The mighty Mavis is a force of nature.
Maybe it was happenstance. Maybe it was the surge line of a big trend. Either way, 2014 was the Year of the Woman for the more than 60 concerts I saw.
That was no surprise with solo singers -- a traditional strong suit for women. I saw great ones: Cassandra Wilson at the Dakota in Minneapolis (May 19), Rosanne Cash at the Stoughton Opera House (Nov. 21), Mavis Staples at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18), Ruthie Foster at the Dakota (Oct. 21), Alexandra LoBianco in Madison Opera's Fidelio at Overture Hall (Nov. 23), and two more who are aspiring to greatness: Gretchen Parlato and Lizz Wright at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8).
But it was the chicks in the band who stood out. Historically, women sidemen (yup, that's the word) were treated as novelties, save for the classical world. Today, they can be the brains and the brawn in the band.
Drummer Lisa Pankratz powered the reunion of roots rockers Dave and Phil Alvin at the High Noon Saloon (July 25). The brilliant Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen led the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars at the Capitol Theatre (Mar. 28). Esperanza Spalding looked ecstatic playing bass with jazz giants Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (Feb. 15). Hill Country bluesman Luther Dickinson was backed by drummer Sharde Thomas and bassist Amy LaVere at the High Noon (Oct. 20). The oh-so-subtle Samantha Banks drummed for Ruthie Foster. Lap steel wizard Cindy Cashdollar backed up slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth at the Stoughton Opera House (Dec. 5). And the women-led Mosaic Project at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8) featured the formidable drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the rising alto sax player Tia Fuller, who may tour with Beyoncé but plays like Charlie Parker is whispering in her ear.
The boys in the band are increasingly girls. That's good news. I have to think it's changing band dynamics to the better in the same way that women managers in the workplace change the valence of team chemistry.
America's unhealed racial wounds were also on display in 2014. I felt such despair over the Ferguson debacle that I avoided most discussions of it. It all seems so hopeless. Musically, it was another story.
Some of the best music I heard on stage in 2014 was the product of artists burrowing deep into the American cultural core to reinterpret our common history. More often than not, they find white and black sounds coupled together to create a shared national music.
Jazz violinist Regina Carter explored the Library of Congress folklore collection to find the music that her Mississippi grandfather listened to, performing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18). Rosanne Cash's extraordinary recent work has highlighted the music of her dad Johnny's youth. Cassandra Wilson, whose parents were Mississippi educators, has made her own deep dives into regional culture. Luther Dickinson, co-founder of the North Mississippi Allstars, keeps digging deeper and deeper into the racially intertwined world of Hill Country Blues. Alt favorite Ruthie Foster's connection to the great gospel tradition is self-evident. Country artist Marty Stuart’s loving ties to the Staples Singers is character-defining; when Pops, the family patriarch, died, daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave Stuart his guitar to keep and to play, as he did at the Stoughton Opera House (Feb. 1).
"It was like being handed an instrument of light," Stuart told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
My touchstone for this comingling is one of the most fascinating records in American history: Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9," recorded in 1930 by the father of country music. But this isn't just country music, folks. This is standout classic blues, also known as "Standing On The Corner," and features a bouncy New Orleans trumpet solo by Louie Armstrong and a two-fisted piano accompaniment by Louie's wife, Lil Hardin.
This song is mind-blowing -- and not just for Rodgers' yodeling solo. A few years earlier he had played and sang in the foundational recordings of country music (the Bristol sessions), just as and Armstrong and Hardin played on the foundational recordings of jazz (the Hot Fives). Yet here they are -- white and black musicians -- recording together at a time of punitive Jim Crow laws and a music industry that followed a strict apartheid approach to marketing records ("hillbilly" was sold to poor whites and "race" music sold to blacks).
What did they talk about in the studio? How did they navigate the racial and gender chasms? Those answers are lost to history.
What we do know is that is the in the intimacy of the studio, in the moment of creation, the music was all freakin' one. This was the real America. We find the promise of social unity in our art even when our racialized politics exacerbates social disunity.
So down to business
I've be been writing this annual roundup for nine or so years now. I do it because I find it a writerly challenge to organize my thoughts on the musical year. If there is any value to these musings, it may be in their wide range. I'm a musical omnivore who loves both Puccinni's arias and alt-country icon Jon Dee Graham's laments. I appreciates sonic outlaw Bill Laswell's corpus as much as I do stately Duke Ellington's.
What I'm not is a critic. I'm totally ignorant of musical architecture. Your seven-year violin-playing daughter knows more than me. But I love the spells that live music casts. I treasure being in the moment of live performance.
This annual survey is based on concerts I saw within a drive of Madison, from Minneapolis to Chicago. (My assumption is that any true fan will gladly hop into the car in pursuit of a musical adventure.) The shows are noted in a roughly ascending order.
Soundtrack for despair, etc.
Zoe Keating, Majestic Theatre, Jan. 9
Do cellos ever hit a happy note? I don't think so. They always sound somber, contemplative, at the edge of existential despair. Not exactly the backdrop for carrying on at a raucous rock club. Undeterred, Zoe Keating's brave solo cello performance drew a rapt audience to this rock n' roll temple. She played it up in edgy fashion, amplifying her cello and mixing it with tape loops that ambient god Brian Eno might like.
I was totally drawn in. It didn't hurt that Keating was a striking young woman dressed in leather. But good performance almost always includes good presentation. I later talked to two cello-knowledgeable audience members who thought she was meh. Not me, I bought two of her albums (Into The Trees and One Cello X 16), and they became my essential zone-out music this year.
Ginger Baker meets Abass Dodoo, and all is good
Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion, Turner Hall, Milwaukee, June 19
Still alive? Yeah. One of the rock pantheon's more disagreeable figures still charts his own way. Fuck ya if you don't like it. Just like, at 74, Ginger Bakers smoked on stage despite being hobbled by emphysema. Tough. He's the bad-ass drummer who brawled with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in the legendary power trio Cream in the '60s. Even then there was something free and loose and Elvin-like in Baker's drumming that prodded Bruce and Clapton to the heights of improvisation.
No surprise Baker considers himself a jazzman at heart. And to hell with you if you expected him to play "White Room" and "I'm So Glad." You got Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" instead. Pee Wee Ellis, the legendary bandmate of James Brown and Van Morrison, handled the sax, but didn't stand out. What won the night was the interplay of Baker, who's lost a step over the years, and Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo. They might as well been one guy with four arms. They worked in and out of their rhythms with seamless understanding. Two guys, one mind.
Perhaps this alone makes Ginger Baker a happy man.
Sparks fly as Meyers meets Bates
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers performing Mason Bates' Violin Concerto, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, April 19
This was a double surprise. I was unfamiliar with both contemporary composer Mason Bates and violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who commissioned the concerto. She was a dynamo, dead serious, tackling this tricky atmospheric piece like a mountaineer climbing a peak. I don't think I've ever seen a violinist as physical as Meyers. She might have been cutting slabs of basalt with her bow. It was an exhausting performance and exhilarating. So much so that -- hard to believe -- Gershwin's "An American In Paris" sounded anti-climatic as the concert closer.
Word up: The Milwaukee Symphony's Jan. 16-17 program has Maestro Edo De Wart unveiling Bates' modernistic take on the birth of the digital age in "Garages of the Valley," a piece co-commissioned by the ambitious Milwaukeeans.
You'll hear his name again
Marquis Hill Blacktet, Brink Lounge, Feb. 9
This was topnotch jazz led by a young Chicago trumpeter, Marquis Hill, who is clearly going places. His tight, all-business quintet (these were young suit-and-tie cats) whipped through his arrangements with the nonchalance of A-List players. Alto saxist Chris McBride was joined at Hill's hip on the tricky ensemble passages. Vibes player Justin Thomas gave the band extra cachet. The music? Very '60s-ish. Tightly charted, racehorse fast even on the hairpin curves and reminiscent of Mingus and all the great New York jazz composers of that period. Did I say Hill looks destined for great things? Credit to the Madison Music Collective for bringing him to Madison. In November, Hill was named the winner of the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition. More honors are sure to follow.
The opener may have stolen the show
The Spring Quartet (Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, Leo Genovese), Gregory Porter, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Feb. 15
I did a double-take when I calculated that it was 43 years ago when I first saw Jack DeJohnette drum -- as a member of Miles Davis' controversial electric band that detonated a sonic explosion on stage at the Wisconsin Union Theater. A few audience members stalked out in disgust. DeJohnette was the polyrhythmic coil at the center of the maelstrom.
His sense of exploration has never ceased. This all-star quartet found DeJohnette with another tireless innovator, hornman Joe Lovano, upcoming pianist Leo Genovese and bass phenom Spalding, who is the rare jazz player to flirt with mainstream popularity. This was freewheeling jazz made by masters. Each had their moments in the spotlight. If I were to complain, I'd say the group had the feel of a side project without a defining core sound.
The opening act, jazz singer Gregory Porter, may have even stolen the show. An immensely pleasing presence on stage, Porter has made a Grammy-winning splash in the jazz world. Reminiscent of Kevin Mahogany, he has a big versatile voice with plenty of warmth and finesse. Not one for the blues, Porter has gospel joy that only adds to his appeal. Cue: "The 'In' Crowd."
This Don Juan is a sexual predator
Don Giovanni, by Mozart, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart, Marcus Center, Milwaukee, Sept. 16
I stumbled into the Milwaukee Symphony's opening program thinking it was performing excerpts of Don Giovanni. Instead it was the full opera breathtakingly staged. Take a bow, director James Darrah.
The genius of his staging was to raise the orchestra pit almost to the level of the stage so the audience got a full view of conductor Edo de Waart and his orchestra. Even better was Darrah's vision of a callous Lothario who needs women more than food to survive. There's little that is romantic in bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch's Don Giovanni. He is a conniving sexual predator destined for hell in the last act.
Darrah gave us a stark, shadowy bare stage save for steel chairs and six black towers. The cast was dressed in dark suits and dresses. Stripped of the costume frippery of 17th century Spain, the plot and Don Giovanni's disturbing pathology seem almost contemporary. I like opera (and orchestras) that takes chances.
Celebrating the Hill County sound
Luther Dixon and his trio, The High Noon, Oct. 20
Impulsively, I pulled off Willy Street and headed to the High Noon. I'm a huge fan of Luther Dickinson, who's a mainstay of the racially mixed north Mississippi/ north Alabama/ music culture and the son of Memphis studio legend Jim Dickinson. Screw that Isthmus story deadline!
I walked in the middle of acoustic bassist Amy LeVere singing a sultry "Wang Dang Doodle." Wow! This was chicken shack music, dialed back and raw. Dickinson, a great slide guitar player and a vital artist, has been on impressive journey that has taken from punk to rock to jam band to blues and now to Hill Country music. Backed by a low-amp trio, Dickinson let the music, not its volume, carry the night.
Much of the material came from Dickinson's 2014 album Rock n' Roll Blues, which was recorded old school -- live to eight-track tape. You gotta love a song about a struggling rock artist who hears God talking to him at the dog track. Loosely translated: Get some cowboy boots, white boy! And go country because Jesus is gonna burn the honkytonk down!
What sealed the night was the light-touch drummer Sharde Thomas stepping out from her kit to play the bamboo fife -- and then it hit me: Thomas was the granddaughter of Otha Turner, the renowned north Mississippi fife player who died at age 94 in 2003. This knocked me back.
Turner was the last living link to the old African-American drum and fife bands that sprang up in the south even before the blues had coalesced into a distinct music. Musicologists see a direct connection to west African music traditions. And here was Sharde Thomas carrying it on.
Such roots! It was so American. I should add that Luther Dickenson assembled the only album that Otha Turner ever released, and some of the songs were field recordings that his dad had made years earlier. These Hill people -- white and black -- stick together.
Worth the drive
Ruthie Foster, Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Minneapolis, Oct. 21
This was annoying. I had to drive to Minneapolis to see a great roots musician who almost never gets booked in our town. Austin-based Ruthie Foster is a knock-out gospel-inspired singer who knows how to give your chakras a good shaking. The spirit of Mavis is in her, which is all you need to know. Foster gives life to songs, all but slapping them on the butt and sending them back into the world born again.
Boy, she did this with the old Pete Seeger/Lee Hayes anthem "If I Had A Hammer." Foster slowed it down, put a big bass line on it, and damn if it didn't have a newly found ominous the-end-is-coming feel. Cause this woman got a hammer, and she got a bell, and she's singing out a warning. Change is coming, friend.
This is tricky stuff, tackling songs that already have definitive versions. Foster did it again. She remade a song that you would think could never be reimagined and not connected to the original artist: "Ring of Fire," the great June Carter/Merle Kilgore song of burning passion that Johnny Cash made famous. Foster slowed it down to a stealthy seduction, just about croons it, and for once you didn't think of Johnny panting after June.
Go see Ruthie Foster. Do it even if you have to leave town. Especially if she plays Minneapolis again. The Dakota is a great club. Good food, good sound. Madison has nothing that compares.
The new kids in town
Clocks In Motion, "Drumming" by Steve Reich, Promenade Hall, Nov. 8
What a marvelously ambitious program by a bright new Madison percussion group. This landmark minimalist piece (from 1970-71) is thoroughly mesmerizing. I saw it performed a few months earlier by Steve Reich himself at the Brooklyn Academy Music. (Phillip Glass shared the bill.) And the Madison kids, in the exuberant confidence of youth, nailed it!
"Drumming" is built on three or four musicians playing repetitions of simple musical phrases. First its bongo players, then marimba players, then the glockenspiels get a work out. A flutist and two female singers add to the bizarreness. In the last section, everybody is on stage. Magic happens in each grouping. The music seems to lock into your brain waves, and you're carried away in amazement at how the subtlest un-syncing of these repeated patterns -- by one musician slightly changing tempo -- animates the whole piece. It finally glided to an end at about the 80-minute mark -- and there was a moment of silence at the wonder of it all. Followed by a standing ovation.
To my untutored ears, Clocks in Motion is the most exciting addition to Madison's classical music scene since the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society debuted in 1992. How fitting that BDDS' impish co-founder Stephanie Jutt played flute in "Drumming".
A new Madison scenemaker
Mezzo-soprano Karen Olivo, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, Overture Hall, May 2; and Olivo in a cabaret performance at the Capitol Theater, Nov. 20
Karen Olivo, the rising young Broadway star who packed up to settle in Madison, is a potential game changer for this town's music scene. The early results are very encouraging.
Maestro John DeMain usually kicks out the jams (you could say) for the Madison Symphony's closing concert of the season, and 2013-14's was no different. He programmed an inspired mix of Broadway composers -- mostly Bernstein and Gershwin, a great pairing -- with three singers plus pianist Garrick Olsen. Olivo, who dueted with soprano Emily Birsan, blew the roof off the joint with "A Boy Like That" and "I Have A Love" from Bernstein's West Side Story.
Broadway schooled, Olivo grabs a song by its lapels and belts it out with conviction. That unrestrained commitment to the lyrics explains why she won Tony award for her Broadway work. You can question if that expansive approach translates to the disciplined passion of opera or to cabaret, where the best singers don't really sell the song as much as they claim its soul. But that's a quibble. Straddling these musical perches is a good place to be.
Olivo is such an outsized presence on stage that cabaret is a logical step in her career. At her Capitol Theater show, Olivo killed on the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?" -- a benchmark song for any serious cafe singer addressing the complexities of love. She also graciously surrounded herself with young singers and musicians from the UW community, treating them like professionals. The thought occurred to me that the UW would be smart to find a niche for Olivo more exalted than her current "associate lecturer" in the theater department.
People should get behind Karen Olivo. She's fast on her way to becoming an important Madison scenemaker.
The singer as historian
Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal, The Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 21
With two great albums behind her, The List and The River & The Thread, Rosanne Cash is at the peak of her powers. At age 59, she has a deep resonant voice that that wraps itself around a lyric like a second skin and brings it to life with a sureness and emotional depth that is powerful as it is effortless.
But of course artistry is never effortless. So much has to happen first. It's 10,000 hours behind a microphone. It's her dad Johnny Cash recommending archival songs. It's a broken marriage with the great songwriter Rodney Crowell. It's a good marriage with the producer and guitarist John Leventhal (who backed her at this show). It's Rodney and John writing a song with her for her new album. It's motherhood and kids.
And now, increasingly, it's Rosanne Cash's fascination with southern history. That was the root of almost all the songs she sang at this masterful show. Ken Tucker, the music writer, understood what Cash was doing on The River & The Thread: It's "the notion that music can be a repository for history, as well as a way to heal old wounds...."
Cash talked about the road trips she and Leventhal took through the south. How history came together with spooky proximity on the Mississippi Delta, she said -- the reputed grave of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, the site where 14-year-old Emmett Till was hung by racists in 1954 after he looked the "wrong way" at a white woman, even the Tallahatchie Bridge that inspired Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe."
"The past is never dead. It's not even past," Cash told the sell-out crowd, quoting the famous Faulkner line. Artists like Rosanne Cash help give the past meaning. They help fit together the broken pieces. And they usually do it looking for their own truth.
The American Dream gone real bad
James McMurtry, Stoughton Opera House, March 8
James McMurtry's angry and sometimes depressive songs of working class life had an even sharper edge than usual. This was a surprise because he was minus The Heartless Bastards, his bar-tested band that usually propels his songs with a take-no-prisoners jackhammer rhythm. Reimagined solo acoustic, McMurtry's songs unfolded like four-minute short stories. Revelations of human failings and crushing societal forces rule his dark universe.
McMurtry's devilish guitar playing, especially on a 12-string, launched the songs just fine. And it was time to face facts: McMurtry is a first rank songwriter, among the very best, and a solo show in this acoustic jewel of a venue turned into a stunning songwriter's master class.
Like Dave Alvin, McMurtry chronicle the dark side of the American Dream. Alvin though celebrates the noble losers, the guys who find dignity and moments of love in a dark, dark world. But not McMurtry. His is a world of bad shit. No more so than in his sweeping cinematic portrait of America's meth country in a song called "Choctaw Bingo."
This is the family reunion from hell, Oklahoma-style. The family patriarch cooks methamphetamines because he can't sell his moonshine. The men pack high-caliber pistols "made by bad-ass Hebrews" and shoot rifles with tracer bullets. The kids are lulled to sleep by the vodka in their cherry cokes. The narrator screws his second cousins two at a time. There is gunfire. There are fireworks. There are real estate rip-offs. "We're having us a time!" goes the mad chorus. "We're having us a time!"
Ron Rosenbaum, the great cultural historian, calls McMurtry a prophetic genius and says "Choctaw Bingo" captures America as "meth-and money-addicted, headed to self-destruction."
That is the hawk-line vision of James McMurtry. We're all tiny field mice about to be swept up and eaten by the raptors of American life. Even, if like me, you think that McMurtry's world is too dark and too hopeless, his brilliance cannot be denied.
What do you say to the parents of a murdered girl?
Dead Man Walking, Madison Opera, conducted by John DeMain, directed by Kathryn Smith, music by Jake Hegge, libretto by Terrence McNally, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, Overture Hall, April 25
Because opera began as a popular entertainment, the marvelous arias are often hoisted upon wretched plots worthy of TV sitcoms. Here was the exception. This powerhouse drama, which begins with a rape and two murders and ends with the outlaw responsible for the outrage finding his humanity before he's executed, knocked me back in my seat. This was cathartic art.
Michael Mayes as the square-jawed, self-absorbed killer filled the stage. He was simultaneously threatening, unrepentant and deeply wounded -- and finally Christ-like in his acceptance of guilt. But Daniela Mack as the conflicted Catholic nun who leads the killer to his peace even as she's racked by her own spiritual crisis is the key.
The parents of the slain girl confront her, saying she has no concept of what it's like to bury a child. "How come you don't comfort us?" they ask with a knife-like accusation. "How can you honestly believe this monster should live?" Sister Helen has no real answer. I have to ask: What could you say to the parents?
This is the tough stuff of memorable drama. I can't say that the musical score itself was memorable, but it always advanced the drama and at key moments several gospel-inspired arias precisely hit the right emotional note. The Madison Opera, which brought Sister Helen to Madison to speak about the death penalty, triumphed with Dead Man Walking.
The American Master
Cassandra Wilson, Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Minneapolis, May 20
Twenty years after her breakthrough album Blue Light 'Til, Dawn showed her mastery of popular music, Cassandra Wilson is arguably the reigning female jazz singer in the land. There was a time in American culture when that status, say, like Ella Fitzgerald's for so many decades, meant mainstream exposure (think of Ella's duets on national TV with Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong) and big concert tours that drew mom and dad for a rare night out. But those days are gone.
That says something about the jazz-free parameters of popular culture and the ugly economics of touring music, but nothing at all about Cassandra Wilson's abiding brilliance as a song interpreter. She's at the top of her game, Ray Charles-like in her ability to stamp her vision on to popular songs by artists like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and even the Monkees.
This was a powerful evening (I stayed for both shows). Her five piece band -- topnotch players all led by jazzmen Brandon Ross and Lonnie Plaxico and including Swiss harmonica phenom Gregoire Maret and Canadian roots musician Kevin Breit -- knew the value of silence and pauses and jagged notes to create Wilson's earthy slowed-down sound. Every word came alive as if she were whispering in your ear.
Cassandra Wilson is the best.
Hard to accept she hasn't played Madison in maybe a dozen years.
These are our roots
Mavis Staples, Regina Carter & Southern Comfort, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, April 19
Seeing Mavis Staples perform in her adopted home of Chicago before an adoring crowd, now that's a treat. Even at age 74, nobody mixes the carnal and the holy like Mavis. (Cue "I'll Take You There.") And no other artist, as a member of the Staple Singers, had such an intimate connection to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Pops' "Freedom Highway" -- written in 1965 to mark the historic Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches -- will be forever anthemic. When Mavis sang "I made up my mind, and I won’t turn around," she summed up the determination of a generation to right a profound wrong.
The mighty Mavis is a force of nature. But it was opening act, violinist Regina Carter and her four-piece band Southern Comfort, that moved me to tears. This was serious plunge into the roots of southern music by a jazz musician trying to understand the life of her grandfather as an African-American coal miner in Mississippi.
Never succumbing to the dead hand of archivalism, her band of improvisers pushed the boundaries while honoring the melody. A standout atmospheric guitarist, Marvin Sewell (a veteran of Cassandra Wilson's band) helped set the tone. So did the accordionist Will Holshouser, whose solos covered the map from New Orleans to Milwaukee to Appalachia. And there was Carter, a restless talent whose violin owed more to Stephane Grappelli than to Johnny Gimbel, guiding the vision.
Some of the folk melodies dating to slavery were heartbreakingly beautiful. The sort of simple motifs that Aaron Copland built his American symphonies around. Carter also looked to country music. Hank William's "Honky-Tonkin" was speeded up and became a jazz workout. Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," the source of an exquisite duet between the doomed Parsons and the young, angelic Emmylou Harris, was played as an instrumental, and it brought tears to my eyes.
This was my favorite concert of the year. Three hours celebrating America’s marvelously complex cultural history. And so radically different from the dispiriting story we hear in the news.
Not-so-good things from 2014
Tip jars at clubs
Life is hard enough for local musicians, but to expect them to play for tips at a cover-free club gig is insulting.
The staging of Madison Opera's Fidelio (Nov. 23, Overture Hall)
This powerful Beethoven opera of tragic love amidst the rise of the Enlightenment got a pedestrian, two-dimensional treatment by director Tara Faircloth. She played up the loverly soap opera. Lost was the powerful statement of Beethoven the political insurgent that I saw celebrated in the Lyric Opera's 2005 staging. It had a stark memorable scene at the climax where the growing light of a new day shines ever brighter on a vast dank prison complex as the doors spring open and the prisoners walk out. Freedom! This was a transcendent moment in the Chicago production... and a transient one in Madison. These were two radically different interpretations of the same opera, and the Madison version seemed thoroughly mundane.
The dreadful sound mix for Jason Isbell's shows at the Barrymore (Feb. 7) and the Majestic (June 13)
This former Drive-By Trucker recorded a breakthrough 2013 album Southeastern that revealed a mature songwriter grappling with life's fragile moments. But I'll be damned if the lyrics weren't swallowed up and lost in the howling rock n' roll mix at both venues.
Jazz fans failed to turn out for the Mosaic Project at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8) and for bass legend Eddie Gomez at the Brink Lounge (April 5)
Tiny crowds for both. Go figure. Eddie Gomez played with Bill Evans, for crying out loud. How could any jazz student or fan not turn out for a player who's part of jazz history? The woman-led Mosaic Project, brimming with great talent, deserved a big audience. It didn't happen.
It was weird that the Madison Symphony programmed a noisy movie organ workout (Jungen's Symphonie Condertante ) with the transcendent Mozart's Requiem (Overture Hall, April 4)
There was nothing simpatico in the two pieces. I saw an inspired companion piece in Florence: Arvo Pärt’s Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten.
The sucking banality of Shpongle threatened world peace (Majestic Theater, March 26)
Okay, I may be old and out of it, but I still like psychedelic trance music as much as the next guy. These beats didn't go anywhere. A sell-out crowd, but almost no one was dancing. You want a big dub bass that melts your brain? Bill Laswell has been playing it and producing mind-altering music for 30 years.
Other good things from 2014
Bass giant Richard Davis' duet with pianist Willie Pickens during the Isthmus Jazz Festival (June 21)
This free concert, which nearly filled the newly opened Shannon Hall, had an inescapable elegiac feel. Davis, who was a New York jazz legend even before he came to teach at UW-Madison in 1977, was showing all of his 84 years. But he still displayed impeccable touch and understanding on "Autumn Leaves," "Motherless Child," "Giant Steps" and the encore "Take The A Train." You couldn't ask for a better program. Davis and Pickens were two old pros luxuriating in the classics, and we were lucky to be witness to their greatness.
Walking into the Weary Traveler to find Catfish Stephenson singing "All of Me" (July 27)
The longtime busker has fashioned a life out playing country blues. But to hear him handle a standard (more than 2,000 recorded versions) with authority and charm was a small pleasure.
Stepping out of Taliesin's jewel of a theater after a Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society performance to see a perfect rainbow over the Wyoming Valley outside of Spring Green (June 22)
Frank Lloyd Wright couldn’t have planned it better himself: Mother Nature's own coda to a great concert of Piazzolla and Golijov music.
The Emperors of Wyoming taking the stage at the High Noon Saloon (Aug. 6)
Almost 30 years after Firetown burned briefly but brightly, Madison writer/musician Phil Davis returned triumphantly to the stage at the High Noon fronting this Butch Vig side project that featured Davis' resonant Americana songs. All the more remarkable: The band hadn't even played together in public before. Their new album was cobbled together via file exchanges and mixed by Vig and others. This was a sweet moment of vindication for Davis, who put years into the project.
The art of the improvisers suddenly coalescing at the Harmony Bar (June 14)
A world stew of jammers -- Tani Diakite, Andy Ewen, Hanah Jon Taylor, Tony Castaneda and others -- sputtered in the first set and then lifted off in the second set in a glorious cloud of swirling African/Latin/free jazz/blues glory.
Kiki Schueler's House of Righteous Music's continued glory as the best listening room in Madison
Since 2005, the irreplaceable Kiki has put on 150 or so house concerts in her cozy basement, which maxes out at about 50 attentive fans. My 2014 favorites included the intricate harmonies of Chicago's The Flat Five (April 25) and yet another emotional stunner by Jon Dee Graham (Dec. 13).
The aplomb in which Milwaukee chanteuse Robin Pluer sang gypsy jazz in French and English at the Brink Lounge (Feb. 14)
Coming from the Madison Symphony, I only heard three songs. But omigod, she was the real deal. Dressed in red, Pluer had the mystery, the style, the weariness -- hey, the dramatic evocation -- of a great cabaret singer. And then, to encore, she picked up her accordion and played Leonard's Cohen "Dance Me To The End Of Love." I would have paid the full cover just to hear Robyn Pluer sing that classic.
Tony Castañeda's Latin Jazz Band burning up the room despite the chaos
Chances are if you've attended a fundraiser or celebration of any sort over the last 25 or so years in Madison, Tony's band was front and center. Amid the hoopla and intense conversations, these cats -- Dave Stoler, Anders Svanoe, Henry Boehm and others -- lay down a ferocious Latin jazz groove even if much of the crowd is otherwise engaged. It was just this scene (a WORT fundraiser at the Cardinal Bar, Nov. 28) where it came to me: If Madison ever creates its own music hall of fame, Castañeda deserves first-round induction.