BEST of 2013: J Hunter’s Best Concerts of the Year

Rudresh Mahanthappa (photo by Richard Brody)
Rudresh Mahanthappa (photo by Richard Brody)

Reviews by J Hunter
Photographs by J Hunter, Richard Brody and Rudy Lu

When I first moved to Greater Nippertown in 1987, I was repeatedly told that this area was “a cultural wasteland” – that no good bands come here, and no good music happens here. This column is for everyone who ever told me that, and you fully deserve the spiritual wedgie I just gifted you. Happy Holidays!

Before we do the math, though, I’ve got a few more bowling trophies to hand out (Hey, I don’t have a budget, and you can’t believe the estimate I got for the statue design I commissioned. Who knew platinum cost that much?):

THE LOCAL HERO AWARD (Concert Division) goes to… THE EGG
I’m not big on repeat winners, but the evidence speaks for itself even if we just give it a partial reading: Al Di Meola & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Los Lobos, the Joshua Redman Quartet, the Wooten Brothers, Bryan Adams, SFJAZZ Collective, Thomas Dolby, Steve Hackett, Roger Hodgson… and most of those shows happened in the last few months. Anyone who thinks some state bureaucrat could do better than Peter Lesser can put a sock in it, because I’ve got plenty more wedgies I can hand out!

Like I said before, MLS has been around so much this year, he may as well be back living in his native Schenectady: Dropping the latest disc First Black Nation at The Linda, knocking people out at A Place For Jazz, bringing a trio to the Downtown Albany BID Competition… and let’s not forget Smith’s super-strong work on the Terry Gordon Quintet’s hot new release Tomorrow Calling. It’s definitely been an MLS year – and for once, I’m not talking about soccer!

As I mentioned during my column on Lionel Loueke’s appearance at Williams College, the former mastermind of the gone-but-not-forgotten Williamstown Jazz Festival is (slowly) stepping away from his duties as Artist in Residence & Director of Jazz Activities at Williams. The performance given by the Williams Jazz Ensemble that night is proof enough that Andy’s been doing great work, but the tribute given to Jaffe at this show amply demonstrated how many lives he touched. Respect!

Having done that… LET’S DO THIS:

Number TEN…
The College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center, Albany, February 9
If there was a more fitting national/local pairing in this area, I can’t think of it: One of NOLA’s best modern marchers paired with Greater Nippertown’s premier party band – and on Mardi Gras weekend, to boot! All we needed was a dance floor, and those who really felt the need availed themselves of the floor space near the exit doors. Dirty Dozen fought through multiple sound issues to blow us up real good, while the Chronicles gave us a quick taste of their second disc Spanning the Gap, which they gave a NASA-quality launch at Red Square later in the year.

Number NINE…
Athens Cultural Center, Athens, March 23
The unofficial motto of Planet Arts’ one2one concert series is “Come for the music; stay for the conversation.” With Lalama, the conversation is as riveting as the lines he plays on his semi-oxidized tenor sax. Accompanied by the trio he’s been part of for over two decades, Lalama burned harder and shone brighter than he’s ever done round these parts. Sun Ra Arkestra alum Clifford Barbaro kept taking his drums deeper and wider as the set went on, and sometime-sub bassist Mike Karn (who backed Joe Magnarelli and Jerry Weldon at APFJ) kept the foundation fat and happy.

Number EIGHT…
The Van Dyck, Schenectady, February 1
We’ve been lucky enough to have this group play the Van Dyck twice this year, but the first show was a sweet hot toddy in the depths of winter. There have been times when the acts that play the upstairs venue were way too big for the room, but HC Detroit’s Django-in-the-21st-Century act was a perfect fit. I still haven’t seen anyone who plays guitar as fast and impassioned as Evan Perri, and this group’s ability to morph tunes by Dave Matthews and Trey Anastasio so they fit this pre-WWII matrix makes you hold your head so it doesn’t explode. Merveilleux!

 The Hot Club of Detroit  (photo by Rudy Lu)
The Hot Club of Detroit (photo by Rudy Lu)

Number SEVEN…
Putnam Den, Saratoga Springs, May 31
I have a message for anyone who chose to listen to bad cover bands while Osborne was across the street playing solo-acoustic: Dude, that’s two hours of your LIFE you’re not getting back! Osborne’s one of those fine rare birds: A smart singer-songwriter who doesn’t take himself seriously. Osborne lost his habit in rehab, but not his talent or humor: His post-rehab tune “Meet Me in Mexico” is right up there with “Louisiana Rain” and “Echoes of My Sins.” A great, intimate, FUN evening where the only cover tune was Osborne’s great take on “Friend of the Devil.”

Number SIX…
Jennings Landing @ Corning Preserve, Albany, September 7
This one was a do-over, since Hunter was one of the artists that got rained out at last year’s Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival. However, by the time he and longtime drummer/co-conspirator Scott Amendola hit the stage at this year’s Riverfront, they’d recorded Pucker, the follow-up to their kickass 2012 release Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead. That meant more original material to monster us with when they weren’t cooking up fun-drenched takes on John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City.” Simple, hot and totally nasty!

Number FIVE…
Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center, Saratoga Springs, March 22
It’s been five years since Blade and the Fellowship Band released Season of Changes, and that was after an eight-year recording hiatus. If the pattern holds, we’re screwed until 2016. Thankfully, Blade brought the band out of mothballs for a phenomenal evening where the spiritual got together with the secular and just enjoyed the hell out of each other. There were goosebumps all around during keyboardist Jon Cowherd’s title suite from Season, and all you could do after the haunting “Shenandoah” was thank Whoever for chances to hear music like this.

Brian Blade (photo by J Hunter)
Brian Blade (photo by J Hunter)

Number FOUR…
Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, Lake George, September 14
Even though the 30th-anniversary edition of my favorite festival had killer shows all weekend long, there’s no way I could NOT put NGBQ on top of all the tasty goodness that Paul Pines, John Strong and Lake George Arts Project served up. The 70-year old Burton delivered more proof that age ain’t nothin’ but a number, as he attacked his vibes with the fervor of somebody Julian Lage’s age. In the short time they’ve been together, NGBQ has become a truly formidable unit, and seeing them create musical fireworks before the ACTUAL fireworks was well worth freezing your ass off.

Number THREE…
A Place For Jazz @ the First Unitarian Society’s Whisperdome, Schenectady, November 1
Even though I loved Russell’s 2012 release Strictly Romancin’, I wasn’t ready for how much fun this night was going to be. Backed by a stripped-out, drum-free trio that kept things cool and tight, Russell was the prototypical jazz-club countess, keeping the crowd enthralled with singular versions of “old songs – the older, the better!” Her duet with guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri on “Satchel Mouth, Baby” was in my head for days after this show, and her hilarious takes on “Be a Rug Cutter” and “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’Bye” had the sass and joy jazz should always have.

Number TWO… IS A TIE
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, June 29
Okay, I’m not COMPLETELY wimping out: Same day, same festival, same weapons-grade level of musical awesomeness – albeit in two totally different packages. The Cookers showed they weren’t a studio sensation by blowing up the amphitheater with soaring reboots of music from their decades-long careers. A thunderstorm rolled in just before Mahanthappa hit the Gazebo Stage, but the storm paled in comparison to the combined powers of Mahanthappa’s alto and Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski’s guitar. All you could do was giggle and hope lightning had terrible aim.

…and the NUMBER ONE CONCERT OF 2013 is…
The Swyer Theatre @ The Egg, Albany, February 22
I kind of wish I’d seen the Wood Brothers do their thing at FreshGrass back in September… but then I remember the intimacy and electricity that coursed through the Swyer back in February, and that wish flies quickly away. Wood Brothers fans display a fervor that goes quite well with the revival-tent vibe that runs through Oliver Wood’s exemplary compositions, and the fans were all in good voice as they accompanied the Brothers on “One More Day”, “Atlas” and “Shoo Fly Pie.” You know it’s been a good show when you dance out of the theater, and I was dancing! EDITOR’S NOTE: 2014 is shaping up nicely, too, considering that the Wood Brothers are slated to return to The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Sunday, February 23.

And that’s my 2013. Yours may have been completely different, and if it was, I hope you had as much fun as I did. Thanks for supporting live music around the town, and we’ll see you next year!

J Hunter’s Best Jazz Albums, Part II
J Hunter’s Best Jazz Albums, Part I

Got a Best of 2013 list that you’d like to share with Nippertown readers? Best concerts of the year? Best Local 518 music moments of the year? Best plays? Best art gallery exhibits? Best books by local authors? Best whatever? Please keep it local, but send it along to [email protected]

  1. Andrzej Pilarczyk says

    J, you nailed it once again. The shows I was at and shooting (photographically speaking), I totally agree, the others that I missed, I envy. We cover the same and also different things through the course of the year, but my Jazz heart loves what you picked! Lets see what we’ll see and hear in 2014. Keep up the good work!

  2. Lotta Bottom says

    J, thank you for the fine look back. In particular your award to The EGG a venue I enjoy each time I’m there. A unique venue including the ride up and down on an elevator with an always friendly operator.

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