I ended 2006 the same way I started it: Down at the Harmony Bar to hear alt-country troublemaker Robbie Fulks on New Year's Eve. I came late, about 11:15, and missed his smart-ass rundown of the year's top ten songs. But his breezy topicality and drop-dead sarcasm still had gas to burn as he sang a song celebrating the year in religious hatred, followed by his virtuosic white-boy rap of the famous people who died in 2006, and capped off with his brief nod to Ray Charles with his parody of "It's Dieing Time Again."
This was the sixth time I've seen Fulks since joining his cult at the 2005 Orton Park Festival, and I can't get enough of this too-smart-for-his-own-britches country boy.
I see a lot of music'at least 30 performances in 2006, beginning and ending with Mr. Fulks. Belatedly (I had to finish this week's cover story first), here are my ten favorite music memories of 2006.
- If I had to pick a favorite show, this is it: Alejandro Escovedo and Robbie Fulks, Sept. 9, High Noon Saloon.
Stripped of his copasetic band, Fulks as a solo opener was the complete package: awesome picker, bullet-sharp songwriter and forceful singer. Add in his manic energy, and he's a performer anyone but a Nashville record executive would love.
Escovedo is the Austin icon whose near-death experience has only added to his legend. His music defies easy characterization with its mix of prog rock, psychedelia, electronica and bittersweet Mexican ballads. And I certainly didn't see a more interesting instrumental configuration in 2006 than a hard-rock band that featured a violin, cello and pedal steel. This was an end-of-the-tour finale, and the show had that combination of looseness and control from a road-tested band.
- Too good to be believed: Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, July 27, Overture Hall.
Okay, Lovett is a fine singer, a clever and insightful songwriter, and a true son of Texas'but to put a 17-piece band on the road just dripping with great pros'Russ Kunkel, Francine Reed, Lee Sklar, Sweetpea Atkinson, to name a few'has to be financially insane and beyond the call of duty. But, wow, what a pleasure.
- All praise to The Enlightenment: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus, May 14, Marcus Center, Milwaukee.
Is there a more stirring piece of music in western civilization? Uh-uh. Never ever pass up an opportunity to see "Ode To Joy" performed.
- This guy should be a star: James Carter, April 15, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee.
His big, gorgeous saxophone filled this ornate opera house. Carter is one of jazz's most charismatic figures, with a commanding stage presence and awesome technique that spans the jazz divide from '30s swing to Coltrane's rivers of sound. Run don't walk to see him.
- Beating the odds: The Allman Brothers, Aug. 30, Rosemont Theater, Rosemont, Ill.
Almost 40 years into that blues jam thing, the Allmans have successfully retooled with the great twin guitar team of Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. Far more than an oldies band, the Allmans remain creatively vital and resemble, if anything, the Basie and Ellington bands that evolved over the decades but stayed true to their founding visions.
- The anointed one: Derek Trucks Band, Oct. 26, Berklee Hall, Boston.
Trucks had a busy summer, touring with the Allmans and Eric Clapton, and it's easy to see why: Trucks is the closest thing we have today in a guitar god. Utterly serene and Buddha-like in his stage persona, he soars in the stratosphere channeling Duane and Coltrane. This was the third time I've seen Trucks with his own band, and I came to a realization: He should move on and surround himself with jazzier and more experimental players.
- Happy woman makes great music: Lucinda Williams, March 6, Barrymore Theatre.
Just her and guitarist Doug Pettibone. As with Fulks, stripping the band away from Williams puts the spotlight on her impeccable songwriting and singing. She remains the sexy literary girl with twang. And Williams was downright chatty at this show'a side to her I didn't see in three previous crank-it-out-loud concerts.
- An R-rated opera to remember. The Madison Opera's Rigoletto, Nov. 17, Overture Hall.
This was my first Madison Opera performance, and I was blown away'first in realizing that, like the real critics say, Maestro John DeMain is a great conductor of opera and secondly in how I was utterly caught up in this luscious staging of Verdi's tale of passion and revenge, including some lustful onstage embraces that raised Overture's room temperature. The next night, I saw the Lyric Opera's staging of Salome in Chicago, with diva Deborah Voight performing "The Dance Of The Seven Veils," and I'll be darned: I found the Madison performance more compelling.
- Glad I live in Madison. Cris Plata & Extra Hot and Roscoe Mitchell, 8/26 and 8/27, Orton Park Festival, respectively.
So much great music for the taking! Where else can you see an international jazz artist like Mitchell (and his Chicago band) perform for free in a neighborhood park? Plata, I realized, is a quintessential American musician: A Mexican guy playing country music with a band featuring R&B legend Clyde Stubblefield and retro rocker Ernie Connor (with my Isthmus colleague Tom Dehlinger on pedal steel and Ann Plata on bass). I love it. American music is always bending around the corners and defiantly moshing the categories. I found myself thinking of that marvelous moment in August 1930 when jazzster Louie Armstrong backed up Jimmie Rogers, the father of country music, on his recording of "Blue Yodel #9." That's why we love America.
- Shhh! Master at work. Itzhak Perlman, May 16, The Pabst, Milwaukee.
I counted myself lucky to witness this great violinist in this marvelous theater. Yeah, I saw Perlman five months later at Overture, too. But the intimate Pabst is just perfect for this sort of rarified recital. And I've never seen a tougher audience, from the woman who glared at me for whispering to my daughter to the guy who radiated disgust and death vibes to the yahoos in the balcony who mistakenly applauded between movements.
- All praise to the diva. Denyce Graves with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 3, Overture Hall.
John DeMain's opera-world connection must explain why the MSO snared this A-List mezzo. Her excerpts from the Toni Morrison-inspired opera Margaret Garner gave me goose bumps. I saw Graves the year before in the Lyric's Carmen, and, wow, she couldn't have been more perfect for the role of a smoldering heroine.
- This guy deserves more renown. Kevin Mahogany, Aug. 23, Orpheum Theater.
Rain chased Jazz At Five indoors. No loss, because Mahogany, who has one of those big velvety Johnny Hartman-Arthur Prysock voices, is one of the best jazz singers around.
Disappointments and other observations.
- Sparkless in red. Bonnie Raitt, Aug. 23, Overture Hall. Yeah her voice is strong, her slide guitar is sharp as ever, and she looks marvelous. But this show was complacently competent and never kicked into overdrive. Raitt needs to shake up her band.
- The bus must have been idling in the parking lot. Delbert McClinton, July 17, Barrymore Theatre.
Nobody's a bigger fan than me of this Texas honky-tonker. (I passed up the opening of the Civic Center in 1980 to see his killer show at Headliners.) But on this night Delbert and band phoned it in.
- I still haven't sorted out this one out. Jim White and The Handsome Family, Feb. 10, Orpheum Stage Door.
A few years ago I saw White open for Lucinda Williams at the Pabst and was utterly fascinated by his southern-gothic, Carson-McCullers-meets-David-Lynch weirdness. His Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See album is a must-hear if only for the ethereal "Static On The Radio" with Aimee Mann. But this performance as a one-man band with a digital rhythm section left me wondering if White was more an eccentric goof than a great outsider artist. As for The Handsome Family, you'd like them if hipster DIYers playing old-timey music is your thing. I found them annoying.
- The show I wished I hadn't missed: Sheila Jordan, Sept. 6, Jazz At Five.
My god, she sang with Charlie Parker, and I missed her.
- Artists who don't sell enough tickets but promoters ought to bring back to town in 2007 because they're so damn good:
- Shelby Lynne.
- Philip Glass.
- Billy Joe Shaver.
- Kronos Quartet.
- Rodney Crowell.
- The festival I wish I wouldn't keep missing year after year: John and Rose Mary Harbison's Token Creek Festival.
I'm lazy, lazy, lazy. To think I might have heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a few years ago. This rivals the time I didn't get tickets to hear Bill Evans and Philly Joe Jones at Bunky's. Lesson: When they're dead, they're gone.