POP MUSIC: Events turned out to be a bit ho-hum

Friday December 28, 2012

This is the fifth year-in-review piece I've written for this newspaper. Across those articles, I've looked back on events like the Low Anthem jamming off mobile phone feedback at Mission Bar and Tapas, Lauren Ambrose and the Leisure Class joyously tearing through swing standards and vintage-sounding originals in an overflowing Lion's Den, Wilco playing house (band) at Mass MoCA, Brad Mehldau dissecting

Nirvana at Tanglewood's Ozawa Hall, and Club Helsinki moving from Great Barrington to Hudson, N.Y., trading its famously cramped, ill-suited environs for a glorious palace of urban renewal.

I've called for Berkshire theaters to trust the out-of-town drawing power of slightly edgier artists who might not be the first choice of the venues' usual patrons. I've suggested to James Taylor that he take advantage of the adoring audiences and safe artistic space offered at Tanglewood to step outside his usual shtick and try something new.

In short, while the size of venues, proximity to larger markets, and, arguably, conservative booking practices leave the pop music world as a poorer cousin to the artistically significant goings-on in Berkshire theater, dance and classical music, there's still plenty happening here. Yet compared to recent history, 2012 still shapes up in my books as a bit of a ho-hum year.

Helsinki Hudson is firmly in its new golden age, Infinity Hall (just south in Norfolk, Conn.) has really hit its stride, and Northampton and Albany continue to offer choice selections among major acts who skip the ‘Shire. But when assembling my Top Ten local shows of the year, I reached outside Berkshire County proper for all but three selections.

There are other ways to review a year, but I'm a collector of moments, and a fan of lists. I didn't see every potentially notable show within our coverage area this year, but here are my personal favorites from my own show-going docket.

Top 10 Countdown

10. Christian McBride Trio at Ozawa Hall.

The headliner this night was Wyton Marsalis, but it was the opening act who offered a sometimes-thrilling journey through improvisational styles, highlighted by the innovations of pianist Christian Sands -- who slapped and plucked the strings of his piano when not wringing emotion from the keyboard. When the two bands mixed and matched throughout an up-tempo encore romp, it was one of the thrilling live highlights of the year.

9. Bill Frisell at Infinity Hall.

Moving from original compositions to re-inventions of well-worn tunes by the likes of the Carter Family and John Lennon, the guitarist -- in tandem with violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston -- authored a mesmerizing set that was sometimes spooky, often surprising and always engaging.

8. Matisyahu at Helsinki Hudson.

One of the great thrills of the year was the reggae artist's acoustic set, featuring plenty of beat-boxing, an accompanist on acoustic guitar, and help for a few numbers from Meshell Ndegeocello on electric bass. Warm-hearted, virtuosic and far less didactic than he's been in concert in the past, Matisyahu showed that the strength of his songwriting transcends the foggy funk of his full-band guise.

7. Thurston Moore at Helsinki Hudson.

It was worth the price of admission to see the avant-rock pioneer dressed in a blazer and narrow tie, as if popping in at the bar mitzvah of a hipster friend. Moore's all-acoustic group spun shimmering beauty and ear-bending cacophony into what might be called a new genre of chamber noise.

6. Chick Corea and Gary Burton at Ozawa Hall.

The Tanglewood Jazz Festival disappeared this year, but the venue compensated with two top-shelf shows in mid-season. Longtime collaborators Corea and Burton kicked off their latest tour here, sounding in tandem like one well-practiced musical mind. When the Harlem Quartet joined the action for the second set, we got an early glimpse at what's emerging as an exciting new project.

5. Bob Dylan at Mountain Park (Holyoke).

Live Dylan is an acquired taste, and few longtime observers think his current, guitar-heavy touring band is his best. But this crackling autumn show was a rager, such as they come for Mr. D, ranging from the intense swing of "Desolation Row" to the careening cowboy-rock of his more recent albums. Missing, inscrutably, was any sign of "Tempest," the masterpiece album released a few days after this concert.

4. Umphrey's McGee at Calvin Theatre (Northampton).

From a snarling, literal take on the Who's "Eminence Front" to a gorgeous improvisation in the midst of "In The Kitchen," this was like a sampler plate of the rising jamband's confident moves. Fair warning: see this group in small theaters, while you still can.

3. Rubblebucket at Pearl Street Ballroom (Northampton).

The Boston-spawned band plays NoHo on the reg, and the April date I caught was just one of its visits this year. Bouncy afro-pop, punk intensity and a tinge of psychedelia colored this sweaty, exhilarating excuse to pogo for a few hours.

2. Jane's Addiction at Palace Theatre (Albany, N.Y.).

These heroes of true-school alternative rock proved they're no nostalgia act, throughout a powerhouse affirmation spiked with Dave Navarro's shirtless rock god heroics on guitar and Perry Farrell's crooked-smiled affability and unmistakable voice. The vaguely sadomasochistic dancers and set pieces were just a bonus. This is what arena rock could, and should, be.

1. Bettye LaVette at the Colonial Theatre.

The soul-drenched vocalist has earned her late-blooming success after thousands of visits to smoke-filled clubs and third-circuit venues. Almost each breath from her mouth was a revelation, packing a profoundly gripping wallop for which I admit I was unprepared. As she snaked her way across the stage lip through the funky snarl of Lucinda Williams' "Joy," the woman was in charge and all we could do was bear witness.


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