Let’s take a look back at the year that was by way of 10 concert snapshots. This isn’t a Top 10 list, nor is it an attempt to categorize what was “the best” in the way of concert experiences during 2011. This is merely a gallery of 10 remembrances from 10 fine performances staged in 10 Lexington venues (well, actually 11 if you read closely) held over the past year. All are presented in chronological order.
+ Nellie McKay at Natasha’s (January) – Before a crowd packed together like strangers on a rush hour bus, McKay offered a repertoire that included the savagely tongue-in-cheek I Wanna Get Married, covers of hits by such disparate artists as Tom Waits and Ella Fitzgerald and a few well-aimed socio-political stabs like Mother of Pearl. But the serene and lavish Fitzgerald gem Midnight Sun iced off this deliciously askew cabaret.
+ Randy Newman at the Opera House (February) – Known today primarily as a film score composer, Newman reasserted his songwriting smarts with a solo piano performance that was alternatively frightening and hysterical. Sometimes a master satirist but often a chronicler of stark, severe human frailties, Newman offered remarkably emotive songs served with unapologetic candor.
+ The Dead Kenny G’s with Freekbass at Cosmic Charlie’s (March) – How can you not love a trio of avant-garde rock/funksters with serious jazz chops that don curly-cue wigs and call themselves The Dead Kenny G’s? As if the band’s monstrous modern fusion music wasn’t fun enough, Cincinnati’s Freekbass sat in to bring the fractured, furious grooves of The Dead Kenny G’s to seriously disturbing life.
+ The Drive-By Truckers at Buster’s and CD Central (April) – For an entire spring weekend, the dark, soulful Southern electricity of the Truckers took over Lexington. It included two successive nights at Buster’s, where the band ignited the seedy guitar-rock charge of its Go Go Boots album, along with an acoustic in-store set at CD Central by Truckers Patterson Hood and Jay Gonzalez. What a treat.
+ My Morning Jacket with Ben Sollee at Memorial Coliseum (April) – For its first Lexington concert outing in over nine years, Louisville’s MMJ offered a tireless 2 ½ hour career overview with Kentucky cello popster Sollee as show opener and onstage collaborator. Previews of MMJ’s then-upcoming Circuital album were highlights, although the show had the feel of a reunion between estranged Kentucky neighbors.
+ Ken Vandermark and Tim Daisy at the Downtown Arts Center (July) – Two cornerstone members of Chicago’s fertile indie jazz community, and mainstay visitors to Lexington’s Outside the Spotlight series, returned for a hearty set of reed and percussion duets. Shades of the great John Coltrane/Rashied Ali collaborations from the late ‘60s were suggested. But the duo’s keen performance dynamics were consistently distinctive.
+ Bill Bruford at the Drum Center of Lexington (October) – Technically, this was a non-performance – a fascinating discussion by retiree drummer Bruford that covered work with Yes, King Crimson, his jazz band Earthworks along with numerous artistic and commerce-related observations associated with a 40-plus year musical career. Presented in the Drum Center’s showroom, it was like having a prog-rock legend over as a dinner guest.
+ Richard Thompson at the Kentucky Theatre (October) – This solo acoustic return to the Kentucky drew upon masterful guitar technique that revealed the harmonic depth of a small string ensemble. But the songs boasted Dickensian imagery along with numerous contemporary references (like the Occupy Wall Street movement). It revealed again that as a songsmith, performer and guitarist, Thompson is, quite simply, peerless.
+ The Avett Brothers with Jessica Lea Mayfield at Rupp Arena (October) – In and of itself, this wasn’t one for the record books, especially since the Avetts’ bluegrass-punk hootenanny was without the services of bassist Bob Crawford. But given how the rest of Rupp’s non-country calendar was given over to such drab pop artifacts as Three Doors Down and Styx, this big house outing by the Avetts was an artistic oasis.
+ Pink Martini with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra at the Singletary Center for the Arts (December) – Centering on a pop repertoire that spanned the globe (from Brazil to Croatia) and multiple stylistic universes (from Ravel and Verdi classicism to Judy Garland and Doris Day pop), Portland’s tropically inclined Pink Martini utilized the always industrious UK Symphony as a full orchestral resource for music as epic as it was elegant.