For someone utterly ignorant of the language of music, I hear an awful lot of music in the course of a year. More than 40 shows in 2007, an increase from 2006 when I first wrote a round-up of my favorite moments.
This year, my high point came at a long spring weekend in New York when I heard over the space of four nights: the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater, the Metropolitan Opera's "Turandot" at Lincoln Center, guitar wizard Les Paul at the Iridium jazz club, and the cabaret singer Barbara Carroll at the Oak Room.
I am a fool for the experience of live music. Closer to home, here are ten moments I won't forget from 2007.
- Most Inspired performer pairing: Alejandro Escovedo and Chuck Prophet, March 8, High Noon Saloon.
Prophet is the wastrel SoCal guitar hero of the alt burn-outs Green On Red. He's far more interesting post-rehab. There's so much more craft and precision in Prophet's work today. All this was on display in a stripped-down solo performance marked by Prophet's irony, wit and casual brilliance.
Escovedo, on the other hand, brought drama, pain and exquisite beauty to his songs. The Austin icon was absolutely riveting. I can't think of another musician with his gravitas. My advice: Never pass up an opportunity to see Alejandro Escovedo.
- Most Inspired Programming: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" and Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten," May 20, Marcus Center, Milwaukee.
Credit conductor Andreas Delfs for this marvelous pairing of two religious, death-driven pieces. The five-minute Part composition with its slow tolling bells, swelling strings and minimalist simplicity was an emotional tour de four. The Beethoven was glorious. More than 200 orchestra and chorus members crowded the stage for the presentation of Beethoven's master choral work. It was a heady, dazzling experience that reminded me that awe is the root of awesome.
- Best concert nobody saw: Marty Stuart, Nov. 29, Majestic Theater.
Okay, the Packers were playing the Cowboys, but, still, a turnout that barely topped 100 was pitiful. Even worse, about half of the audience seemed to be statuary trucked in from a Branson cemetery. But Stuart, a great southern roots musician, kicked it out as if he was playing before 3,000 at the Ryman: Country, gospel, bluegrass and rock all performed with a killer backbeat and even tighter backing harmonies.
Johnny Cash would have smiled; Pops Staples too. But the turnout was scandalously low. Some great country singers have died in this town in recent years (Rodney Crowell at St. Francis House, Shelby Lynne at Café Momartre, Jim Lauderdale at Momo). What's the problem? These genre-defying artists don't fit in the convenient Madison marketing niches of hipster-approved alt country or radio-friendly Nashville chart-toppers. It's our town's loss.
- Give us more!: Sonny Fortune, Feb. 17, Madison Center for Creative and Cultural Arts' Freedom Fest.
Outside of concert hall dates, touring jazz acts seldom visit Madison anymore. How pleasurable then to see this great sax player with a quartet featuring bassist Cecil McBee play in a casual, intimate setting. Fortune blew chorus after chorus of Coltrane-ish solos. It was glorious stuff. How sad that the MCAA didn't try more of these shows and how sadder yet that the MCCA has closed its doors.
- All praise to Kiki: Jon Dee Graham with The Silos (Josh Harty and Blake Thomas opening), March 25, Kiki's House of Righteous Music.
Kiki Schueler is an indispensable chronicler of the Madison music scene. Occasionally she one-ups herself by throwing a house concert in her basement for 30 or so fellow enthusiasts. This was an extraordinary show. Graham is another great Austin songwriter. He has a rumbling gravel-truck voice and a knack for grabbing a song by the throat.
I'm always amazed at how musicians like Graham can ramp up emotional intensity on command. As one song ended, he teetered on the precipice of love and loss and then with a wink asked Silos bassist Drew Glackin: "Which way should we go -- optimism or reality?"
With their big thumping rhythms and reverb-heavy guitar, The Silos were another glorious roots band in for the long haul. Graham, looking road-worn and wiser for the experience, ended the show with a song he said made Kiki cry once before -- "and I'll feel like a fucking failure if she doesn't cry this time."
Did I see a tear of happiness?
- Master at work: Paquito D'Rivera, Nov. 17, Union Theater.
I'm sure that a lot of the big crowd turned out thinking they'd be salsa dancing in the aisles. Not this night. D'Rivera knows his Latin music, but he's a serious jazzman, and he worked his band through New York tight charts that owed more to Dizzy than to dance floor moves.
D'Rivera's renown may be as a sax player, but I melted before his clarinet. I've never heard such a pure sweet tone. The best moment was a duet with his young pianist on a Cuban contradanza. How much of it was improv and how much of it was composed I don't know. I just wanted to hear more.
- Best cellos in town: (Tie) Lynn Harrell (Feb. 9) and Steven Isserlis (Oct. 19) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Overture Hall
I'm a sap for the cello. So somber, yet the barely restrained passion is palpable. Recordings never quite capture the notes that hang in the air in a live performance. Isserlis performed Schumann's romantic 'Cello Concerto" with practically a rock-star flamboyance; I was less taken with Harrell's choice of Victor Herbert's "Concerto No. 2," but still what a rich, satisfying tone Harrell has.
Did I mention that the sainted Escovedo sometimes tours with a cellist complementing his fiddle and pedal steel players?
- Not to be missed for any reason except major surgery or impending death: Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price backed by Ray Benson's Asleep At The Wheel, March 24, Riverside Theater, Milwaukee.
It doesn't get any better than this. Benson's young guitarist had the biggest pie-eating grin imaginable. Why shouldn't she? She was sharing the stage with country music gods. The revelation was the still-sturdy Ray Price, whose big baritone was in fine form as he nailed Willie's masterpieces of loss and longing, "Night Life' and 'Crazy."
An underappreciated crooner of the old school, Merle was a bit too smooth this night. But, oh, how the crowd roared when Willie strolled out with a big smile during "Okie From Muskogee" to sing the lines about marijuana and LSD. Willie remains that fascinating contradiction of outlaw, traditionalist and dharmic truth-seeker.
- The songwriters' mafia summit: Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark, Jan. 18, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee.
Just sitting around, trading songs, four stone-cold masters in a game of "Top this!" Clark, the least known, may have been the surprise winner. In 20 years, they'll be touring like Willie, Merle and Ray Price do today. Can someone please tell me why the south produces so many great songwriters, and why two-thirds of them are from Texas?
- Why we love Madison: Madisalsa, June 9, Isthmus Jazz Festival, Union Terrace
I stepped out of the Union Theater after the Madeleine Peyroux concert just as Madisalsa was taking the stage at about 10 on a warm summer night. What a scene! The lakefront terrace was packed with happy festival-goers, and a roar greeted the ten-piece band's bullet-fast horn arrangements and sinuous percussion.
Everybody was dancing, talking and just grooving beneath the moon. A knot of young people dissolved to make room for an older, well-dressed Hispanic couple unleashing spellbinding Dancing With The Stars moves. At that moment I thought to myself: In my next life I will salsa dance.
Disappointments, runners up and further observations
- When is the Madison Symphony going to make peace with post-World War II classical music? Unlike the more venturesome Milwaukee Symphony, our hometown band seldom programs the edgy. Reich, Adams, Gorecki and Glass have all composed provocative symphonic pieces that would push the envelope, but the MSO would rather give us the horror show of "Carmina Burana."
Case in point: I'm a huge fan of soprano Dawn Upshaw (her radiant Union Theater recital a few years back is one of my all-time favorites), but the MSO settled for a mere star turn by having her sing Canteloube's orchestrated peasant songs (Nov. 14). Why not Gorecki's memorable "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," the 1993 recording of which propelled Upshaw to international renown?
- I had high expectations for seeing the Allman Brothers during their annual two-week stand at the Beacon Theater, but the show (March 31) never caught fire and I found myself wondering if the storied improvisers had finally turned the corner towards oldies land and senescence.
A few months later I walked into the door at the Riverside in Milwaukee (Aug. 26) expecting little and -- pow! -- the band took off like a rocket fueled by the pyrotechnics of guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes and the monstrous percussion section. This was a night to remember, and I think the presence of Robert Randolph's gospel-infused jam band as the opening act raised the bar for the bro's performance.
- Speaking of Madeleine Peyroux, I was impressed. She has that bent-note Billie Holiday thing down and a good taste for material (Leonard Cohen). But her band was Norah Jones-lite and a drag. I'd love to see Peyroux with New York jazzers or, alternatively, going the full Paris route of her busking days with accordion, violin, clarinet and acoustic bass and guitar. Piaf and Holiday were soul sisters, after all.
- As dire as the Madison club scene is for touring jazz bands, I was impressed in 2007 at how inspired the local players are. I saw Tim Whalen's group working the Art Blakey book at Magnus, the Big Mouth Collective audaciously tackling the early Miles Davis at Magnus, Gerri DiMaggio and band dispensing standards at the Concourse, and the Madison Jazz Orchestra playing their big band charts at The Harmony. They're all keepers of the holy jazz flame and worthy of your time and cover charge.
- Am I the only person to think that Madison Opera's La Bohème (Nov. 9) didn't merit the rave reviews? The male leads seemed weak, and the set was claustrophobic. It didn't help that earlier I saw the Lyric Opera's "La Bohème" (Oct. 13). But truth is, the Madison Opera has gotten so good that it can go toe to toe with the Chicago big guys. Last year, I preferred our town's Rigoletto to the Lyric's Salome. But not this year.
- After I saw Ravi Shankar perform ragas at Overture (April 17), I was humbled by the realization that his music is even older than the blues.
- Old jazzers never fail to inspire me with their dedication to their art. The music truly transports them to another place where their years melt away for the pleasure of the moment. I saw sax giant Von Freeman packing Andy's in Chicago and the elegant Barbara Carroll giving a master's lesson in cabaret jazz at the princely Oak Room in New York. Both are octogenarians and not to be missed.
Even older (and wilder) is Les Paul, who holds court on Monday nights at the Iridium off Broadway. Still the consummate fretmaster, Paul is kid-like in his glee. The night I saw him he opened the stage to dirty-joke master Jackie Martling, a one-legged amateur country singer from Pennsylvania and a tap dancer who hoofed it to "Love For Sale." Paul had as much fun as the audience.
If only the rest of us could live the charmed life of a musician.