Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best Concerts of 2015

2015 was another great year for live music in the Bay Area. In compiling this list, I noted that I gravitated towards intimate venues rather than sheds or big auditoriums and may need to get out and hear more Americana music next year.  These 10 picks are listed in chronological order, so no ranking is implied.

Phil Lesh and Friends. 1.2.15, 2/8/15. Terrapin Crossroads. In addition to all of the hoopla surrounding the Fare The Well shows that reunited the Core Four of the Grateful Dead, bassist Phil Lesh planned his own celebration of the band’s history by playing a series of shows at Terrapin Crossroads, each commemorating a year of the band’s history from 1965-81. I went to a number of these shows, but I think my favorite was the first, on the second day of the new year, which celebrated the band’s bar band roots.  Lesh, augmented by guitarists Stu Allan, Scott Law, and Ross James, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and drummer Cody Dickinson, played one long set that blended covers of the day (“Off the Hook,” Twist and Shout” with the Dead’s early garage band-influenced tunes like “Mindbender” and “The Only Time is Now.” James sang tunes like “I’m a Hog For You Baby” and “Caution.” The guitarists played era-appropriate instruments, and clearly put a lot of work into summoning up an authentic vintage sound for this fun trip back to the mid 1960s.  

A few weeks later, Lesh played one his improvisational “Telstar” sessions with a unique band comprising Lesh, Law, Dickinson, ALO guitarist Lebo, and Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz. The single 80 minute set meandered through themes from several Dead songs, but the most exciting parts occurred when the group abandoned those structures entirely, leading to some exciting interactions between Lesh, Molitz, and Lebo.

Christian McBride Trio. 2/20/15. Kuumbwa Jazz Center. I see bassist Christian McBride every chance I get, and this was the first time I had seen him with his trio, which is rounded out by pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Playing a set balancing standards and new compositions, the trio played with virtuosity and exuberance. Sands’ dazzling playing was a highlight, but Owens and McBride never dropped the beat, and the three worked together like a playfully well-oiled machine.

David Nelson and Eric Thompson. House Concert 5/3/15. After playing a number of shows as the core of the Black Mountain Jungle Boys, guitarists Nelson and Thompson, friends and collaborators since the early 1960s, performed a number of duo shows last year, including this memorable afternoon set in Los Altos.  The duo mostly drew on the traditional folk and bluegrass tunes that have been in both of their regular repertoires since their earliest performing careers, and regaled the enthusiastic audience with tales of their early days hanging out on the mid-Peninsula, playing with Jerry Garcia, and devouring Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. Just a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  

Marcus Miller. 8/24/15. Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Touring behind his latest album, Afrodesia, bassist and composer Marcus Miller and his splendid septet squeezed onto the relatively cozy Kuumbwa stage for a brilliant evening of world music-infused funk jazz. Drawing mostly from the new album, which explores the African and Caribbean roots of jazz, Miller and company blended catchy originals like the set opening “Highlife” with an extended version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.

Chick Corea Trio. 9.12.15. Miner Auditorium. This was the third of four concerts, each with a different configuration, that Chick Corea performed for SF Jazz as part of his 2015 residency in Miner Auditorium. The trio, comprising Corea on piano, McBride on standup bass, and Blade on drums, lived up to its pedigree as a jazz supergroup featuring three experienced bandleaders.

Jorma Kaukonen. 11/8/15. Kuumbwa Jazz Center. It’s always a treat to see Jorma, whether solo or with some configuration of Hot Tuna, but it was really special to see him in an intimate listening room like Kuumbwa. His set featured many of the tunes Kaukonen has been playing since his folk club days in the early 1960s, along with much of the core repertoire from his many years in Hot Tuna and a handful of newer songs that find the guitarist coming to terms with his stage in life. Kaukonen seems happy and content, and this warm, engaging concert was as close as I’ll ever get to hearing him play in his living room.

North Mississippi Allstars. 12/5/15. Terrapin Crossroads. Cody and Luther Dickinson have been playing regularly with Phil Lesh for the last couple of years, and this was the second time the duo played their own show at Lesh’s San Rafael clubhouse. The evening started with the two Dickinsons playing several extended and gorgeous improvisations on a pair of Les Pauls. Next, Cody assumed his usual position behind the drum kit and they were joined by new bassist Ron Johnson and guest keyboardist Jason Crosby for a few songs. The long first set ended with Lesh replacing Thompson for a 35 minute, all instrumental min-Telstar which went some strange and wonderful places, with Luther and Lesh egging one another further and further out of their comfort zones.

Charlie Hunter Trio. Kuumbwa Jazz Center 12/7/15. Charlie Hunter always returns to the Bay Area over the holidays, but this year, rather than doing his usual duo show with bay area percussionist Scott Amendola, he came with his New York trio which also includes drummer Bobby Previte and trombone player Curtis Fowlkes. What seemed like an odd instrumental lineup turned out to be an inspired combination. Fowlkes coaxed a mellow, almost trumpet-like tone out of his trombone during quiet passages and sparred playfully with Hunter’s soulful seven string guitar and Previte’s aggressive drumming.  

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. 12.12.15 Miner Auditorium, SF Jazz Center. Touring behind their recent joint release, Berkeley sax player Joshua Redman and New York jazz trio The Bad Plus played a delightfully chill set for SF Jazz as part of their four night run at the Miner Auditorium. Redman has really upped his instrumental game in the last couple of years and he has found a set of kindred spirits in the Bad Plus.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Best Books about Music – 2015

2015 has been a banner year for books about popular music, from autobiographies to photographic compendia to cultural histories. Here are ten books that I thought were among the year’s highlights. There were plenty of other good music books released this year. Some are on my reading list, notably Patti Smith’s second autobiography M Train, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and recent biographies of Charles Lloyd and John Mayall. Others, notably Dennis McNally’s amazing and erudite On Highway 61 and Herbie Hancock’s revealing autobiography Possibilities,  were disqualified because they came out in late 2014.

10. Willie Nelson. It’s a Long Story: My Life. Little Brown and Company. 408 Pp.
In recent years, Nelson has probably been recognized as much for his prodigious use of marijuana as his remarkable musical pedigree.  In his autobiography, Nelson traces his career from his early days as a songwriter in Nashville, through his successes as a mainstream country star in the sixties through his left-of-center detour into Outlaw country in the seventies and his subsequent Baptism as a cultural icon and a mainstay of the Farm Aid benefits. Nelson’s intelligence, his sense of humor, and his willingness to admit to his failures make this an unusually frank, illuminating, and entertaining read.

9.  Deke Leonard. Maximum Darkness: Man on the Road to Nowhere. Northdown Publishing, 281 Pp. This is the third in a trilogy of Man guitarist Deke Leonard’s witty, sometimes snarky guided tour through his long musical career.  The book picks up where its predecessor, Rhinos, Winos, and Lunatics left off, and details his career through the 1983 re-grouping of the Man Band following their 1976 breakup the present day. Leonard’s wry observations on the absurdities of the music business are good for many a laugh, and you do not have to have any familiarity with the Manband to find this an immensely entertaining read.

8. Peter  Richardson. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. St. Martin’s Press, 384 Pp.  I am well aware and unrepentant that half of the books on this list deal with the Grateful Dead. Celebrating their 50th Anniversary in 2015, the Dead were unexpected media darlings, and the subject of several excellent and very different books released in conjunction with their semicentenary celebration. I know most of the authors, but this does not discount the fact that each book was extremely well-conceived and filled a unique niche. First out of the chute was San Francisco State historian Peter Richardson’s No Simple Highway, which does an excellent job of placing the Dead within the historical and political contexts of the times, particularly during their nascent years in the 1960s and 1970s.

7. Bill Kreutzmann and Benjy Eisen. Deal: Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs With the Grateful Dead.  Although drummer Kreutzmann is not the first GD band member to publish an autobiography, Deal, which he co-wrote with journalist Benjy Eisen, offers a fresh perspective from one of the band’s founding members. Kreutzmann does not pull his punches, as he offers a frank and often sentimental look at his 30 years in the band. This is also the go-to source for those who want to know who in the band took which drugs at which times.

6. Kim Gordon. Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Dey Street Books 288 Pages.  Sonic Youth bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon’s memoir shows how she transitioned from a bohemian childhood in California through hippie and punk phases before emerging in 80s New York, almost by accident, as bassist for one of the most boldly experimental groups of the late 20th Century. Gordon also draws in her parallel careers in art and fashion design, and her observations (alluded to in the title) on being the sole woman in a men’s club of a rock band.   

5. David Browne. So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. De Capo Press 496 Pp. Rolling Stone writer Browne tells the Dead’s story from the vantage point of five particularly memorable days in the band’s history.  Browne’s almost cinematic narrative is informed by his significant access to band and family members during the writing of his book.

4. Elvis Costello.  Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.  Blue Rider Press. 688 Pp. Elvis Costello has touched more aspects of the musical spectrum than most musicians would dream of tackling. In this very entertaining and lengthy autobiography, Costello traces the convoluted path that led him from early days as a pub and then punk rocker through his subsequently convoluted career and his professional and personal encounters with such diverse characters as Nick Lowe, Bert Bacharach, Alan Toussaint, and his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall.

3.  Dennis McNally. Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews.   Black Dog and Leventhal. 240 Pp.  20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death, Grateful Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally compiled transcripts of five lengthy interviews with the guitarist from 1973 to the early 1990s. Garcia was a consummate rapper, and it is a delight to hear him holding forth on the pranksters, film, fine art, songwriting, and plenty of discussions of the Dead’s long strange trip. This book is also available in audio form for those who want to hear rather than read Garcia’s ruminations.

2.Peter Guralnick.  Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll. Little Brown and Company. 784 Pp.  Guralnick is probably best known for his hefty two volume biography of Elvis Presley, and his latest effort focuses on the singular career of Sam Phillips, who made the earliest recordings of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Carl Perkins at Sun Studios, his legendary Memphis recording facility. Guralnick’s weighty tome chronicles Phillips’ life in detail, from his start as a teen entrepreneur through his glory days in radio and at Sun, his wilderness years in the seventies and eighties and his comeback near the end of the century. When writing the Elvis books, Guralnick became a good friend of Phillips and his family, and thus he brings an insider's perspective to his depiction of the last years of this musical icon's wild and wooly life.  

1. Blair Jackson and David Gans. This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead.  Flatiron Books. 512 Pp.  This stands as my favorite book to date on the Dead, lovingly compiled by two writers who have spent their adult lives in the world of the Dead. Drawing on extensive interviews the pair and others have done with band members, crew, staff, and fans over the years, the book provides a warts-and-all look at this ungainly, yet surprisingly resilient and wildly popular cultural institution.