At the High Noon Saloon in July, Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones tore through the great songs of American mythos.
I missed the Milwaukee's Symphony Orchestra's Oct. 1 performance of John Adams' "Harmonielehre" because I put down the wrong date on our refrigerator calendar. That was painful because Adams is among my favorite contemporary composers, and MSO conductor Edo de Waart happened to be Adams' earliest champion back in the 1980s.
This blunder makes my memory of the Madison Symphony Orchestra's performance (Sept. 16, Overture Hall) of Adams' tribute to the Sept. 11 terrorism victims -- "On the Transmigration of Souls" -- even more special for my year in music. Critics question the musical value of the piece, but I found myself transfixed by its drama.
The piece created almost a religious sense of awe as the music swirled upward, a celestial choir sang and a tape quietly sounded the names of the victims. There were moments of cacophony and explosion and dead silence for long seconds after the piece ended, as if the audience was fearful of breaking the spell. When conductor John DeMain hurriedly left the stage to thunderous applause, I think I saw tears in his eyes.
But if I missed that Milwaukee Symphony concert, I saw upwards of 70 other shows in 2011. On the best nights, I would take in two concerts. Post-Medeski Martin & Wood (Nov. 6, Majestic Theatre), I heard the Fareed Haque Trio at Alchemy -- a nice contrast in jazz styles. The early showtime for Del McCoury's bluegrass show (March 4, Stoughton Opera House) got me to the High Noon Saloon only a few minutes late for the very different Portland Cello Project. For an even more startling contrast, I rushed from Michael Feinstein's salute to Frank Sinatra at Overture Hall (March 1) to the great sweaty climax of the Old 97's' raucous alt-rock show at the Barrymore Theatre.
Among the pleasures of the year:
- Medeski Martin & Wood's unexpected cover of "Hey Joe" brought a smile to my face. Ditto when Robbie Fulks and Kelly Hogan recreated the glorious Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris duet of "Love Hurts" (June 12, Waterfront Festival). And, the Drive-By Truckers get my thanks for covering Eddie Hinton, a great forgotten R&B singer/songwriter (Oct. 23, Majestic Theatre).
- Guy Clark was hoarse and painfully crippled in the knees, but this legendary Texas songwriter with the leonine bearing would not quit and won the night on sheer grit (Nov. 18, Stoughton Opera House ).
- Living dangerously and risking ruin were seductive ingredients in the early success of both Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, but their Madison stops this year (respectively, July 20, the Barrymore; and May 20, Overture Center's Capitol Theater) showed that the domestic tranquility of their recent marriages (Earle to singer Allison Moorer) are just new stops on their creative journeys.
- Watching the tightly coiled pianist Christopher Taylor play Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor reminded me of a cobra striking at its prey (April 15, Madison Symphony).
- So warm in her approach and deft in her choice of material, songstress Gerri DiMaggio couldn't pick better accompanists than bassist Nick Moran and pianist Paul Hastil (Dec. 1, Edgewater Hotel).
- On an ice-cold night in January, pop sax man Mars Williams (Billy Idol, Ministry, Psychedelic Furs) gets props for living a double life as an edgy free jazzer, playing to a small but appreciative audience (Jan. 7, Project Lodge).
- Finally, the perfectly sized Stoughton Opera House (470 capacity) continues to impress me for doing the most interesting booking of any concert venue in Dane County.
Disclosure time: My own musical tastes lean to alt-country and jazz, with periodic tourist stops in classical, opera, free jazz and really weird electronic stuff. (Will someone ever bring Lasswell or Eno to Madison?) But as an old guy, I'm stunningly ignorant of the youth music scene that Madison loves the most.
I'm also not a real critic. I can't read music, I can't play it, I can't carry a tune. But I get it viscerally, in the gut. This sixth annual rundown of my favorite regional shows is my imperfect effort to get those visceral responses into words.
15. An aural delight
Mikrokolektyw, Audio for the Arts, Sept. 18
This Polish duo of trumpeter Artur Majewski and drummer Kuba Suchar mixed electronic rhythm loops over their avant jazz improvisations. Majewski sometimes used a mute, Suchar did the polyrhythm thing and sometimes played tuned bells. In the tiny, acoustics-perfect studio, this was an aural delight. I kept thinking of Miles Davis and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Forty years after Bitches Brew and 20 years after his death, Miles's electronica -- so controversial -- continues to echo, mutate, recombine and inform a new generation of players.
14. If Björk were Polish
Ashia Grzesik with the Portland Cello Project, High Noon Saloon, March 4
You gotta love seven cellists augmented by a flutist and French horn player mixing it up at a rock club. Products of Portland's thriving alt-classical musical scene, the cello posse mixes 20th-century compositions with their own scoring of pop hits. I love it because it takes classical music out of the stuffy drawing room. On this night, cellist Grzesik, who was born in Silesia, took a brief star turn on a throaty cabaret tune that utterly captivated me. Her CDs reveals her as sort of a Polish-singing avant garde cabaret performer. Put her on the watch list.
13. Who was that pianist?
Fabian Almazan with the Terence Blanchard Quintet, Wisconsin Union Theater, Oct. 21
Blanchard's trumpet has always left me cold. He's too calculating, too glossy -- perhaps a byproduct of his film-scoring work. But this show had his young band, including a fill-in drummer, throwing down the gauntlet on tunes that echoed of mid-1960s Herbie and Wayne. The eye-opener was Almazan on piano. Did I like him? I'm not even sure. But the Havana-born talent clearly has a head full of ideas. Sometimes he played a blinding run of notes like Art Tatum, other times he took the angular Herbie Hancock approach. I wasn't always sure where he was going, but Almazan always got there. I bought his album, Personalities. As with Grzesik, I want to hear more.
12. He heard Sam Cooke
James Hunter, Majestic Theatre, Feb. 9
Such a small crowd -- less than 200 -- for such a good singer. Hunter spent years as the sweet-voiced response to Van Morrison's call. He's yet another Brit who gets American soul music. Hunter absorbed the honeyed come-on of Sam Cooke both stylistically and in his songwriting. (You'd swear that Hunter's tunes are taken from Cooke's hallowed canon, but Hunter wrote them.) His road-polished band was defined by the baritone and tenor saxes. This was a smooth show of timeless R&B, and the turnout was so dreadful you have to wonder if James Hunter will ever be booked in Madison again.
11. "Now top this"
Robbie Fulks backed by Robbie Gjersoe, the House of Righteous Music, Dec. 3
Kiki Schueler's house concerts are always a lean-forward event, but especially this one. No amps, no mikes. Just alt-country fave Fulks and guitar-ace Gjersoe trading licks behind Fulks' beguiling and often subversive songs. (No wonder he didn't last in Nashville.) "It's a polarizing song," Fulks announced deadpan as he launched into "God Isn't Real." But the real pleasure was watching their "now top this" picking prowess. Like pro tennis players, they rifled volleys between one another, faster and faster until they broke into big smiles. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a backstage jam session.
10. Life after Miles
John Scofield Quartet, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 10
These guys broke out of the chute like race horses at the Preakness. Drummer Greg Hutchinson was impossibly fast, while Scofield darted inside and out with a skittering laser beam guitar. This was New York-level jazz seldom heard in these parts. But after pinning you to your seat with their G-force attack, the band could play achingly beautiful ballads, like "My Foolish Heart." (And as quickly shift into broken funk rhythms out of John Medeski's playbook.) Scofield will forever be remembered as Miles Davis' guitarist in the 1980s. He joked about his career's downward trajectory, but Scofield's recent recordings and concerts like this reveal an artist imposingly good and creatively vital.
9. He knew Bill Monroe
Del McCoury Band, Stoughton Opera House, March 4
I'm not a bluegrass guy, but McCoury played with Bill Monroe, which is to say that McCoury was anointed by the man who was present at the music's birth. Here was a deep slab of American source music. Spit-polish neat in their suits, buffed boots and coifed hair, McCoury and his quartet were classic bluegrassers. They sang impossibly tight harmonies as they wove in and out of formation before the sole microphone for their furious improvisations and vocal solos. I kept thinking of Ellington and his well-oiled band keeping fresh the music they had been playing for 40 years. The surprise of the night (for me at least) was their bluegrass version of the Richard Thompson classic "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Then again, Del and the boys have toured with bluegrass-lover Steve Earle. (Psst, I have a bootleg copy of their Barrymore show.)
8. The glory of sacred steel
Campbell Brothers, Waterfront Festival, June 11-12
I was mowing the lawn when I heard what I thought was the explosive slide guitar of an alt-country band warming up a few blocks away. So I hurried over to the park only to be blown away at what I found: an African-American gospel band loaded with two lap steel players and a powerhouse drummer so good that James Brown might have kidnapped him. This band was a furious dynamo of virtuosity and emotion. With the steel players wailing away like Duane and Dickie, it's a miracle the stage didn't shake loose from the moorings and float off into the heavens. If that's what they mean by "sacred steel," I get it.
7. Pieces of eight
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, Wisconsin Union Theater, Sept. 3
I love string trios and quartets, but I had never seen this before -- a glorious string octet. Even a classical numbskull like me could hear the individual instruments weaving in and out of the music, almost jazz-like in their interplay. Minus a conductor, the musicians looked out of the corner of their eyes for the slightest of cues from one another, which made the music even more dynamic (for me, at least) than the full lush sound of a conductor-sculpted symphony. There were moments when I fantasized about being encircled by the octet, smack dab in the middle of Brahms, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn as their music swirled around me. Whew!
6. Sinatra interpreted (not impersonated)
Michael Feinstein, Overture Hall, April 1
I had my doubts that the storied musical archivist (of the Gershwins, among others) and famed New York cabaret performer could pull off a Sinatra salute, with a swinging 17-piece band, before 2,000 cheeseheads. Boy, was I wrong. The Jewish kid had impeccable tone, a smooth and romantic voice, and he nailed the Italian kid's "Luck Be A Lady" right out of the gate. This was a classy show. And it's notable that Feinstein never tried to impersonate Sinatra, never resorted to any Rat Pack schtick. He got it that Sinatra was all about great American songs. I'm not sure that "What Kind of Fool Am I?" qualifies for that canon, but Feinstein gave it a big smashing concert finish anyway.
5. Beauty and the beast
Jeremy Denk, Wisconsin Union Theater, April 21
This was a fascinating piano recital -- "Beauty and the Beast," as Denk described the program of Bach's stately Goldberg Variations and Charles Ives' dissonant, sometimes thunderous Sonata No. 1. Could you imagine Peter Serkin or Alfred Brendel starting a recital off by casually explaining the program's intent? Uh-uh. Denk's intimacy with the audience -- sort of a "we're on this trip together" attitude -- was beguiling. As promised, the Ives had everything plus the kitchen sink thrown in, but it was the Goldberg that got me. It seemed so much warmer, sweeter and melodic than the fierce, almost mechanistic version than Glenn Gould made famous. This was the most intriguing piano recital I've seen since Philip Glass played the old Isthmus Playhouse.
4. The South's Reconstruction
Tedeschi Trucks Band, Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, Sept. 2; and the North Mississippi Allstars, Majestic Theatre, Nov. 18
Derek Trucks' channeling of Duane and Trane never fails to thrill. The North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson's flashy slide guitar has its own hallowed antecedents. These shows found both men further down the road, so to speak. The Allstars -- with Luther's brother Cody on drums and Chris Chew on bass -- have backed away from their jam-band attack to dig into old-timey southern music. With wife Susan Tedeschi, Trucks has turned to 1960s Southern soul with an ambitious 11-piece outfit. Both shows signified not just musically but culturally. These bands have extended families of friends and players, both dig deep into their Southernness, and both are unselfconsciously multiracial in their outlook. This is not the south of Lynyrd Skynyrd's rebel yell, but of Louis Armstrong recording with Jimmie Rodgers in 1930. So when TTB finished with an exultant "I Want To Take You Higher," from Sly Stone's own multi-racial mash up, it seemed very deliberate. Take it from Jim Dickinson, the legendary Memphis producer and father of Cody and Luther, who once gave his own holy-man, quasi-Coltraneish benediction to the undertaking. "Let the music become the magic current / A path from the holy past to the unknowable future," he wrote. "Sing the phantom song," he exalted, "from original sin to Sunday Salvation." Yes, this is the soul music carried on by his sons and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
3. The new Beethoven
Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, June 10; also, Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Madison Symphony Orchestra conducted by John DeMain, Overture Hall, May 6
Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony is extraordinarily emotional music, swinging fearlessly from tearful elation to darkest existential despair, only to hang in the air for long moments of contemplation and restoration. With an oversized orchestra, huge chorus and a conductor displaying hurricane energy, you needed to buckle your seatbelt and grasp your armrest for both of these performances. The Milwaukee performance in particular left me drained and in the endorphin zone. I'm fascinated by Mahler. His ambitions are titantic. The critic Norman Lebrecht says we see him as the new Beethoven. Yup.
2. Songs from the American Wasteland
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones, High Noon Saloon, July 6
Could there be a better roadhouse band? Three long tall guys and a chick drummer pounding through the night like a howling, sparking locomotive. Not even a blown guitar amp could slow them for long. Alvin, the seen-it-all veteran of the Blasters, X and way too many cigarettes, has a flat recitative voice like Jack Webb in Dragnet narrating scenes from The Wasteland. These are great songs of American mythos -- Johnny Ace's death, Harlan County coal mining, the 1959 steel strike, and a certain woman in a dirty nightgown. Alvin's new album, Eleven Eleven, was my favorite of the year. I played that sucker over and over, because after 30-some years on the road, Dave Alvin is at the top of his game. (He returns March 2 to the High Noon.)
1. Old Man River
Allen Toussaint, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Jan. 14
The crowd broke into "Happy Birthday" when Toussaint announced he had turned 73. Like a handful of other living legends I've seen (Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard, Alberta Hunter at the Cookery, Stephane Grappelli at the old Capitol Theater), Toussaint came joyously alive on stage, the deprecations of age seemingly banished by the magic of his art. This New Orleans icon was surrounded by an all-star band, featuring traditionalist trumpeter Nicholas Payton and hipster sax player/clarinetist Don Byron performing the wondrous songs on the Joe Henry-produced Bright Mississippi. This was an elegiac performance ranging from Louis Armstrong's foundational "West End Blues," to Toussaint's own syncopated hit "Night People." A sly and encyclopedic pianist (he mixed in a few classical licks on a long solo), Toussaint was the embodiment of American musical history. I left the show elated, knowing how lucky I was. When Toussaint passes, an era will pass with him. That's why finally seeing Allen Toussaint was my most memorable concert of the year.