esperanza Spalding pushed limits like only a young artist can.
At the Stoughton Opera House, Esperanza Spalding pushed limits like only a young artist can.
Credit:Roger H. Sassaki

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Clark Anderson, child-care giver, union organizer and slide guitarist.*

The last time I saw actor Jeff Daniels was in fall 2009 on Broadway with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in an all-star staging of the London hit God of Carnage. Now he was in Stoughton, of all places.

Yep, Daniels was performing a witty one-man show in little ol' Stoughton (Nov. 13), singing his own songs, playing surprisingly strong blues guitar and telling stories about Clint Eastwood, Hollywood and a yen to drive a motor home.

Chalk it up to one in a series of booking coups by the best venue of 2010 (in my opinion), the 475-seat Stoughton Opera House. I saw stellar jazz, country, blues and classical music in the beautifully restored hall, which occupies the third floor of the historic Stoughton City Hall.

I didn't see a hipper show last year, for example, than jazz phenom Esperanza Spalding's stop (Sept. 19). The audience might as well have been transported to a little club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.

Spalding walked on stage as her band vamped, took off her trench coat and scarf, sat in a Queen Anne chair on the side of the stage (there was a suggestion of an apartment setting), flicked on a living room lamp, poured herself a glass of wine and listened intently.

After several minutes and a suitable dramatic pause, the 25-year-old Spalding rose to lead her unusual band -- comprising a string trio, drummer, keyboard player and a vocal double -- through an edgy mix of jazz and art music.

In almost any other venue's sound mix, you can bet that A-list drummer Terri Lyne Carrington would have overpowered the strings, but not here. The sound was perfectly balanced. Two days earlier when the country star Patty Loveless performed (Sept. 17), she proclaimed the acoustics to be "awesome" and said the room would be perfect for a live recording.

My advice: Get yourself to the Stoughton Opera House. The programming is smartly tailored for different audiences and taps topnotch talent. Madison's Overture Center could learn a thing or two from its country cousin, but that's another story.

I heard a lot of music in 2010, around 65 shows. Sometimes I came across good music by happenstance. I stopped in at Magnus for an after-symphony nightcap, for example, and heard Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble's beguiling retooling of the Allman Brothers' "Rambling Man" as a work of hot jazz (Oct. 15).

I was delighted to hear (May 6) Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan, the superb Chicago-based gypsy jazz group, entertaining the Access Community Health annual dinner at Monona Terrace. (Is there a lovelier melody than Django's "Nuages"?) At the opening of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Wisconsin Triennial, John Mesoloras' East Avenue group made me smile when it did an exquisite version of "Over The Rainbow" (May 21). And brunch at Eldorado Grill (April 4) was so much better because the Stellanovas were giving their spirited take on gypsy jazz.

But more than anything in 2010 I was impressed at how ambitious DIYers upped the cultural ante in Madison. Kiki Schuler's House of Righteous Music (i.e., her basement) remains a standout venue. The Project Lodge on Johnson Street emerged as an alternative hotspot. AJ Love booked serious (but sadly under-attended) Chicago blues shows at the Harmony Bar. (I saw Linsey Alexander, Jan. 28; Lurrie Bell, April 23.) Songstress Gerri DiMaggio brought jazz to the Inn On The Park, including a standout salute to Cole Porter (March 5).

Surely, the marvelous Mary Lou Williams centennial with its multiple shows (I caught two, Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, featuring pianist Geri Allen and singer Carmen Lundy) was a landmark event for Madison and a tribute to jazz lover/organizer Howard Landsman and other jazz buffs and funders who pulled together the amazing series.

But it was the fearless Surrounded By Reality collective (Patrick Breiner, Luke Polipnick and Brooke Jackson, take a bow) that stole my heart and ears. The trio brought a year-long series of outré free-jazz/new music shows to the Project Lodge, Magnus and other venues. Out of the dissonance and arrhythmia came moments of absolutely exhilarating music.

Easily the saddest musical event of the year was the New Year's Eve closing of Restaurant Magnus, the site of more than 3,000 musical performances over the last 13 years, according to co-owner Chris Berge.

I fell into the groove of catching master pianist Ben Sidran's no-cover summer residency at Magnus (Aug. 10, 17, 31, Sept. 7). What a fine band he put together, especially Big Nick Moran playing bass with so much joy and physicality that he looked like he was dancing with the woman he loved, while Louka Patenaude with his odd, almost Monkish rhythms caught my ear like no other guitarist in town.

Sidran, who is among a handful of nationally known musicians in Madison, is oddly underappreciated in his hometown. But he's a killer pianist, and he brought a smile to my face one night when he segued from Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" to a Monk tune as if were the most natural connection in the world.

Let me 'fess up. I know nothing about music. I don't play an instrument. I don't regard myself as a critic. This chronicling of my 17 favorite shows is simply my effort to put my feelings about music into words.

17. Men at work
Peter Mulvey, Paul Cebar, John Sieger, Phil Lee: Dec. 8, Café Carpe, Fort Atkinson
This songwriter circle led by Milwaukee's Mulvey was poorly rehearsed and utterly beguiling. Here were four superb songwriters -- Sieger and Cebar were long-ago running mates in the R&B Cadets before going their separate ways; Lee is an enigmatic Nashville cat; and Mulvey was the unselfish host -- coming together to trade songs and back one another up. Just a fine display of working artists spinning stories in an absolute jewel of a music club.

16. A really different bar band
Portland Cello Project, Aug. 3, High Noon Saloon
Who'd believe it: A classical audience where most of the crowd of about 200 was under 35? Yes! This was a gutsy $10 show, featuring six cellists messing with the canon, mixing Beyoncé and Dave Brubeck tunes with their bracing modernistic originals. I loved it. Whoops and hollers greeted the Portlanders; so did the tinkle of ice cubes. The project comes back to the High Noon on March 4. Go see it.

15. Honoring his roots
Gregg Allman and Friends, May 19, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
Even as a teenager, Allman had the cavernous howl of a man in unbearable pain. The blues were too real for him, and for decades he was neck and neck with Keith Richards in a race to the obituary page. But Allman cleaned up and found life to his liking. This side project found him positively buoyant. I showed up because he was packing the storied Jerry Jemmott on bass. Yes, here was the man who powered killer R&B bands for Aretha Franklin and King Curtis, and it was with Curtis that Jemmott befriended the sainted Duane Allman. Paired with thunderous drummer Steve Potts, Jemmott gave a heavy backbeat to Allman tunes usually swaddled in polyrhythms. Gregg, honoring his past again, brought out the forgotten regional R&B singer, Floyd Miles, the man he and big bro Duane apprenticed under in the early 1960s in Daytona Beach. Very classy.

14. Dynamite for sure
Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, June 11, Stoughton Opera House
What separates the Milwaukee Symphony from the Madison Symphony? I'd venture the names of two mesmerizing Milwaukee musicians as the difference: Frank Almond and Joe Johnson. Violinist Almond and cellist Johnson (who's since moved on to the Toronto Symphony) are elite musicians, and it's why I so anticipated their appearance with BDDS' regulars Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes.

Wow! Almond, who has a star's haughty confidence, captured the drama of Schumann's Violin Sonata in D minor from the very first note, while the churning dynamics of Mendelssohn's Piano Quartet in B Minor had me on seat's edge. String ensembles never sound as good recorded as they do when the music swirls up in a live moment like this.

13. The hipster looks back
Rickie Lee Jones, Feb. 23, Barrymore Theatre
Jones' career began spectacularly with her self-titled smash in 1979 (including "Chuck E's in Love") and then slid beneath the waves and seemingly vanished for decades. All the better that she performed a career retrospective here. Those newer songs you never heard have the same brightness and sharp edges of her classic lyrics. (Jones could have retired after writing the perfect line: "You never know when you're making a memory.")

This was a no-net performance. The arrangements seemed winged and the two young supporting players were occasionally baffled on where to go next -- but those lapses were beside the point. The Rickie Lee Jones who has known motherhood, divorce, addiction and grief is far more interesting than the exuberant beatnik princess who once graced the cover of Rolling Stone in a hipster's beret.

12. The Pollock of drums
Matt Wilson Quartet, Feb. 4, Project Lodge
Wilson is a polymath New York drummer who played everything at once while his two horn players wrapped and unwrapped serpentine lines like they were joined at the hip. The music was kind of a jazz version of abstract expressionism. Wilson did a Roy Haynes-style solo where he tapped everything in sight, picked up a cymbal, puckishly tossed it the air and let it noisily roll down the steps. It was the perfect end note, and somewhere Frank Zappa and Jackson Pollock smiled.

11. The Horowitz of percussion
Cyro Baptista with Luciana Souza and Romero Lubambo, Feb. 12, Wisconsin Union Theater
Singer Souza and guitarist Lubambo are exceptional Brazilian musicians, but Baptista stole the show with his magical percussion. No sticks, he used his hands to coax sounds the way Horowitz caressed notes out of a keyboard. Baptista was the quietest most subtle percussionist I've ever heard, eliciting squeaks, beeps and howls from a collection of weird Dr. Evermore instruments. This guy could make tapping a watermelon sound beautiful and strange.

10. The shaman is in
Alejandro Escovedo, March 29, High Noon Saloon
I say this with passion: I haven't seen another musician with Escovedo's charisma and drama. This show was earplug loud and featured the new songs he wrote with the great Chuck Prophet. Death was in the wings. Escovedo paid his respects to Stephen Bruton and Alex Chilton. He recalled living with Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel. And then he ripped up the stage with a song about bad, bad love.

9. The master accompanist
Bo Ramsey backing Pieta Brown, March 13, Stoughton Opera House (also Sept. 17, opening for John Prine, Overture Hall)
I'm a sucker for slide guitar pyrotechnics, and Ramsey has been on my radar ever since he lit up the Orpheum backing Lucinda Williams in fall 1998. Brown -- yes, she's the daughter of singer Greg Brown -- could not have found a more simpatico accompanist than her husband. Ramsey prowled the stage on cat's feet, bending notes with surgical precision and never stealing the spotlight. Every sly and silky note, every whammy-bar atmospheric sounding, was in service of the song. The guy is a master.

8. Godly inspiration
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and the Milwaukee Children's Choir, May 1, Marcus Center, Milwaukee
Such a marvelous program -- Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Brahms' "A German Requiem"! Overwhelmed with Teutonic sadness, the requiem built slowly and magisterially until it roared over the top as baritone Luca Pisaroni's big assertive voice shook the rafters. The Stravinsky was equally a mindblower: The stripped-down orchestra had no violins or violas (!) and was outnumbered by the huge chorus. The configuration was so unexpected, the sound so novel and the score so striking that for the first time I was captivated by Stravinsky.

7. A star who isn't
Kenny Barron with the Monterrey Jazz Festival All Stars (Regina Carter, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone), April 29, Capitol Theater
Seeing Barron was on my bucket list. This great pianist doesn't have star status in the jazz world, but you can't find a more empathetic and thoughtful pianist. His duet recordings with Charlie Haden (Night and the City) and Stan Getz (People Time) are timeless meditations that will be listened to 100 years from now. On this night, he and the violinist Carter stole the show with a slow passionate duet on "Georgia." The interplay was exquisite, and once again Barron revealed himself as an extraordinary accompanist who also knows how to lead.

6. Trumpet revelations
Brian Lynch with the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band, Nov. 5, Union Theater
The venerable Palmieri presided over a clock-tight seven-piece band like a proud paterfamilias overseeing a family gathering. He didn't play enough keyboards for my taste, but when the genial salsa legend did step out he was the master of less-is-more soloing. The revelation turned out to his trumpeter Brian Lynch, who launched impossibly long solos that bounced off the ceiling and cut through the percussion maelstrom like bolts of lightning. Never hesitant, never false, Lynch (who long ago brightened the Milwaukee jazz scene) just ripped the place up. I didn't hear a better jazz soloist all year.

5. Veterans of domestic wars
Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, April 16, Stoughton Opera House
These beat-up veterans of broken love, too much drink and other deprecations of lives fully if not foolishly lived are wiser for the experience.

This made for a compelling evening of confessional songs. Wainwright, whose folk career dates to the late 1960s, summoned up so many tales from his tangled family life that the stage seemed crowded with spectral presences. (His ex-wife is the late Kate McGarrigle; their children are the singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright.) Thompson was every note the guitar legend, but his lyrics, often bitter and tinged with regret, registered just as loudly. This was an evening of stark, sunset-years music that was not at all honeyed by nostalgia.

4. Bombs away
Peter Brotzmann and Hamid Drake, April 22, Project Lodge
This sax-drums duet exploded like a bomb. I've never heard two unamplified musicians blow out the windows the way these free-jazz heroes did. In a year of seeing great drummers, the cyclonic Drake was the most stunning and innovative. The German-born Brotzmann's tenor solos were volcanic and beyond late Coltrane. At one point he grabbed a clarinet and blasted a single note for so long that Benny Goodman must have rolled over in his grave. Brotzmann-Drake played one set, but that was enough. I gotta hunch this show is headed for legend status.

3. A star is born
Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society, Sept. 19, Stoughton Opera House
Okay, she toured with Prince this winter, but that's not why Spalding is on the fast track. The little singer-bassist with the big bad Angela Davis hair is pushing limits like only a young artist can.

Backed by that novel instrumentation, Spalding revealed herself as a confident young performer daring an adventurous program of jazzy art songs. When she sang and scatted, Spalding sounded a bit like Jill Scott, other times a bit like Dawn Upshaw. Impressively, she carved out her own musical space somewhere between Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" and Eddie Jefferson's vocalese. It was all quite amazing.

2. Still persevering after all these years
Pat mAcdonald with Melaniejane, April 9, Harmony Bar
I was scribbling notes when the woman next to me leaned over and announced that she was mAcdonald's aunt and told me that his song "Highway 42" was about his brother dying in a car crash in Door County. Wow, that stopped me, because I thought that he was channeling some old Delta lament.

But that's Pat mAcdonald for you. Into his fifth decade of termite-art perseverance, Sturgeon Bay's finest (by way of Madison, Austin and Barcelona) has so assimilated Delta blues into his ageless tough-punk persona that you can't tell one from the other.

With his cigar-box slide guitar and amplified foot-stomp percussion, mAcdonald has fashioned a one-of-a-kind sound, and then Melaniejane squares it with her electric cello. mAcdonald's terse acid-etched lyrics sometimes recall the hard-drinking, life-at-the-edge short-story writer Raymond Carver. I'm tempted to call him Wisconsin's most significant contemporary musician, but mAcdonald's work is much bigger than that.

1. The American Piaf
Shelby Lynne, May 2, Turner Hall, Milwaukee
There is so much loneliness, isolation and sadness enveloping this great country singer. In the cozy cabaret confines of Turner Hall, Lynne was backed only by a bass player and a guitarist, and the drama of her songs was even in starker relief than usual. At the end, even the band walked away, and Lynne stood all alone singing a diva-level a cappella version of the great Dusty Springfield hit "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." She was stripped to the bone. Yet there remained the steely perseverance of the survivor who witnessed the murder-suicide of her mother and father as a teenager and lived to keep her tears to herself. I kept thinking: Shelby Lynne is the American Piaf. She is not to be missed.

* Clark was my buddy for 40 years, going back to our days in Kenosha. More often than not when I headed off to hear the music I've chronicled over the past five years in these annual reviews, Clark was at my side offering expert commentary. Read about Clark's exceptional life here.

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