We used to complain in these pages about how few touring acts came through townacts that anyone wanted to see, anyway. But over the last decade, the city’s show-going opportunities have steadily improved, thanks to upstart and veteran promoters alike. And it seems like this year, there were more reasons than ever to get out of the house, whether the draw was a hugely hyped band-of-the-moment, a homegrown talent or an act that no one had ever heard of before. Bill Friskics-Warren, Jim Ridley, William Tyler and Ron Wynn write about 11 highlights of a year packed with great live shows:
Ass Ponys, The End Cincinnati’s beautiful losers had their 15 minutes of fame back in the mid-’90s, when their single “Little Bastard” became a fluke hit on MTV. Since then they’ve made three albums of luminous, Pere Ubu-inspired twang, and typically play their hearts out to a dozen or so people at their ever more infrequent gigs. The band’s Nov. 3 show at The End was no exception. Taking the stage after Kevin Gordonand after several dozen folks attending the Americana Music Association conference filed out of the clubthe Ponys treated the six or eight of us who were left to one guitar-charged anthem to futility after another. To close the show, they offered up the soaring “Butterfly,” a sweet-assed shout-out to everyone who’s ever felt like “a fifth wheel, fourth-class, third-string, second-rate kind of guy”indeed, who’s ever felt, as the band no doubt did that night, like “a pot-licked, limp-dicked butterfly.”
David Byrne, Ryman Auditorium An hour before his concert at the Ryman, the former Talking Heads frontman strapped on a backpack and shades, went for a stroll down Fifth Avenue and cheerfully waved hello to passers-by. He maintained that casual, expansive mood for more than two hours of undulating, orchestral grooves drawn from his new solo album, Look Into the Eyeball, and from the Heads’ still potent repertoire. If the Heads helped usher in the era of jam-band daBling in world music, Byrne reminded his audience that he transcended it by writing, y’know, songsthe best of which meld a wry, bemused wit to something approaching profundity. It helped that he was backed onstage by Austin’s Tosca String Quartet, which, like Byrne, proved capable of shapeshifting from Philly soul to Brazilian Tropicaliasometimes within the same song.
Eddy Clearwater, Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar Eddy Clearwater has always been a capable entertainer, underrated singer and accomplished guitarist. But he’d been trying to get another hit album for more than two decades. Last year’s Reservation Blues was the release that elevated him in the eyes of the national and international blues community. So when Clearwater came to Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in January, the change was evident. He was clearly in command and confident, playing with precision and ease, executing dazzling phrases and flashy licks. His singing was alternately mellow and fierce, and the whole show was a revelation for anyone who’d seen him during his ’80s heyday.
Dave Cloud taping for the BC, Springwater Cloud is a Nashville institution, either loved or misunderstood, and despite the sometimes ad hoc nature of his shows at Springwater, he still has the power to amaze. This August, when a film crew from the BC was in town to document “a night in Nashville,” Cloud and his band (Paul Booker on guitar and Matt Bach on drums, augmented by Matt Swanson on bass and Tony Crow on keys) put on arguably the most stellar rock show of the year. Whether they were grinding through garage-anthems-in-the-making like “Dracula’s Lair,” or Cloud was giving a passionate rendition of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” against some of Crow’s saccharine synth backing, it was a wonder to behold.
Departure Lounge, Slow Bar Why hasn’t East Nashville’s Slow Bar faded, like so many flash-in-the-pan nightspots? Because it’s the rare Nashville venue that people want to visit even when nothing’s happening. And that’s because proprietors Dave Gehrke and Mike Grimes make it possible for anything to happennever more fruitfully than during Departure Lounge’s free-flowing fortnightly shows over the summer. Generous and informal, the relocated British band were heavy on recontextualized covers and special guests, yet light on cluBy self-congratulation and smirking ironyeven when lead singer Tim Keegan was offering poker-faced, stripped-down renditions of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” and The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” A great song is a great song, Keegan’s approach said, and the sharing of the spotlight with members of Venus Hum, Kim’s Fable, Fleming & John and other local acts did much to further a sense of community within Nashville’s club scene. As has the Slow Bar itself.
Japancakes/The Glands, Slow Bar Stunned by the capacity-crowd turnout for two relatively obscure Athens, Ga., bandson a weeknight, no lessGlands singer-guitarist-songwriter Russ Shapiro said, “We don’t get this kind of reception back home.” Isn’t that what Nashville bands usually say in Athens? The bands couldn’t have been more deservingJapancakes for their sheets of shifting sound, The Glands for their taut, torrid Stones-cutting. The Slow Bar show with Badly Drawn Boy (who reportedly upended a fifth of something before singing his first note) may have gotten more advance notoriety, but this was the show people were still talking about months later.
Donna McElroy, Cafe 123 In the late ’80s, former Nashvillian McElroy appeared poised to win acclaim and success as a jazz vocalist. But despite her wondrous voice, she couldn’t parlay a self-titled Warner Bros. album to bigger things, and she eventually left the city to become a faculty instructor at Berklee School of Music in Boston. McElroy returned to Nashville this past June to a packed house at Cafe 123 and demonstrated in three stirring sets that she’s more exciting and skilled than ever. Doing everything from straight jazz standards to scat workouts and vibrant ballads, she thrilled everyone who was so disappointed to see her leave years ago.
Buddy and Julie Miller, 12th & Porter From their shimmering harmonies, to pal Emmylou Harris lending her numinous soprano to a song or two, to Buddy hacking off fat, dirty guitar figures like the second coming of Pops Staples, the Millers’ rare club shows are always rife with epiphanies. But at 12th & Porter in late September, with a cloud of witnesses pressed in around them as they lit one beacon after another to a world gone horribly wrong, the couple might as well have been leading a prayer vigil. That is, until midway through their three-song encore, when Buddy, declaiming like High John the Conqueror, squeezed every drop of libidinous sap out of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” reminding us as well of the salutary properties of sexual healing.
The Strokes, 328 Performance Hall How often does Nashville get to see an ascending national act at the peak of cult fanaticism? Well, we didn’t get Liz Phair circa Exile From Guyville, or Belle & Sebastian circa If You’re Feeling Sinister. But we did get The Strokes circa The Strokes, and in November a sold-out crowd waited 50 minutes in line to see their 40-minute set. The only disappointment was that frontman Julian Casablancas was more mane-tossing Jim Morrison poseur than assaultive Iggy Pop hooligan, which took some of the edge off the band’s fearsome tightness. Otherwise, this was the rare intersection of hype, attitude and accomplishment, with a sea of boBing heads, craning necks and jutting elbows surging to post-punk piledrivers like “Last Night” and “Modern Age.” Will they be around in five years? Probably not. Which is why you should Be Here Now, so that watching them squander their promise will mean something.
The Twenty-Eights/Collin Wade Monk, 12th & Porter I probably shouldn’t be writing about Monk: He’s a friend, and more than a decade ago, we wrote some songs together. But in keeping my mouth shut about him all these years, I dodged one of the main requirements of my job: to stand up for talent. So it was a thrill to see him take the stage solo at 12th & Porter, after several years without performing, and blaze through a set of raw, frankly carnal songs with ferocity a tremor away from hysteria. It was punker than punk. I thought the same thing watching the Twenty-Eights’ Jack Irwin hammer “Sweet Little Sixteen” so hard that his upright piano literally rocked on its base.
The White Stripes, The End Without a whisper of The Strokes’ promotion, this Detroit duo’s first Nashville appearance generated a buzz just as heavy, and the crowd per square foot may have even been denser. All I remember is unbearable heat, a pungent miasma of smoke and sweat and unbrushed teeth, and white-hot white-boy blues that avoided either Jon Spencer Blues Explosion buffoonery or Led Zep bombast. Plus Jim White simply nailed the self-abnegating pleading of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” while his drummer Meg White walloped her kit like Bonzo in pigtails. Heat and all, it was the club show of the year.
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…