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My favorite concerts of 2012, in Madison and beyond

Jon Dee Graham
Jon Dee Graham
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I was gobsmacked and awestruck. Like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was in the thrall of a greater power.

That was my reaction this fall (and it lingers to this day) to witnessing the nearly five-hour revival of Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Sept. 23). I'm close to speechless trying to explain Phillip Glass' operatic meditation on the birth of the nuclear age. There was nothing linear or logical to the plotting. Yet director Robert Wilson's exacting mixed-media staging exploded into catharsis in the way that great art always touches one's soul.

I've only had a handful of other shows that have left me as slack-jawed and in a state of wonder: When I was young, stoned and impressionable, this includes the Big Bang of Miles Davis' ferocious electric band at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1971), Bruce Springsteen's breakout at the Bottom Line (1975) and his famous "bomb scare" show at Milwaukee's Uptown Theater later that year. More recently, when I was much older, far more experienced and (almost) fit to be drug tested, it was the unexpected shows of dazzling vision that dropped me to my knees: The titanic free jazz duo of Peter Brotzmann and Hamid Drake at the Project Lodge (2010) and -- this is wildly different --the Lyric Opera's heroic staging of Beethoven's Enlightenment opera "Fidelio" (2005).

So you ask: Why discuss an avant-garde opera from New York City in a story that recaps my favorite local and regional shows? Here's why: My journey to Einstein is inextricably linked to the great programming of the old Madison Civic Center.

Let me praise former directors Ralph Sandler and (even) the disgraced Bob D'Angelo. I would have never fallen so hard for the great minimalist composer Glass if it hadn't been for their willingness to regularly book his shows: 1000 Airplanes On The Roof, The Monsters of Grace, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, La Belle Et La Bete. These performances are etched in memory as is the extraordinary solo piano concert that Glass gave in the old Isthmus Playhouse and a pre-concert lecture that revealed the composer to be as plainspoken as a Brooklyn cab driver as he described the artiest of music.

How I miss experiences like that in Overture Center for the Arts.

The fact that Overture, our magnificent white elephant, demands a steady diet of high-grossing Broadway roadshows at the expense of edgy low-grossing programming like Philip Glass is depressing and an enduring problem. But that's a story for another day.

I saw more than 60 shows this year, at venues in San Francisco, New York and many places in between. But this reprise -- my eighth annual for -- focuses on shows within a car drive of Madison. My tastes are catholic and open-minded, but caveat emptor: I'm a music enthusiast and not a critic. Full confession: I lack even an elementary understanding of music, can't play an instrument and couldn't carry a tune in a suitcase. But I love live music.

I loved how, on a hot night in Milwaukee (July 16, Riverside Theater), a superb Diana Krall encored with an impossibly fast version of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" that somehow segued into Lennon and McCartney's "Come Together." After ripping up the High Noon Saloon (May 21), Alejandro Escovedo's encore was equally improbable: Mott the Hoople's 40-year-old hit (penned by David Bowie) "All The Young Dudes," followed by encore after encore until Escovedo led the band off the stage to the middle of the club to sing one last acoustic number surrounded by the audience. This was darn near a religious moment.

Dan Hicks, who looked tired and jaded and a good candidate for an oldies tour, was anything but as he ran his retro swing band like a pack of high-speed quarter horses on a short track (March 30, Stoughton Opera House). This was lighthearted music seriously played. The Pines, who feature brothers Benson and Alex Ramsey, so perfectly hit the melancholic groove that I expected Chet Baker to rise from the grave to take a trumpet solo. (Stoughton Opera House, April 20). Their dad, the great slide player Bo Ramsey, once again showed himself to be the ideal accompanist as he backed singer Pieta Brown (Orton Park Festival, Aug. 25).

Other moments from 2012:

  1. I had given up on Bonnie Raitt after she phoned in a show at Overture in 2006. But the presence of the magnificent Mavis Staples as her opening act got me in the door again (Overture Hall, Aug. 20), and a buoyant Raitt, who's another killer slide guitar player, put some muscle and soul into this performance.

  2. I'm a fanboy for guitarist Derek Trucks, but it was the moanin' and shoutin' of Susan Tedeschi that led the charge of their 11-piece soul troupe, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, at Overture Hall (June 27). Critic favorite Aimee Mann pulled off the resurrection of the year when she rescued Harry Nilsson's "One (Is The Loneliest Number)" from the saccharine death grip of Three Dog Night's long-ago cover (Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 16).

  3. My favorite venues of the year were the Stoughton Opera House and Kiki Schueler's House of Righteous Music. Both Schueler, who throws house concerts, and the opera house's Bill Brehm and Christina Dollhausen do great niche programming in simpatico settings for music fans.

Disappointments were few. Most notably, violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, showing signs of physical wear and tear (or was it an off night?), had no fire in his Overture Hall recital (April 19). K.D. Lang so over-emoted and ginned up a big Overture crowd (May 15) that she seemed ready to hop a plane to Vegas to be the next Wayne Newton. (But her version of the blessed Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah" was extraordinary.) Karl Denson, the great jazz- funketeer, misfired in his effort to re-create the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album live onstage (Majestic Theatre, Feb. 14). His bombastic guitarist Anders Osborne was painful to hear. And I pre-apologize to all my banjo-loving friends by saying I hate the banjo as a lead instrument. Béla Fleck's playing with jazz pianist Marcus Roberts put my teeth on edge and ruined the night (Capitol Theater, Oct. 16).

Disappointment of a different sort was the poor turnout for the successful jazz-rap collaboration of Rob Dz and the New Breed (Brink Lounge, Dec. 2). This show should have connected to college kids instead of the small audience of mostly graybeards like me.

Finally, Matthew Grimm, a new folksinger in town who opened for the Deadstring Brothers at the House of Righteous Music (Nov. 9), gets props for the most striking lyric I heard all year: "Let's fuck like screaming banshees as the plane goes down."



There are worse ways to go.

In roughly ascending order, here are a dozen-plus notable moments in my 2012 musical year.

14. Don't cry for no hipster
Ben Sidran, Cardinal Bar, June 26, July 10, etc.
Sidran occupies a curious niche in Madison: Since the late '60s he's been one of the city's best-known musicians yet he is surprisingly unappreciated by the locals. Such is the harsh fate of a nationally known jazz player, album producer and music author choosing to stay in Madison when the coasts beckoned. The paradox was well evidenced at in his summer residency at the Cardinal Bar. The place was packed for the 5:30 shows, but the telling fact was that there was no cover and few of the patrons appeared to feed the tip jar for Sidran's backup band, the estimable New Breed.

Such cheapness is ingrained Madison behavior. Conditioned by so many free musical events, fans here are reluctant to pay even a five-spot to see a local musician. In this case, that local musician happens to be a club favorite in Paris and Madrid, not that it matters here. Sidran, for his part, was in great form, featuring new, sharply observed songs, especially the title cut from his just-released album, Don't Cry for No Hipster.

He has few rivals in nailing the zeitgeist, whether it was the Summer of Love or the Summer of the Great Recession. This cool but weary chronicler of life's follies and conceits would be a regular on the New York jazz and cabaret circuits had he chose to base himself in the Big Apple. His loyalty to Madison was great for those of us who turned out for his residency. But Sidran gives more than he gets from this town.

13. Just the two of them
Charlie Hunter with Scott Amendola, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 4
I love drummer duos. Suddenly the cat with the sticks isn't just anchoring the bottom but is shoulder to shoulder with the soloist and doing all sorts of weird rhythm things. This was heady stuff. Hunter, who plays a seven-string guitar, somehow thumbs the bass line while ripping off jagged guitar leads. Amendola was a percussion marvel, playing all over his kit, with an occasional foray into the tom-tom drum like a modern-day Gene Krupa. But what stole the night was Hunter picking a heartbreaking "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" while Amendola lightly applied the brushes like a painter shading a portrait. Hank would have loved it.

12. A star shines on Stoughton
Lizz Wright, Stoughton Opera House, Feb. 17
Togetherness, the one Wright album I heard before the show, came nowhere near capturing the commanding presence and deeply honeyed voice of this gospel-trained singer. Backed by an empathetic quartet (the fretless bass player defined the sound), Wright surprised me as a fully arrived artist. As striking as any singer I saw this year, Wright had the regal bearing of Nina Simone and the dramatic gestures of Judy Garland. This was a riveting performance. I underlined the big question in my notebook: "Why isn't she famous?"

11. Guitar hero returns home
Bryan Lee, Harmony Bar, Aug. 18
I'm swayed by the revisionist argument that the original blues singers weren't artists in that somewhat precious way we've viewed singer-songwriters in the past 40 years. They were, instead, entertainers whose job it was to bring gaiety for a few hours on Friday and Saturday nights for people whose lives might otherwise be pretty darn grim. Bryan Lee's "old-school blues," as he puts it, is a case in point.

The blues may be about broken hearts (and maybe clinical depression), but Lee had the Harmony rockin' and dancing to deep sweaty blues grooves the whole night long. I loved his Flying V guitar, the first I've seen since the legendary Lonnie Mack pulled up in a rusty old bus to play the Crystal Corner years ago.

A fixture for decades in the New Orleans club scene, "Blind Brian Lee," as some of us remember him, was a young guitar slinger from Two Rivers who made the Madison scene in the late '70s and early '80s. This show was something of a homecoming, with Lee dedicating the evening to the memory of Luther Allison and paying his respects to the long dead sax player Fat Richard Drake, whose old band poster hangs on the Harmony's wall.

The ghosts of blues greats were in the room, but I'm not too sure the audience cared. Folks were dancing too hard. This was a good night for Madison's best jook joint.

10. From Beyoncé to Coltrane
Tia Fuller Quartet, The Sett at Union South, Oct. 12
Given Fuller's prominence in Beyoncé's touring band, I was expecting jazz lite and a big groove from this saxophonist. Instead, Fuller revealed herself to be a hard charging, straight-ahead player who owed more to Coltrane than to Kenny G. Her somber, melancholic salute to post-Katrina New Orleans had the spiritual feel of A Love Supreme. Big ambitions, for sure, but the trio backing Fuller was every bit up to the challenge, including delivering a spot-on "Body and Soul."

This was a great success for the sponsors, the Madison Music Collective (note: I'm a member), who also showcased Fuller at several jazz education sessions across the city. The Union South gig drew a big, enthusiastic crowd that was young and multi-racial -- not the usual audience for Madison jazz. This is good for the music, but the skeptic in me also notes that there was no cover.

9. In search of inspiration
David Byrne and St. Vincent, Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, Sept. 16
You gotta love David Byrne's avant-retro decision to have the tuba player play the bass line, but that sort of thing no doubt was a draw for the restless Byrne to tour and record with a New Orleans-style brass band. This was a joyous show with his collaborator St. Vincent (Annie Clark) sharing center stage on vocals, guitar and songwriting.

Byrne has always been a shape-shifter following his muse to unexpected inspirations. Brass bands and a young indie artist clearly charged his creative batteries. Who would have thought that "Burning Down The House" would translate so well to a cacophonous horn arrangement? (I'm thinking Byrne did.)

8. On the road again
Fred Eaglesmith Traveling Show, Stoughton Opera House, April 13
I was a skeptic when I read about the cult status of this Canadian singer-songwriter, but midway through his fast-paced and occasionally volatile show I was ready to sign up as a "Fredhead" and climb onboard his vegetable-oil-powered school bus for a tour that took him through the northern U.S. up to the Yukon and back.

Sporting a stovepipe hat and striped sport coat, Eaglesmsith was a Ken Kesey figure minus the LSD. He mixed droll stories and sharp-edged songs. And like Kesey, he had the combustible mix of seemingly contradictory impulses. He praised Canadian socialism but denounced civil servants. He extolled green energy but sang "It's Time To Get A Gun," a darkly subversive song with a Nashville-friendly refrain: "That's what I'm thinkin'/I could afford one/If I did just a little less drinkin'." (How different that lyric strikes me in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook murders.)

Eaglesmith's traveling troupe is in the great sketchy tradition of carnivals at the edge of town and rock 'n' roll circuses. The Fabulous Ginn Sisters didn't wear tights and swing from trapezes, but they were the eye candy, for sure, and sang airtight harmonies and occasionally took a star turn on vocals. But it was eagle-eyed Fred, singing how the bus always broke down in Kansas, who was the captain of this trip.

7. The clash between science and religion
Madison Opera's Galileo Galilei, conducted by Kelly Kuo, Overture Center Playhouse, Jan. 27
Credit the hometown opera company for picking up the Philip Glass challenge. This was a very smart presentation of the Glass opera about the first great clash between science and religion: Galileo, long a favorite of church and royal rulers, finds himself late in life in anguish as the Roman Inquisition convicts him of heresy for arguing that the earth revolves the sun. The 2002 staging of Galileo Galilei that I saw in Chicago was much too literal -- an opulent re-creation of the 17th-century Tuscan court. The Madison Opera version, brilliantly conceived by director A. Scott Parry and production designer Barry Steele, was set in a black-and-white minimalist world seemingly floating in space.

Given the subtly shifting patterns of Glass' pulsating score, this was the perfect setting to experience the music. I pretty much drifted away in a mind-body melt. But it occurs to me now that the abstract setting for the opera was perfect for another reason: The issues illustrated by Galileo's plight are not subject to time and place. The forces of intellectual repression are always with us.

6. The lonely-woman blues
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Barrymore Theatre, Aug. 3
Her Brown University education seems incongruous for a country singer, but Nashville has always been about revelatory story telling, and hitting emotional chords in an audience -- all of which Chapin Carpenter does with precision. I've admired her work from afar, but as a lummox of a guy I've felt weird admitting I like a songwriter-singer who writes so intimately of the lonely-woman blues.

But if loss and loneliness are the yin of Chapin Carpenter's art, I'm also drawn to the yang of her work: the exuberant songs where she emerges as husky-voiced woman of experience who knows exactly what she wants when she sings -- no, orders -- "Shut up and kiss me!"/p>

A bit of a coward, I went to this show under the cover of my gal pals Nancy and Linda, who are both big fans. Nancy's observation is worth repeating: Unlike Dar Williams, she says, Chapin Carpenter's songs don't sound like they're drawn from the notes of a therapy session, but from a songwriter who knows something real about life. That's good enough for a lummox like me.

5. A river of blood runs through it
Elektra by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and directed by Sir David McVicar, Oct. 19
No wonder the Greek economy is doomed. These people have been grappling with the horrific issues of incest, regicide, matricide and general craziness ever since Sophocles wrote up the Trojan War like a David Chase screenplay. This completely over-the-top staging of the one-act Richard Strauss opera had a river of blood flowing on the stage, dueling sopranos blasting like howitzers over a thunderous orchestra, and costuming straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Things got so freakin' intense that I wouldn't have been surprised if Elektra (the stellar Christine Goerke) had pulled out a Kalashnikov to settle some scores with her screwed-up family.

I loved it! Not that I walked out of the Lyric humming Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, but if you want a lesson in the ruinous complications of revenge and moral transgression, Elektra is your ticket. (Alternatively, you could watch reruns of The Sopranos.)

4. Chronicler of the dark American mythos
Dave Alvin and The Guilty Ones, High Noon Saloon, March 2
For all his complaining how hard life on the road is, former Blaster Dave Alvin is at the absolute peak of his four-decade career. The noir-ish California cat who has one foot in vintage Los Angeles R&B and the other in classic Bakersfield country, has been crafting great roots albums and putting on unbeatable concerts in recent years. This pit stop at the High Noon was more of the same. His big-beat band anchored by drummer Lisa Pankratz locked into overdrive, smiled at one another, and took us on wicked and wild ride through Alvin's masterful songs of the dark American mythos of coal strikes, truck drivers, doomed musicians and sexy but broken women. By the time he was encoring, I thought, "Screw it!" and took out my earplugs to suck it all in. I really didn't care if my head would be ringing like a cheap telephone the next day. Dave Alvin was in town!

3. DeMain at his best
George Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythms by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, May 11
What a bust. This past fall I saw Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the money-driven effort to turn the great American opera into a lucrative Broadway show. Okay, the Philistines messed with the plot, but who even cared when the tinny, tiny amplified Broadway pit band couldn't pull off the glorious music?

Far better were the full orchestral settings surrounding the powerful operatic voices of soprano Laquita Mitchell and baritone Michael Redding in the Madison Symphony's glorious slab of Porgy and Bess selections offered in the second half of this Gershwin spectacular. DeMain, whose national reputation as a conductor will forever be linked to the Houston Opera's relaunching of the once controversial opera in 1976, was in all his glory.

I'm a sucker for George Gershwin. With Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams, he is the quintessential American songwriter and composer. All of them were outsiders raised in poverty who somehow gave a defining voice to singular American experiences. This was a spectacular concert -- for me, the high point the Madison Symphony's 2011-12 season.

2. Roof blown off Music Hall!
Ninety Miles Project, UW Music Hall, Nov. 29
I was one for two on big predictions this year. Stupidly, I said Tommy Thompson would easily beat Tammy Baldwin for U.S. senate. Wisely, I predicted the Ninety Miles Project would be the jazz show of the year. (Draw your own conclusions of my sagacity.)

These players -- an inspired mix of New York and Latin-rooted musicians -- blew the roof off Music Hall. I was eager to hear rising tenor player David Sanchez, but trumpeter Nicholas Payton and vibes-marimba player Stefon Harris were every bit his equal as they took star-turn solos against a churning adventuresome rhythm section. This was risky, bravado-filled music. All the better was the obvious joy the players had for performing to an appreciative full house in what is the most underrated music venue in Madison.

1. Raymond Carver crossed with Leonard Cohen
John Dee Graham, Project Lodge, Feb. 13; with the Hobart Brothers and Lil' Sis Hobart, Kiki's House of Righteous Music, April 10; and Kiki's House of Righteous Music, Dec. 14
Putting a twist on Eugene O'Neill, Graham's shows are often long night journeys into day. His songs of darkness and personal defeat are redeemed by jewel-like moments of hope and love. Looking like the guy who hung drywall in your living room, he announced in his gravel-truck voice at his December show, "I don't really trust you unless your life has burned to the ground twice and you started over. I've done it three times."

How he manages to travel that raw emotional road in song night after night is a wonder. That he can is why I would argue that, whether drinking or holding on to sobriety, Jon Dee Graham is among the greatest singer-songwriters working today.

From his home in Austin, where he's regarded as a legend (in the '80s, Graham played with Alejandro Escovedo in a revered punk band called the True Believers), he made four trips to Madison this year. He drew tiny crowds (less than 20 people at Project Lodge and 40 or so at house concerts sponsored by the irreplaceable Kiki Schueler). Twice he came as a solo act, once with his superb band (I missed it) and another time in a fascinating side project -- the Hobart Brothers and Lil' Sis Hobart, with Freedy Johnston and Susan Cowsill -- singing (mostly) songs about crap jobs and wasted youth.

Jon Dee killed in these shows. The guy is like Raymond Carver crossed with Leonard Cohen. His stories are unforgettable. His life lessons are learned the hard, dumb way. Graham is, as my friend Greg says, an imperfect soul making great music.

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