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.


  1. I believe the current NMA bassist is Ron Johnson.

  2. Thanks for the catch. I knew it was Johnson, but my fingers typed Thompson instead:)