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.