Mary Halvorson performing with Anti-House in Weikersheim, Germany.
Damn. I’ve been agitated and moved by all your recent posts, thinking about representation and eclipse, intersection and vulnerability. In particular, I was struck by your evocations of the power of live music and dancing, and the violation and grief we all feel when those collective sanctified spaces are wracked by violence and destruction, as at both Pulse and Ghost Ship.
Regrettably, I attended fewer live shows in 2016 than any year of my adult life. Among other reasons, I spent last winter far from home in small Victoria, British Columbia, so for instance I missed my last chance to see Prince, who played Toronto a few weeks before his death. A weekly karaoke gathering provided a different sort of musical communing, at a former veterans hall where, aside from my little clutch of friends, the crowd was mostly senior citizens or people with disabilities. I treasure those nights, too. But a few other memories stand out, and conveniently they permit me to touch on a few less-celebrated artists from my year-end lists, far from the regime of superstars.
The Best Concerts I Saw in 2016—and a Defense of “Best of” Lists in a Year of Worsts
Most recently, I was in a DIY concert space in Toronto, first too cold and then too hot and with not enough chairs to go around, and finally got to hear Mary Halvorson live, performing with bassist Stephan Crump. I’ve long admired the 36-year-old jazz guitarist and composer’s recordings, but until that night I didn’t appreciate quite how special she is: Though Halvorson trained with the rather forbidding avant-gardist Anthony Braxton, her own music is as comfortable being lyrical and melodic as spiky and atonal, with swaying rhythm as with staccato skitters, with rose-and-azure feeling as with brainy musical puzzles, or all that simultaneously. It felt new and liberated, making all the old jazz clashes about swing versus experimentation seem like tiresome 20th-century Cold War guff. That she is a woman on an instrument and in a field that often has been inhospitable to women is no doubt relevant, but not as much as her musical imagination, which is astonishing. My eyes were misting up even as my jaw hung open. The clock lost all dominion. Her 2016 album with her formidable Octet, Away With You, can’t quite match the effect, but it comes close.
In late summer, I was able to see the Mekons for the first time in about a dozen years. I was immediately reminded how much this cussed band of trans-Atlantic artists and activists, formed almost four decades ago, feels like extended musical family to me, as they do to so many fans. (If you don’t know their story, there’s an excellent recent documentary, Revenge of the Mekons, that is now on Netflix.) Cantankerous protest rocking here, sweet protest waltzing there, ribbing one another all the way—I wanted it to last all night. Their latest album, Existentialism, is a collection of new songs recorded live in pubs to get that same rowdy, spontaneous, participatory ambience. I’ve returned again and again to “Fear and Beer (Hymn for Brexit),” released less than a week after the British vote, which perfectly captures 2016’s nauseated, woozy, what-the-fuck vertigo: “Deep and still, blood on the water/ Things unsaid, hold them in our hands/ Now behold the visible other/ Phantoms stalk the land.”
The third artist I want to mention is Veda Hille from Vancouver, which is a bit awkward because we are pals (in Canada’s relatively small music scene, this kind of thing becomes inevitable). But I admired her brilliance before we got to know each other, and in a career that goes back to the early 1990s, she’s always been one of those musicians who ought to break through to a broader public yet mysteriously never quite does. Her music feels at once willful and extremely free, following her consciousness along unique and private paths, but with subtly coiled structures that often end up springing, at least for me, into vast emotion. Her latest album, Love Waves, is a change of pace from her usual piano-based, folk-rock-cabaret style. It’s an analog-synth-pop album, written mostly in Berlin last year, with David Bowie and Brian Eno’s 1970s collaborations there foremost in mind. This was before Bowie’s illness was public—her adaptation of “Teenage Wildlife” ends up serving as an unplanned tribute. But the main theme is love, whether erotic; companionate; environmental; or, most of all, maternal. Anyone who has an adored kid or two in his or her life needs to hear “Burst,” directly addressed to her son, recreating a walk through their neighborhood: “I wish I could explain/ What it’s like getting older/ Feeling things for years and years and years and years and years … ”
I’ve seen her perform these songs wonderfully, but the live experience I want to mention is the chamber musical she created with writer-director Amiel Gladstone, Onegin. It was a hit in Vancouver and reaches Toronto this coming spring, and there are rumors of New York after that (if Putin’s chicaneries don’t make all Russian-themed culture anathema). Hamilton or Sondheim fans should make a point of checking it out. The quick-and-cheap cast album is more of a souvenir than a realized work in itself, but it provides a hint (listen to “Let Me Die”). The show is a sung-through historical musical, based on Pushkin’s Russian classic, unabashedly romantic and passionately tragic, Slavic-style (they passed a vodka bottle around the audience at late-night shows)—yet with the necessary North American self-awareness to give viewers permission to go along: Early on, the cast sang, “It’s Russia, it’s winter, it is a long time ago,” and it seemed tongue-in-cheek, but when that line returned at the end, somehow it practically made me collapse into sobs.
Which leads to a point: Some of the music I’ve been discussing in this post (which for one thing is all made by white people) may seem arcanely distant from the current common emergency. A friend recently complained on Facebook that he couldn’t stand reading any “best of 2016” lists, because there was nothing good about 2016. But as Ann said, and as Newsweek recently tried to show, most years are quite horrible, depending who and where you are—2001 to 2007? 1942? 1914? 1492? This generation is far from the first to see that the world is a charnel house of oppression and cruelty. This year’s domestic politics made a very bad case for thoughtless emotion, but the paradox is that we cannot counter it without tending to our own compassion and ardor for beauty and frailty, lest we fulfill Yeats’ old line about the worst being full of passionate intensity while the best lack all conviction. As Jason said, there is a lot of work to do, but when music and art help sustain us, they damn well are worth celebration. Because, wherever we are in history, our predicament is constant: It is always Russia. It is always winter. It is always a long, long time ago.
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
Workers at Glaisters Farm near Dumfries harvest this year’s crop of Christmas trees as they prepare for the festive season on November 29, 2016 in Dumfries, Scotland.