Sunday, January 16, 2011

Best Of 2010 - Best Live Music

Well, it's mid-January and I'm finally posting my best live music of 2010.  My "long list" became a "short list", at which point I remembered a few shows I'd forgotten about and had to rethink.  In the end, I gave up on having a neat, even number of shows on the list, and the order is very loose.  The best of the best is generally at the top, but don't take the order too seriously - I didn't.  At least from my perspective as a fan and listener, it was a great year for live music, and I think this list conveys that.

1. Solo shows
As far as list making conventions go, this is a total cop-out, a blatant attempt to squeeze in extra entries, and an arbitrary conglomeration, but I'm putting this group of shows at the top to point out what a great year it was for solo performances. I mentioned a few in my previous list, but here are six more (in alphabetical order) that helped make 2010 a year of brilliant loners and rugged individualists:

Marc-Andre Hamelin at Le Poisson Rouge
The only classical show here, Hamelin's LPR appearance had more in common with the other shows on this list than you might think: it was a club gig, a CD release "party", and unlike most classical piano recitals, Hamelin was performing his own compositions.  Hamelin left me wanting to hear more of him and resolving to hear more classical piano in general in 2011.

Brian Henneman Christmas Show at Iron Barley
Brian Henneman (of the Bottle Rockets) carried on his St. Louis holiday tradition with a set of songs (familiar favorites and rarities, new, old, and half-remembered) and stories, both of which he has in abundance.  The tagline of The Best Show on WFMU doubles as a good description of this night: Three Hours of Mirth, Music, and Mayhem.  There were no Christmas songs, but Henneman did give some gifts, ranging from vinyl rarities to cheap sunglasses, for some of those with the opportunity, good sense and taste to make the journey to deep South St. Louis on Christmas night. 

Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard

Matthew Shipp at the Blue Note
A straight-through, seemingly free-associative recital very much of a piece with his latest solo record, 4D, part of the Blue Note's credit-due Monday night "stuff we might not book on other nights" series.  Nobody gives the left side of the keyboard a workout quite like Shipp.  A brilliant mind thinking out loud through the piano.

Jeff Tweedy at Bowery Ballroom
The solo format gives Jeff Tweedy an opportunity to show how he's built and sustained such a large and devoted fanbase with Wilco - by writing lots of great songs and performing them well.  A simple formula that is not so simple to execute.  Tweedy has become a masterful solo performer, keeping the crowd in the palm of his hand and successfully taking songs familiar in their often densely arranged Wilco versions back to the way they were presumably written, by one man with an acoustic guitar.  Tweedy's use of effects was sparing, but effective, as when he used some combination of reverb and volume pedals to substitute for the sweeping pedal steel in "Wait Up" (from Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992).

David S. Ware in Park Slope

2. Reid Anderson/Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner/Nasheet Waits at Smalls
Tarbaby (Orrin Evans/Eric Revis/Logan Richardson/Nasheet Waits) at Jazz Gallery
Nasheet Waits was hands down the drummer of the year in my book.  I didn't hear all the records he played on this year, and certainly didn't catch all of his gigs (he's a busy man), but these two shows plus the universally praised Ten, Tarbaby's The End of Fear, and Waits' 2009 release Equality: Alive at MPI (which I only discovered in 2010) left me increasingly more impressed with his playing.  His deep connection with bassist Tarus Mateen is well-known, but he sounds great with Reid Anderson and Eric Revis, too.  Same goes for his playing with William Parker in Tony Malaby's Tamarindo, though I didn't hear them together until 2011.

3. Apex at Jazz Standard
The musicians in Apex are talented enough that they could sound good playing just about anything - standards, free improv, loosely sketched out "blowing tunes" - but that's not what they do.  Instead, they're working with a set of strong, distinctive compositions, many of them instantly memorable.  It was this combination of tremendous musicians fully engaged with strong material and each other that made this show a no-brainer Best Of.

4. Syl Johnson at Southpaw
An unforgettable performer.  Records are great.  I love records.  But records last, while people go away.  When you have the opportunity to get in the same room as a legend, grab that opportunity while you can.

5. World Saxophone Quartet & M'Boom at Birdland
My comments under Syl Johnson pretty much apply here too.  The opening "Hattie Wall" from this show was certainly a contender for my favorite single musical moment of the year.  The feeling it gave me is something you can't get from a recording.

6. The Dutchess & The Duke at Mercury Lounge
Little did I know it would be my last chance to see this duo, as they've apparently broken up (something I learned only after putting this show on the list)  If this really was their last NYC show, they left us with a beautiful memory.

7. Jens Lekman at the Green Building on Union 
I'm not sure if the new songs he played are quite up to the high standard set by Night Falls On Kortedala and internet single "The End of the World", but it's possible he'll have a whole new batch by the time he records his next album.  Lekman hinted at multiple releases in 2011 and we can only hope he follows through. After his previous tour featuring a large, all-female band clad in matching white outfits, Lekman went with a much simpler setup at the Green Building, using the acoustic guitar w/ a stand-up drummer format associated with Jonathan Richman, whose one true heir I believe Lekman to be.  Some of the tunes from Kortedala were supplemented with prerecorded backing tracks, with some even bringing a dance-y element to the show, and a saxophonist joined in for a couple songs near the end.  Despite these additions, the generally bare bones arrangements helped Lekman show off his chill-inducing vocal abilities.  The occasional goofiness puts you enough off guard to be cold-cocked by the power of his voice when he really cuts loose.  He also engineered some effective transitions between songs - best of all might've been the perfectly conceived, euphoric segue from "At The Department of Forgotten Songs" to "Black Cab" (both from You're So Silent, Jens, as good an introduction to Lekman as the similar early singles compilation Suburban Light is to the Clientele). 

8. Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Tony Malaby/Mark Turner at the Village Vanguard
Bill Frisell's Disfarmer Project at the New York Society for Ethical Culture
Paul Motian likes to mix it up, constantly trying different combinations of musicians, many of which are able to create magic under his leadership.  The two-for-one substitution of Tony Malaby and Mark Turner for Joe Lovano during the first week of the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio's annual Vanguard run was done for scheduling reasons rather than just to shuffle the deck (the trio is Motian's longest running group), but something new and exciting was created just the same. 

Bill Frisell likes to mix it up, too, working with a gradually expanding universe of top-notch and, like Frisell, cross-boundary players.  For the Disfarmer Project, a set of music to accompany the work of Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer, Frisell turned to musicians who have appeared with him on some of his more country/folk/roots-oriented projects (the Disfarmer group even played a little rockabilly).  Though I've seen Jenny Scheinman play several times (with Frisell and others), this was my first opportunity to see the modestly brilliant multi-instrumental steel-and-slide specialist Greg Leisz and stoic, consummate-pro-making-it-look-easy bassist Viktor Krauss in person.  Though these were the same musicians as on the fine Disfarmer record, the music, arranged as a sort of loose song cycle, came alive in person and in the company of the projected images in ways that it didn't in the studio versions. 

9. Henry Threadgill's ZOOID at Roulette & Jazz Gallery
If not for the Bridge On The River Kwai-style "hot box" that was The Stone for Bill Frisell's August workshop, Roulette (at least on the November night I saw Threadgill) would've taken the prize for Hottest Venue of 2010.  The excessive radiant heat was making me groggy, but the music kept snapping me back to attention, so that I experienced much of the show in a sort of half-consciousness, which is actually not a bad way to hear music that resists rational analysis (though there is clearly a system at work).  It's often said that no other music sounds like this, and as far as I can tell that's absolutely true.  I think an interesting comparison could be made with some of Ornette Coleman's more recent music, especially in the rhythms and the use of multiple bass instruments, but the total effect is still quite different.  I was more conscious for ZOOID at Jazz Gallery, but you might not know it from reading my rather odd post about the experience.  And check out this video of Threadgill in '88 - it ends in the middle of a solo, but Wow!

10. Belle & Sebastian w/ Teenage Fanclub on the Williamsburg waterfront

11. Bloodshot Records Showcase (Bottle Rockets, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, Cordero, Graham Parker) at Bell House
The Bottle Rockets are long time favorites that always deliver, and it was fun to finally get to see Graham Parker, but Scotland Yard Gospel Choir was the surprise of the night for me - I'd heard none of their music prior to this show but came away a fan.  Although it was released in 2009, SYGC's "Tear Down The Opera House" was one of the songs of 2010 for me.

12. Oliver Lake Organ Quartet at Jazz Gallery

13. War Paint w/ Family Band at Music Hall of Williamsburg
I would call Family Band's sound "dark pastoral psych-folk" or "music to listen to while cultivating an urban farm in Bushwick or foraging in a slightly sinister patch of woods".  I'd love to see a bill with them and Arbouretum.  Headliners War Paint are serious up-and-comers, tight, with chops and songs.  A not quite place-able mix of cool influences and some no-joke bottom end from a fun-to-watch, no-joke rhythm section.

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