30 December 2013

2013: Favorite Artist of the Year

Continuing through my year-end shenanigans, I'm continuing the fun-for-me tradition of the past few years and awarding an artist or band the "of the year" honors. Typically this goes to a musical act that's captured my attention over the course of the year more than any other (emphasis on my, your opinion my vary).

Past winners:
2000's decade run-down
2008 = Apollo Sunshine
2009 = Portugal. The Man
2010 = Jim James
2011 = Medeski, Martin & Wood
2012 = Tame Impala/Kevin Parker

Again, there were some good candidates. Phish consistently blew me away and cemented their bestevah status in 2013, but that'd be a boring pick. Yo La Tengo is on the list, their album Fade was one of my favorites and the really impressed the two times I saw them at the start and end of the year. My runner up is Chris Thile who I was lucky to see play multiple superlative sets in different combinations, including a special, intimate set at Rockwood Music Hall and a high-level night of improvisation in duo form with the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (reviewed here). I'll actually be seeing Thile's "regular" band, The Punch Brothers tonight. I also strongly urge you to check out Thile's album of solo Bach sonatas. It's better than you think it is. 

But even better than Thile in 2013 was Joe Russo. I bought my Joe Russo stock very early and have been happy to watch its value rise in the ensuing 14 or 15 years. I remember seeing him play at the old Wetlands when they'd have "superjams" that would stretch deep into the night with improvisation and dozens of musicians. These were "strut your stuff" sessions, many cooks, only one pot, tough to stand out. Sir Joe stood out and I made it a point to see him as much as I could, which lead several years later to my hanging out in a mostly-empty Tap Bar while Joe played crazy duets with his where-did-this-guy-come-from school friend, Marco Benevento. From there, the story is well known, with one thing over the past decade or so staying constant: Russo standing out for his excellence regardless of the situation or musicians playing in front of him... but not standing out too much.

All this came to a head in 2013. Freaks Ball. Joe Russo's Almost Dead. Is it strange to think that Joe Russo is now the flag bearer for the Grateful Dead song book? It is to me, but doesn't make it any less true. Between his playing in Further and Phil & Friends this year and the two JRAD gigs bookending the calendar, Joe is playing and invigorating the Dead equally as much as Phil Lesh. In addition to the Dead stuff, Joe was all over the place in 2013. Personally, I only saw a tiny sample of his output this year, but it was enough to bestow. The Bustle "plays other shit" show (i.e. The Bustle Quartet) at Brooklyn Bowl featured my favorite jam of the year when the band went from the Beatles to Michael Jackson to the Allman Brothers to the Grateful Dead in awe-inspiring fashion. The rest of the show was no slouch with Joe spearheading a full-album Black Sabbath cover set to start out the night... one of my favorite concerts of the year.

That thing about "sticking out" really made an impression for me this past fall when within a month I saw Russo play drums behind Todd Sickafoose and Cass McCombs within a month of each other. (he also contributed to tracks on McCombs' excellent new album this year). These were a free-wheeling "jazz" band and an alt-folkie indie band respectively and Joe's drumming was a major force in each instance. This wasn't showy, look-at-my-drum-solo stuff, this was elevating the music and transcending the genre with talent and graciousness. There wasn't any other musician who hit so many of my sweet spots in the last 12 months, not even close... and I probably missed most of his greatest moments, I mean, there's this for one:

So, there you have it, my personal favorite artist of 2013: Joe Russo.

Shows I saw with audio and review links. (Thanks as always to the tapers!):
  • Joe Russo's Almost Dead, Freaks Ball XIII, Brooklyn Bowl, 1/26
    • audio
    • fulls show video below
  • Phil Lesh & Friends, Capitol Theater, 7/22
  • The Bustle Quartet, Brooklyn Bowl, 8/31
  • Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors, 55 Bar, 11/15
  • Cass McCombs, Bowery Ballroom, 12/13
  • Joe Russo's Almost Dead, Capitol Theater, 12/27

Joe Russo's Almost Dead:

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