2016 felt like a ceaseless parade of depressing news. It's tempting to want to celebrate the year's end but so far 2017 doesn't hold out much promise of being any better: the U.S. and much of the world seems hell-bent on embracing the belligerence, fear, and ignorance of the angry and aggrieved. Meanwhile the majority is apparently doing little but standing by and watching as the freakshow bursts from its tent and takes up residence inside the corridors of power, mouths agape in disbelief, minds becoming small, tightly-wound balls of confusion, wondering what the hell comes next and reading Twitter and Orwell for clues. What happened to normal?
Here's where I might suggest the arts as a salve for the times, a place of refuge and a source of hope, but honestly I can't.
Instead I want the arts be used as a weapon, sometimes blunt, sometimes delicate, and as a place to resist, inform, question and educate. We in the audience need to be more critical, and less willing to accept entertainment in place of art. Enough with the bread and circuses. Not that there's anything wrong with being entertained mind you, but our collective desire for amusement over engagement is just one among the myriad factors that brought us here, and it needs to be questioned and challenged. We've passed a tipping point.
A lot of art will be created in response to what's happening right now, much of it banal, some of it great, and perhaps a sliver of the great will also be important. Our responses to and understanding of extant art will undergo more radical and faster shifts in perspective -- to walk through the National Portrait Gallery today and not consider the implications of Trump's eventual presence among the portraits of past presidents (and in place of Hillary Clinton's), or to partake in San Francisco's upcoming anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love without questioning where it's led to fifty years later is to be in a state of passive, willful blindness. Open up, and engage with what's in front you.
As for me, well here's another year-end list, the eighth of its kind, of what really impressed me over the past twelve months, aka the best of 2016, and presented in chronological order. If you didn't know this already, it's been an unusual year for me personally because in the middle of it I moved from San Francisco to Washington DC. After living my entire life in California, the move has been a big adjustment -- new venues, new artists, new everything essentially, except for the desire to experience and perceive the world through its art and expressions of creativity. That remains the same, regardless of place. So whatever happens next, A Beast intends to stay in the jungle.
1. David Bowie's death.
I don't know when exactly, but sometime during Bowie's decade of silence beginning in 2003 I stopped thinking about him in the future tense, perhaps too consumed with events in my own life that kept taking me back to Station to Station. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, The Next Day arrived in 2013 -- an angry, noisy record that expands and softens as it progresses, filled with strains of Brecht and Weill, ennui and shadows, laden with the familiar sounds from Bowie's past now twisted and slightly gnarled by the passage of time. It's fatalistic and dark, even when the tempos are upbeat, like in "The Stars (Are Never Sleeping)." Throughout The Next Day Bowie's voice is frail, but he sounds like he doesn't care that we hear this, aware it adds an extra layer to lyrics like "sexless and unaroused/they are the stars, they're dying for you/but I hope they live forever." That frailty puts a shadow on "Valentine's Day," which on a typical pop record would sound addressed to a lover; here it sounds as if Bowie's an old man singing it to a small child, urgently trying to convey the meaning to an uncomprehending innocence (Tony Visconti, Bowie's producer, said it's about a high school shooter). Even "Boss of Me," the nearest thing on the album approaching a love song, has a weariness suggesting the song's gaze is on the past, not the present. Underneath the upbeat tempo of "How Does the Grass Grow?" he asks:
Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?/The girls would fill with blood and the grass would be green again/Remember the dead/They were so great/Some of them
Halfway through the song a harpsichord makes an abrupt entrance, and Bowie's familiar baritone croon makes its first appearance on the album with these lines:
I gaze in defeat/At the stars in the night/The light in my life burnt away/There will be no tomorrow/Then you sigh in your sleep/And meaning returns with the day
He sings those last three words with marked resignation, followed by a quick flurry of descending notes leading into a squalling guitar. None of this would work if the music let these lyrics down, but Bowie crafted familiar frameworks for these songs as if they were meant to last forever. Had The Next Day been Bowie's last album it would have been a fitting goodbye, worthy of Bowie's history, though during interviews in 2013 Visconti said they recorded tracks that didn't make the album which will undoubtedly surface at some point.
Instead Bowie left us with Blackstar -- a brilliant and puzzling finale with accompanying videos -- and his death, intentionally delivering them together. If we need an explanation, he gives it to us plainly on album's third song, "Lazarus":
Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama, can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now
True to form until the very end, Bowie turned his death into a magnificently orchestrated performance. And like everything else he did, Bowie's death will be imitated, and his imitators will be absorbed into the mainstream, and eventually, like so many cultural shifts during the last fifty years bearing Bowie's fingerprints, what was once considered freakish, outlandish, and odd will become integrated into our everyday lives. Bowie's dead, and as he took his leave from the stage he compelled us once last time to turn and face the strange. It had never been more beautiful.
2. Taylor Mac
I saw Taylor Mac twice during 2016: a San Francisco performance in January and another two months later in Santa Barbara. Both shows were 3 hour extravaganzas -- chapters covering three decades of music in preparation for judy's (that's Mac's preferred gender pronoun) upcoming A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which took place this past October in Brooklyn. With an hour devoted to each decade, the full show was 24 hours long and by all accounts from what I've read it was one of the most amazing performances ever undertaken. I missed it, since I'd already splurged on tickets to attend Desert Trip in California, but the two shows I saw (covering sixty years) were smart, sophisticated, probing engagements with music, history, politics, and culture. On top of that they were marvelously entertaining.
3. The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse
Jennifer Haley's play is dark, dark, dark but it's also fascinating and smart, taking place in an unregulated online world of virtual realities and alternate identities, where the internet has become the Nether, the go-to place for anonymous, illicit, and illegal pleasures.
San Francisco Playhouse's production hit every mark under company co-founder Bill English's taut direction, but it was the astonishing performance of sixth-grader Carmen Steele as Iris , the forever-young bait who lures men to a place where they can indulge their worst impulses, that made this the most effective, thought-provoking, and disturbing play I saw this year.
4. San Francisco Symphony's On the Town
Toward the end of every season, the San Francisco Symphony puts on a really big show: a semi-staged opera, a concert version of a musical, or a festival built around the music of a composer (or two). More often than not these extravaganzas turn out to be a highlight of the year, with prominent guest artists and video projections, additional lighting and stage elements. This year's model brought all of that and more to a marvelous concert version of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town, with a superb cast and a dazzling, vibrant musical performance led by Michael Tilson Thomas that made the 72-year-old musical come forcefully alive.
5. Jenufa at San Francisco Opera
While many of the opera singers who were stars when I began attending performances have begun to fade, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila only gets better with time. I saw Olivier Tambosi's production of Janáček's Jenufa at the Met in 2003 with Mattila in the title role and Deborah Polsaski as her stepmother, the Kostelnicka. This year Mattila made her debut as the older, dominating woman in San Francisco Opera's revival of Tambosi's production and there aren't enough words to describe the greatness of her performance. On top of that, instead of wilting before the force of nature that is Mattila, soprano Malin Byström went toe-to-toe with her, creating a dramatic and musical powerhouse and one the finest productions I've ever seen at the War Memorial Opera House.
6. The End of Black Sabbath
Let's be honest -- as a live act during the latter 1970s, Black Sabbath frequently sucked. I gave up on the band after 1980's Heaven and Hell album, the first without Ozzy on vocals, content to get a nostalgic jolt of metal from the first album and Sabotage when the craving hit. It wasn't until 3/4s of the original line-up reunited for the Rick Rubin-produced 13 in 2013 that I was willing to listen to a new Black Sabbath album, and I was surprised by how good it was. Still, the idea of seeing Sabbath at this point in time seemed ridiculous to me, at least until I started hearing the shows were actually good, which caused me waver a bit. When the band announced its farewell tour I finally caved and bought a ticket. Tenth row center. Because if you're gonna go, go all in. The setlist, primarily drawn from the first four albums, disappointed. But their sound, that incredibly heavy sound that has no earthly rival apart from the insides of an MRI machine, felt more powerful than ever, and sharing that experience with 25,000 other people was 90 minutes of bliss.
7. Roger Waters at Desert Trip
Of the six bands on the Desert Trip bill, Roger Waters was the only one I was not really excited to see. In fact I probably could have been talked into skipping his set altogether, tired of his battles with his former bandmates, put off by his odious politics, and bored by the whiny voice and self-absorbed, pretentious music that made 3/4s of The Wall and everything he's done since unlistenable for me for at least thirty years. My girlfriend and I struck a deal -- we would leave once he was done with the Pink Floyd stuff and moved on to his solo material.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Waters' set was the highlight of the weekend, a nearly three-hour long extravaganza centered around Pink Floyd's 70s masterpieces -- Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and the lesser but still potent Animals, plus tracks from Meddle ("San Tropez" One of These Days), and (to me) the very surprising appearance of "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" from A Saucerful of Secrets. By the time he inevitably turned toward The Wall I was ready and willing to go along. Only a few things didn't work: the two back-up singers, while interesting to look at in their sci-fi outfits and blonde-Betty Page wigs didn't really seem to get what Clare Torry did on the original cut of "Great Gig in the Sky," though I've heard other singers take it on quite successfully; Waters has no business singing anything that was originally sung by David Gilmour -- everything originally sung by Gilmour needs to be handed over to the vocalist standing in for Gilmour; and while Rogers' was finally the one to make some unambiguous political statements, his decision to read a statement in support of the misguided, anti-semitic students protesting at UC Berkeley was unfortunate on many levels, not least of which it exposed his ignorance of the real issue at hand on the campus and in doing so revealed his desire to use the show as a platform for his own pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel beliefs.
But apart from that... damn, it was a helluva show, in which he effectively updated every overstuffed, grandiose trick from Floyd's heyday and transformed them into either scathing excoriations of the digital era (especially the take-down of Trump during "Pigs," which drew scattered boos from some well-heeled big wheels in the audience) or beautifully meditative excursions through trippyland. It was the rock equivalent of Gotterdammerung, complete with its own anti-semitic composer. The quadrophonic sound system, the large, precise band, and the most dazzling video projections imaginable (not to mention the flying pigs and turning the entire stage into London's Battersea Power Station, complete with smoke-belching smoke stacks), were all put into service of using the songs to remind the audience just much ground ground Pink Floyd broke. Coming at the end of the weekend, Waters set, more than others but certainly aided by the cumulative experience of seeing and hearing each of these bands after the other, deeply illustrated the profound impact and influence they've made on popular culture that's taken root in uncountable ways. It was only while I was watching this set that I realized all of these bands have long, consistent histories with film that date back to the sixties, long before MTV and long-form videos; that the contemporary spectacles mounted by Beyoncé and Kanye, Muse, and Radiohead, are all outgrowths of what the Stones and Pink Floyd started decades ago. That fashion, taste, advertising, politics, and art all bent under their creative sway. And here was Waters, bless his nasty, bitter, whining heart, up there on the stage at age 73, still willing to take on all comers, calling out the Trumps of the world, reminding us we've been played by them, incredulous and yet somehow hopeful.
8. Cécile McLorin Salvant
While Salvant's albums are impressive (the most recent, For One to Love, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal last year), they don't come close to capturing how good she is live. The clarity and range of her voice is one thing, but it's her phrasing, pacing, choice of material, and the way she imbues all of it with complete confidence is somewhat staggering to see and hear in a performer this early in her career. This is a singer who doesn't need to show off with histrionics, trills, or runs -- just give her the right song, and the able, intelligent back up of the Aaron Diehl Trio (Diehl on piano, bassist Paul Sikivie, drummer Lawrence Leathers), and she'll take care of the rest. Her set at Bethesda Blues in October, presented by Washington Performing Arts, felt like watching a legend unfolding on the stage in real time.
9. Gianandrea Noseda
My introduction to the National Symphony Orchestra this fall came via back-to-back programs, the first led by the orchestra's current Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, the second conducted by incoming Director Gianandrea Noseda. The difference in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, in the audience as well as on the stage, was like being in the presence of two completely different orchestras. I'm not going to say more than that other than to suggest some exciting concerts lay ahead.
10. Lucas DeBargue
The young French pianist has an unusual backstory and a performing style that favors deliberation over perfection and engagement in dialogue with the composer in place of delivering rote recitations. The results aren’t always beautiful, but they were never less than compelling, and frequently brilliant during his November recital in an impressive East Coast debut presented by Washington Performing Arts. I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot more of him.
11. Semyon Bychkov and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
This late November concert presented by Washington Performing Arts was the last performance I attended this year, featuring Glanert's Theatrum beastiarum and Mahler's Fifth. There are a number of things that made it an exceptional performance: first, I'd never heard any of Glanert's music before, and this piece was written as a companion to the composer's opera about Caligula. There's an opera about Caligula? Okay, so where can I see that? The piece, by the way, is violent and dramatic, and has an outrageous entrance from the organ that's right out of a Hammer horror movie. Second, I've never really liked Bychkov as a conductor based on concerts I've heard him lead with the San Francisco Symphony, but this concert convinced me I must have been wrong there, or that at the very least Bychkov's a great Mahler interpreter even if what I think what he does with Rachmaninoff is atrocious. After a slightly pedestrian first movement the remainder was some of the most elegant and expressive Mahler I've heard from any conductor save for Salonen. Finally, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is an astonishing ensemble, with superb wind and brass sections, maybe the best I've ever heard. The most rewarding concerts don't validate what one already knows -- instead they force one to reconsider it, and Bychkov and the RCO did just that.
Best wishes to and yours in 2017 -- and thank you for being here.
If you liked this, like A Beast in a Jungle on Facebook for more.