Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best Concerts of 2013

I saw more than my share of live music in 2013, including some new groups. a number of one-off collaborations, and some outstanding perforances by the usual suspects.  Paring a year of music down to a dozen top events wasn’t easy, but here’s what I came up with, listed in chronological order.

Billy Cobham Spectrum 40 Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz.  1/31/13. Drummer Billy Cobham helped define jazz fusion in the early 1970s on seminal recordings by Miles Davis and as a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ground-breaking solo album Spectrum, Cobham brought a top drawer ensemble to Santa Cruz including guitarist Dean Brown, keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist  Ric Fierabracci and his old Mahavishnu bandmate Jerry Goodman on violin for a set of  intricate electric jazz that sounded fresh, with Cobham in top form as he moved freely from light percussion interludes to full arena bombast with his oversized kit.

Rolling Stones – HP Pavilion, San Jose  5/8/13. Few musical ensembles have persisted for five decades, and the Rolling Stones certainly can’t attribute their longevity to a clean and healthy lifestyle. Keith Richards was moving a bit slower than the last time I saw the band, but, they still managed to rock mightily at the local stop on their 50 and counting tour. Guest shots by Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty, a cameo by ex-Stone Mick Taylor, and deep cuts like “No Expectations” and “Paint It Black” were all highlights, but it was a special thrill to see our hometown student ensemble, the Choraliers, onstage with the Stones for their first encore, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

North Mississippi Allstars Duo (with Phil and Grahame Lesh) Terrapin Crossroads, San Rafael.  8/3/13. What was billed as a duo show by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson turned into a rowdy jam session when Terrapin proprietor Phil Lesh and his guitarist son Grahame joined the Dickinsons for this long, rootsy show that was equal parts blues-rock classics and familiar selections from the Grateful Dead songbook. The already furious pace of the show amped up further when Lesh’s new best friend, guitarist Anders Osborne, came onstage for a few numbers, ultimately bringing it home with a rowdy pairing of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Turn On Your Lovelight

Phil Lesh and Friends – Terrapin Crossroads 8/11/13. I spent a lot of evenings in San Rafael this year, but this matinee, a last-minute addition featuring the ensemble that played the previous two nights for the mixed-media Tree of Life event, was particularly memorable, one long set of joyous rock and roll. Lesh clearly has a special bond with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and his vocalist wife Theresa Williams, and has found another sympatico collaborator in New Orleans guitarist Anders Osborne.  Drummer Tony Leone grounded the ensemble, while jazz funk keyboardist John Medeski provided groove with an avant-garde edge.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Regina Carter– SF Jazz Center, May 12. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were guests of SF Jazz Artist in Residence Regina Carter on the final night of her May residency. The youthful Chocolate Drops have rediscovered African American string band music of the 19th through early 20th century and made its energy and classic compositions accessible to contemporary audiences. Although this was primarily the Chocolate Drops’ show, Carter joined them on violin for several tunes.

Rock Collection Unplugged – Moss House 9/22/13. House concerts are a wonderfully intimate way to see as well as hear great musicians up close and personal. This event featured a rare acoustic performance of the Bay Area’s rock collection, slimmed down for this event to a trio comprising guitarists Dan Lebowitz and Mark Karan and bassist Robin Sylvester.  Both Lebo and Karan are world class lead guitarists, but they also excelled at subtle, tasty rhythm and fills when the other guitarist was soloing. The show’s two long sets were a mixture of old favorites, new material, and the usual Dylan and Dead covers.

Christian McBride Trio – Kuumbwa October 7, 2013. Bassist McBride has played Kuumbwa many times, most recently earlier this year as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour ensemble, but he seems most in his element leading his own trio, featuring drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and pianist Christian Sands. Although McBride is hardly a veteran, his pairing with these two younger virtuosos definitely keeps him on his toes. The intimate but music-friendly confines of Kuumbwa always bring out the best in McBride, so this evening’s set of standards and material from the trio’s recent release was particularly inspired.

Brokedown in Bakersfield – Terrapin Crossroads  9/6/13. Southern California spawned its own unique blend of country music in the 1950s and 1960s, and this occasional ensemble does Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Gram Parsons proud.  Nicki and Tim Bluhm, who had done a stellar set in the same room a couple of weeks earlier with their other band, the Gramblers, took the bulk of the lead vocals. The band is rouded out by telecaster master Scott Law and three fourths of bay area jam-funk phenoms ALO (Dan Lebowitz on pedal steel and vocals, Steve Adams on bass, and drummer Dave Brogan.

Bill Frisell and Friends – SF Jazz Center  9/15/13. The SF Jazz Center chose wisely in selecting guitarist Bill Frisell as one of their initial artists in residence. Frisell wrapped up his September residency with a bit of a free for all featuring all of the artists that played with him individually on the previous three nights.  This wildly eclectic ensemble featured vocalist Pieta Haden, viola player Eyvind Kang, bassist Thomas Mayer, saxophonist Greg Osby, and drummer Rudy Royston. While the musicians filed on and off stage in a variety of combinations, cartoonist Jim Woodring drew a fantastic tableau on a screen behind the stage. 

Furthur – Greek Theatre, Berkeley  9/29/13. People have either loved or hated this touring vehicle for Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, but the group had a successful five year run that ends with a set of shows in the Mayan Riviera next month. Their final bay area show, at the Grateful Dead’s old stomping grounds in Berkeley, was something special – brilliantly played on a glorious Sunday afternoon that saw almost everyone up and dancing.

Joshua Redman Quartet – Kuumbwa 11/15/13. I’ve seen Berkeley saxophone player Redman in a variety of settings over the years, most recently as part of a duo with table player Zakir Hussain at the SF Jazz Center, but I have never seen him more energized or in better form than at this performance with his new quartet, comprising  pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Redman was leaning hard into his instrument from the first notes, pumping his leg continually as if to summon up more air from his lungs. The group’s first number lasted half an hour, and featured the dense ensemble playing that characterized the whole show.

David Nelson Band - Terrapin Crossroads 11/17/73. Although they only do a couple of tours a year because of other commitments (Nelson with the New Riders and guitarist Barry Sless,  bassist Pete Sears and drummer John Molo with Moonalice), the David Nelson Band's shows have captured much of the rhythmic magic that characterized the Grateful Dead in their prime. This Saturday show, the middle of a three night Txr stand, was pure fun from start (with Nelson pulling out Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." to the triple encore of "White Lighting (featuring a rare lead vocal turn by Molo), "Sisters and Brothers," and "Earl's Girls," A significant portion of the audience attends every show this band plays - and I can see why.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe Compass Records CD 4616 (2013)

For his third solo album, Punch Brothers banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny chose a daunting and somewhat unorthodox task – recreating one of the most revered bluegrass instrumental albums of all time. Fiddle player Kenny Baker, who played in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys on and off from 1957 to 1984 set out, in 1976,  to record an album of Monroe’s instrumentals with an all star band made up of current and former Monroe band members. At the last minute, Monroe himself showed up and played on the entire album. Baker’s fast, clean playing made him one of Monroe’s most recognizable instrumentalists, and Pikelny took up the challenge of translating his fluid, energetic playing to the banjo. Working with his own top flight bluegrass ensemble, comprising bassist Mike Bub, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Ronnie McCoury, and guitarist Bryan Sutton,  Pikelny’s interpretations of Monroe classics like “Monroe’s Hornpipe” and “Stoney Lonesome”  sound familiar yet completely fresh, with Baker’s lead lines transmuted through Pikelny’s melodic picking. Pikelny's task of converting Baker's flowing lines to the more percussive attack of his banjo took a lot of ingenuity, and worked better on rapid fire pieces like "Stoney Lonesome" than it did on Monroe's waltzes. Pikelny wisely provided plenty of solo space to his collaborators, individually or, as on the plaintive “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” with the fiddle and banjo in tandem.  In some ways, Duncan had the biggest challenge by not replicating Baker’s lines too closely, but his smooth, elegant phrasing reinvents rather than replicates Baker’s more edgy, athletic style. The album’s show stopper is the ensemble’s take on “Jerusalem Ridge,” which features one of Monroe’s most memorably tortuous melodies, played here at an appropriately breakneck tempo.  Ultimately, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe succeeds because of the strength of Monroe’s always memorable instrumental compositions and the energy and creativity of the young ensemble that both plays homage to and reinterprets some of the best work of their legendary forerunners.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
Little Sur CD LSR0004 (2013)
Mother Hips multi-instrumentalist Tim Bluhm and his singer-songwriter spouse Nicki Bluhm have performed together in a variety of contexts, on Nicki’s two solo albums, as an acoustic duo, and part of the California country tribute band Brokedown in Bakersfield, but they have seemingly hit the artistic and popular sweet spot with the Gramblers, who have moved quickly from relative obscurity to headliner status on the jam band circuit. The group’s initial, eponymous CD, is an apt showcase of the group’s strengths. The group’s blend of alt-country, rock, and soulful blues hinges on on solid, tuneful material most of which was penned by the two Bluhms, singly, as a duo, or in collaboration with bandmates and friends. Nicki Bluhm’s vocal range is impressive, sweet and soulful on tracks like the countrypolitan “Hey Stranger” and the Steve Poltz-penned soul ballad “Check Your Head,” but capable of a strong, sultry edge on the dramatic murder ballad “Ravenous” and the crunchy rocker “Little Too Late” that opens the set. The group’s instrumental chemistry is impeccable, with the solid rhythm section of Mike Curry’s powerful percussion and the smooth lines of ALO bassist Steve Adams meshing perfectly with Tim Bluhm’s keyboards and guitars, Deren Ney’s crisp, blues inflected leads, and Dave Mulligan’s rhythm guitar. Equally strong are the group’s vocals, with Nicki and Tim easily trading leads on “Always Come Back” and blending smoothly with Mulligan and Adams on “Deep Water.” With a warmly extroverted stage presence and a sly wit evidenced by the group’s viral “Van Sessions” youtube videos, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers seem poised for bigger things, and their debut album will definitely aid them in that cause. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jim Kweskin Jug Band 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, 7/6/13

A couple of weeks ago I attended my second 50th anniversary concert of the year – a reunion of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, and it was quite a contrast to the big arena Rolling Stones show I heard a couple of months earlier. One obvious difference was the audience, which was - well – mature, in contrast to the Stones crowd, which seemed peopled by twentysomething Facebook and Google employees. Kweskin band guitarist Geoff Muldaur had tongue halfway in cheek when he characterized the Freight audience as “A bunch of old folks and their parents.” Then there was the music – not an electric instrument in sight, and a repertoire that drew heavily on traditional tunes and things learned from the Harry Smith Anthology, which served as the Bible of the folk revival.

Where the Kweskin band held up against the Stones was in chops and energy. Both leader-guitarist Kweskin and  Geoff Muldaur sounded fine both instrumentally and vocally. The third original band member, vocalist and sometime kazoo player Maria Muldaur might not have been as lithe as she was in her heyday, but she sounded just great, and traded witty banter with her reunited colleagues. Genius banjo player Bill Keith, who essentially invented the complex melodic form of banjo playing, was an amiable but relatively inconspicuous presence for most of the show, playing the chords and simple runs he played with Kweskin early in his career. A fifth original member, fiddle player Richard Greene, was scheduled to tour, but was sidelined by illness at the last minute, so veteran bay area fiddler Paul Shelasky stepped in, and did a superb job of filling his shoes.  The rest of the band for this tour comprised relative youngsters: jug player Meredith Axlerod, bassist Sam Bevan, and the phenomenal steel guitar player Cindy Cashdollar who, along with Shelasky, provided the bulk of the melodic leads during the evening.

One person who was not replaced was original Kweskin washboard and washtub bass player Fritz Richmond, who passed away in 2005. Geoff Muldaur played Richmond’s wildly customized washboard on a few songs and the band shared numerous stories about this colorful and influential musician.  In two sets of music the band mostly revisited familiar material from their heyday, and the sold-out crowd ate up chestnuts like “I’m a Woman,” “Richmond Woman Blues,“  “Fishin’ Blues,” and “Minglewood Blues.”   Despite the new recruits and the decades long hiatus of the original members sharing a stage, the band was mostly tight and well rehearsed. Both Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur continue to impress with their solo and dual fingerpicking, and Keith work from his sideman role late in the show to show off his dazzling melodic technique on a rousing instrumental version of “Caravan.”  

Reunions like this can often be lackluster affairs, motivated by money more than artistic concerns. Although I hope the band members get a decent payday out of this brief tour, it was clear that the original jug band members, and their younger recruits, were genuinely enjoying one another’s company again, and bringing quite a bit of their old magic back in the process. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rolling Stones HP Pavilion, San Jose, CA 5/8/13

I wasn’t planning to see the Rolling Stones this time around, even though they were playing a few miles from my house. Tickets prices from 150-600 seemed exorbitant beyond the pale, and the ‘cheap’ seats sold out right away anyway, so I initially gave it a pass. A couple of weeks before the show, I learned from one of my colleagues that one of our university choral groups would be backing the Stones on one song, which piqued my interest. Then I watched as the top and middle tier tickets for the preceding show, at the Oakland Arena, gradually decreased in price, so I began monitoring availability for the San Jose show, and a similar pattern emerged. The day before the show, I went to the venue and asked for the best seat $150 could buy, which turned out to be in the 8th row of the lower section immediately facing the right side of the stage. Although it still pains to think of $150 tickets as reasonable, that price point worked for me, so I plunked down my card.

The next night, I got to the pavilion about 730, just as people were being let in for the 8 PM show. Getting inside, I learned that my 8th row seat was actually the first row, as the lower seats had been removed to allow for an ample pit between the stage and the seats. From that vantage point I was able to watch the rich and famous wander in and out of the ‘tongue pit,’ the general admission area situated between the stage and the circular runway that stretched well out into the audience.

The 8:00 starting time proved to be quite optimistic, and I watched some of the Stones ensemble musicians wandering around down in the pit and, watched as the light crew made their way up a precarious rope ladder to their posts on the lighting rig about 100 feet above the stage. Finally, near 9 PM, a video started playing with various celebrities sharing their earliest memories of the band A tape of martial drumming started playing as the musicians picked up their instruments and took their places onstage and, following an introduction, the group slammed into “Get Off My Cloud.” From the start, Mick Jagger was all over the stage, gesticulating with his hands and running from one side of the massive stage to another while singing. At 70, Jagger remains in remarkable shape, and his energy throughout the entire 2 ¼ hour show was a marvel to behold.

The band plowed through the hits, with Ron Wood picking up an electric sitar for “Paint it Black” and picking out country riffs on his lap steel for “No Expectations” and “”. The guest stars were well chosen for the bay area – John Fogerty trading vocals with Jagger on “It’s All Over Now” and Bonnie Raitt singing and playing some mean slide guitar on “Let it Bleed.  As on other stops on the tour, Mick Taylor came out for guitar turns on both “Midnight Rambler” and the final encore, “Satisfaction.” Chubby and weathered, Taylor shows his years much more plainly than his former bandmates, but his blazing, if sometimes overly busy, solos showed that his remarkable chops are still intact.

Charlie Watts remains one of popular music’s treasures, and his crisp drum work, as devoid of showmanship, melded nicely with the equally understated, but brilliant bass playing of Daryl Jones. Chuck Leavell, now a Stones veteran, knows just what is needed to embellish each Stones song with keyboard ornamentation and drive. The brass team of Bobby Keys and Tim Reis trotted onstage as needed, and added that extra punch to songs like “Bitch” and Keys inevitably added his signature solo to “Brown Sugar.”

Additional singers Lisa Fisher and Bernard Fowler mostly just added depth to Jagger’s vocals, although Fowler was given a chance to show her solo chops on a couple of tunes, notably through a very sexy duet with Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.”

With the exception of one newly recorded tune, the workmanlike rocker “One More Shot,” pretty much everything the Stones played was recorded between 1965 and 1980. From what I could see, the audience was pretty evenly split between those who were old enough to have seen them during those formative years and those who weren’t yet born then. 

It was an energetic show, with Jagger showing no signs of slowing down, although an inconspicuously placed lyrics teleprompter was clearly visible from my stageside vantage point.  The same can’t necessarily be said of Richards, who played with fire, but mostly hung out on the same place onstage, finally taking a relaxed lap around the tongue pit near the end of the set. 

The show’s high point for me was the first encore, when the San Jose State University Choraliers joined the band for a gorgeous version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The fact that the core four of the Rolling Stones are alive, together and performing 50 years after the group formed is remarkable. That they can still deliver world class rock and roll with conviction is nothing short of miraculous.