By MELLISH // OMN National correspondent on what he saw last year...all year.
2016 A YEAR IN CONCERTS
When the show closes down, reputations build, the blur of seeing bands rewinds in fits and starts, onstage moments ricochet within the cranium walls, then a serene warmth gives way to a growing void and realization that it’s over, fading fast in the rearview mirror...
The end of the year, like a birthday that ends in a zero, engenders reflection on where we are versus where we intended to be, what it all means, and the never-ending search for/attempt to [fill in the blank].
Sometimes the problem stands of our own doing. Sometimes the basis for measurement is the problem. Instead of measuring accomplishment by love, money, job, or power, life over the past year looks best when measuring by the number of concerts seen and experienced. At least for me.
The music year that was 2016 live and in person -- where it counts, not alone on a laptop, spanned dozens of shows in the home base of DC, and cities like Asheville, NC, Austin, Brooklyn, Boston, and Chattanooga, TN, from small clubs to coliseums, locals to international musicians, new and unknown bands to Beatles.
A curated selection from this past year follows, since a full rundown would take too much time away from more important matters, like seeing more concerts.
One recurring battle cry: See Them Before They Die!
Or in the case of Lou Reed, after they die, with the ongoing NYC series Loser’s Lounge (né, Lousers Lounge in this case) – a collective of New York City performers founded in 1993 by former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Joe McGinty who devote a performance to canonize musicians from the '60s, 70's and ‘80’s, based out of the intimate Joe’s Pub in the venerable Public Theater in Greenwich Village.
True to their subject on the anniversary of his birth, the pre-show PA featured Metal Machine Music – Lou’s fuck you to his record company that fulfilled the end of a contract in the form of a double album’s worth of feedback and noise that he said calmed mental patients.
Fronted by a 9-piece band and two back-up singers, a parade of performers from a Nico dead ringer, only much funnier, Anna Copa Cabanna, delivered songs ranging from “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” to “Venus in Furs” (EVERYBODY seemed to be wearing black), “Waiting for the Man,” a bluesy chugging “New Age” that picked up midway and built to an orchestral full band finishing touch, “Sweet Jane” (of course), a show stopping version of “Ocean” dedicated to the memory of Holly Woodlawn -- a Warhol superstar who passed in December of 2015, and many others.
A return trip to NYC in the summer would even do Lou one much, much better…
I avoided April showers by going to Austin, and seeing N’Awlins funk incarnate, The Meters, at an outdoor venue. Keyboardist, bandleader, and legend Art Neville didn’t look long for this world with two men needing to help him to his seat. The overused moniker “Legend” applies here. He recorded the staple "Mardi Gras Mambo" for Chess Records … as a high schooler, and The Meters recorded as the backing band on numerous NOLA funk hits. If his legs largely failed, Neville’s hands still commanded the instrumental band’s sound. Rank this one high on the see them before they die list…
A few days later bluesman Lazy Lester played a set at Antone’s that one would expect from a harmonica player in his 80s. His place in history secured from hits in the 50s and 60s, the best I can say about this one is now I can say I’ve seen him.
Back in our nation’s dysfunctional capital on April 18th, The Feelies reunited temporarily on the occasion of their 40th anniversary as a band – not that they said a single word about it, with a show at the 9:30 Club, considered one the better mid-sized venues in the country. Once dubbed “The Best Underground Band in New York,” the trademark “Crazy Rhythms” propulsed herky jerky new wavy riffs off the 1979 debut LP of the same name. The rhythms slowed before building up surreptitiously on “Slipping (Into Something)” off of second record The Good Earth from 1986, which listed Peter Buck of R.E.M. as a co-producer. Highlights included the bouncing semi-single “Away” from 1988’s Only Life record, “Decide” off 1991’s major label debut Time for A Witness, the always fun Velvet Underground covers, and not one, not two, not three, but FOUR encores!
A quick trip to Chattanooga, TN and an unexpected, last second ticket from circumstance ended up in the historic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium built in the early 1920s to see Old Crow Medicine Show, with opener Brandi Carlile. Members of the Grand Ole Opry, the headliners carry on the tradition and musicianship of classic bluegrassy Americana roots music admirably.
Segue to a few weeks later, as if the very next record on the turntable, the Brian Jonestown Massacre injected another Velvets influenced set into the 9:30, though this one a much more hypnotic, darker, drone-drenched delivery. Anton Newcombe -- the famously moody lead singer, spoke openly of owning the rights to all of his music, unlike unnamed others who signed those rights away to The Man. Note, their 1996 record Take It from the Man! Also note another record from 1996, Thank God for Mental Illness, and the documentary film Dig that point to the obsessiveness and mood swings behind the recordings. Then listen to “Anenome” followed by “Straight Up and Down” and all is forgiven.
From the young roots of this country, to the ancient roots of the other side of the world, Yemen Blues headlined opening night of the DC Jewish Music Festival, and brought the house down – more like to their feet in a dancing frenzy. Leader and cultural polyglot Ravid Kahalani enthralled and sang in Yemenite Arabic, Hebrew, Moroccan and French Creole, as the band mixed in Middle Eastern, jazz, funk, soul, and African sounds, combined with centuries-old traditions of Yemenite Synagogue chants.
The motto of the band: "It doesn't matter where you come from, your language is my language."
Didn’t matter that few, if any, in the audience could understand the words.
Instrumentation included something six-sided with three strings, in contrast to the oud with more than 10 strings, horns, heavy organ, and multiple types of percussion.
Musical pioneer, producer, and bassist Bill Laswell, whose hundreds of credits include producing Herbie Hancock’s 1983 breakthrough “Rock-It” – the first hit to feature scratching, and records by Mick Jagger, Ramones, Iggy Pop, Yoko Ono, and many world music artists, produced Yemen Blues’ most recent LP, Insaniya.
A few weeks after that in June some 76-year-old guy named Ringo Starr did jumping jacks on stage when he wasn’t leading sing-a-longs in a sold out, historic mid-sized theatre.
Later in the summer some 74-year-old guy named Paul McCartney embodied the meaning of professionalism in a sold-out coliseum.
The highlight of the summer will never be repeated – an all-day, multi-media, multi- staged NYC send off to dearly departed favorite hometown son at Lincoln Center called The Bells: A Daylong Celebration of Lou Reed.
Starting the day off Lou’s passion since the early 1980s, Tai Chi, found form in his world renown teacher, Master Ren GuangYi, who led a mass lesson outside in the morning. Lou invited Master Ren to perform Tai Chi forms onstage with him over 100 times. Shortly afterward DRONES, an immersive sound installation created from six of Lou’s guitars and amps in a feedback loop started up for the next five hours inside across the street.
The first concert of the day fired up at 11:30 am in the bandshell with a house band that included former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Renaldo and drummer Steve Shelley. A rock camp for girls opened with a truly sweet and awful version of “Real Good Time Together.” The MC and producer/musician Don Fleming quipped “They actually have another gig, but were going to play ‘Waiting for My Mom.’”
Musician after musician rolled out to sing Lou, highlighted by the New York Dolls’ David Johansen singing “I Believe in Love,” Patti Smith guitarist (and the man responsible for the Nuggets psychedelic compilations) Lenny Kaye, who dedicated the song “I’m Set Free” by saying “Lou embodied all of the wonderful contradictions of this city,” Jon Spencer minus the Blues Explosion paying homage to “Venus in Furs” when he threw his guitar to the ground front center stage at the end of the song, ripped off his belt, and whipped it, several times, Yo La Tengo’s fuzzy rendition of “I Heard Her Call My Name,” then lead singer Ira Kaplan and others pounded out “Sister Ray” almost to the original album length 17:28.
The showstopper, though, strutted on stage one solid colored, body-painted, topless woman at a time from the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, in blue, red, purple, then pink, each in short black tights, w/ thigh high laced boots, giant jet black wigs, black, white, and blue eye makeup, and white ribbons, culminated by a fifth in yellow carrying a sign with the name of the song, Disco Mystic.
Meanwhile, Lou films played all day in a nearby Amphitheater, including concert films, and also the short documentary film he directed “Red Shirley,” about his 100-year old cousin who lived through World War I, fled Poland during World War II, toiled in sweatshops and became a labor activist over 47 years in New York City's garment district, and took part in a 1963 civil rights march.
An afternoon reading -- appropriately in the rain, of Lou’s lyrics featured actors Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Natasha Lyonne, Kim Cattrall, painter and Oscar nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel, author A.M. Homes, and poet Anne Waldman.
Avant-garde performance artist, composer, musician, inventor, film director, and Lou’s widow Laurie Anderson lead the night cap concert, with guests that included the vastly underappreciated John Zorn. A rolling series of musicians sang Lou’s “love songs.” Antony and the Johnsons lead singer – “Perfect Day,” John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) – “Turning Time Around,” Laurie – “Doing the Things We Want To,” David Johansen with guitarist Earl Slick (mid-70s Bowie and Lennon-Ono LPs) – “Oh Sweet Nothing,” Nona Hendryx – “Ride Sally Ride,” and several others before the closing group rendition of “Sweet Jane.”
All Lou Reed fanatics left spiritually uplifted, having bonded in communal Louness.
A summer sun almost blocked out by a sea of black clothes closed August with a reunited original line-up of Black Sabbath -- guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and singer Ozzy Osbourne, minus the drummer Bill Ward. The geezer(s) delivered this show and all summer, with the only quibble in this case being the size of the venue left one sometimes staring at the video screens rather than the stage.
Back to school time in September took me to the Somerville neighborhood in Boston – formerly known as Slummerville before becoming overly hip, and the 7th Annual Starlabfest, an appealingly ramshackle mini, two-stage festival set in a paved industrial warehouse area with free food (grilled corn, veggie burgers) for the cheap price of a ticket, old school video games set on free in a truck, a dunk tank, foozeball tables, vintage clothes, and best of all, a table of Boston Free Radio and SCAT TV. Okay, best of all was the makeshift ring with faux pro female wrestlers, the Boston League of Women Wrestlers, or BLOWW.
Pammy from Southie would wrestle anybody – actually anybody who signed a waiver form. Her Elvis wig cocked to one side, she chatted amiably when in between victims about her multiple ring personas.
Band highlights included Gym Shorts, whose female lead singer delivered the most muscular set backed by pounding drums, and hip hop duo STL GLD (Moe Pope and The Arcitype), while the lyric of the day went to Save Ends -- “My love is like a phone.”
A week later back in DC, an unassuming entrance by the headliner belied the gravitas and rock history in store, with the ghostly, rail thin spectre of Tom Verlaine and Television. Little affectation was offered, and none needed, to embellish classics from their masterpiece 1977 debut studio album Marquee Moon. A knowledgeable crowd sang along with “Prove It” and managed to crack a rare smile from Verlaine, who made a funny offhand comment after tuning a number of times in between songs – “Sorry about tuning, but this is the best AC we've ever played in.” Somebody in the crowd yelled out for "Fire Engine" - a 13th Floor Elevators' song Television’s known to play live that didn’t make it onto the first record. “Guiding Light,” “Elevation,” and an emotional version of the debut’s closer “Torn Curtain” stood out.
While the band played without the bookend of the influential two guitar interplay, Richard Lloyd, the ten minute and forty second epic title track closed the set, and lived up to high expectations as THE song everybody came to hear.
Verlaine and the band, including drummer Billy Ficca – also an original member of The Waitresses, and Fred Smith -- original bassist with Blondie, came back for an encore and ended with "Friction" meaning they played every song off of Marquee Moon. The noise, bending, pulling, and all but breaking of guitar strings sent the crowd into the night, as if to prove the point of the title.
If Black Sabbath seems macabre, then try Mac Sabbath. That’s right, Mac as in all of the old McDonald’s oversized, somewhat psychedelic larger than life characters that lived in the fictitious village of McDonaldland dating from the early 1970s … playing Sabbath songs with lyrics that send up fast food. Naturally, the lineup reads like this: Vocals - Ronald Osbourne, Guitar - Slayer MacCheeze, Bass – Grimalice, and Drums - The Catburglar. Evidently satire can keep even the power house lawyers from a global company at bay. The band’s manager claims he has never met the actual people behind the costumes. And, the L.A.-based band created a genre all their own -- Drive Thru Metal. Their hometown? In the band’s words: Legal reasons do not permit me to say, But it starts with an "M" and ends with a "land."
A jaunt down to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC coincided with Built to Spill’s tour stop at the fifteen year old 1,000 capacity mid-sized venue The Orange Peel Social aid and Pleasure Club. The introspective, long-form indie guitar explorations from space by the Boise-based Doug Martsch oddly have called Warner Bros. home for running on twenty years, long after the major label feeding frenzy of indie bands subsided. Yet, somehow Built to Spill continues on making exactly the kind of records you would expect and want. Highlights of the show included “Sidewalk” and “Three Years Ago Today.” Musically, the show felt like being in Martsch’s head, which is where he seemed to be the entire show as well – with no effort to connect with the audience. However, the actual audience made up for that quite a bit by virtue of some down home friendliness with the neighbors about five people deep from the center of the stage.
One of DC’s more accessible venues, Gypsy Sallys, hosted Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band and the real reason I went, the Supersuckers, evidently named for a porno novel. The trashy, full throttle, cheeky garage punk sung by lead sucker Eddie Spaghetti took a hiatus in 1997, when the band recorded a country album with Willie Nelson, but then came back to their calling of gutter rock. However, unknown to me they returned to the honky tonk in 2015 after Spaghetti battled throat cancer. So, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the rootsy, old school headliner meant that was the version of the band who showed up. The best part of the show … Spaghetti amiably channeling the band I knew by continually reminding the crowd of their status as the “Greatest Rock-N-Roll Band in the World.”
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood brought their traveling proto-hippy, latter day Grateful Deadesque rock jams to town on a Sunday in late November. The namesake lead singer known for The Black Crowes stood on a stage with a bunch of overgrown bearded guys with long hair, and an owl incense burner filling the air with hazy scents.
One of the band members sported the well-worn the t-shirt “Never Miss a Sunday Show,” with one theory behind the oft-used phrase being the band’s well-oiled at the end of a 3-show run, and branching out after the more party oriented weekend nights, and feeling more experimental with less people on a work night. This being DC on a Sunday night, the longish show unsurprisingly thinned out over time, especially after the band took a mid-set break to go get high.
A week later in my old neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the tiny, musician-friendly French-owned venue Barbés featured four acts, including Supermambo! A Vibes Tribute to Tito Puente. Despite being known for another instrument via The King of the Timbales moniker, native New Yorker Puente played vibes on early mambo recordings. Grammy-nominated Felipe Fournier, a Costa Rican percussionist & vibes player, who plays with Rubén Blades and classic salsa outfit Our Latin Thing, lead a group of international players from across Latin America.
Back in DC, an impromptu jaunt on a school night to a neighborhood venue with two stages of working bands on two floors during busy nights in search of the fabled Peruvian mid-1960s garage punk band Los Saicos (“The Psychos"), made for an unheralded last show of the year with the discovery the long lost band was in fact still lost. Multiple bands have been known to use the same name – look up Kaleidoscope, but wait … is it the U.S., UK, or the Latin American version?
The search for great music never ends…