December's Best Concerts, From Patti Smith to Phish

Highlights from the New York nights that lit up the end of my road to 2011

By |

I usually take a short break from writing at the end of each year. I never take a vacation from gigs. Here are some highlights from the New York nights that lit up the end of my road to 2011.

Zappa Plays Zappa, Beacon Theater, December 17, 2010

The news of Captain Beefheart's death that day, at 69 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, was still fresh and hurting when I got to the venue, just in time for a long looney lift: a complete performance of Frank Zappa's 1974 Top Ten album, Apostrophe ('), by this spunky well-drilled repertory band led by the composer's son, guitarist Dweezil Zappa. Later, when the group returned for encores, Dweezil took a moment to share the sad tidings of Beefheart's passing – to a sharp collective gasp from the audience. Word had not widely circulated yet. Dweezil then paid perfect tribute, leading the band into the Hot Rats stomp "Willie the Pimp," with singer-trumpeter Ben Thomas working up a solid Beefheart-ian growl and Dweezil taking off in the guitar-solo section, in the spitting image of his dad.

4 Generations of Miles, Iridium, December 23, 2010

The lineup of this Miles Davis tribute quartet truly covers four eras: Drummer Jimmy Cobb played on Davis' modal landmark, 1959's Kind of Blue; bassist Buster Williams passed through a version of Davis' Classic Quintet in 1967; saxophonist Sonny Fortune served at the most extreme edge of Davis' first electric phase, on the 1975 live albums Agharta and Pangaea; and Mike Stern played guitar in Davis' Eighties-comeback bands. Together, in this New York-club setting, they were a warm poised sum of their experiences. Cobb, who turns 82 this month, reprised his steady hissing-snare shuffle in "All Blues." Stern opened "My Funny Valentine" with a long milky-treble reverie. And Williams' solos were deep-end paragons of flexible sinew and surefooted melody.

Patti Smith, Bowery Ballroom, December 29, 2010

The first night of Patti Smith's traditional New Year's-week run at this venue is always rough and funny – part open rehearsal with her band, part stand-up comedy. There is also, too often, a farewell. Guitarist Lenny Kaye paid honor to a member of his Sixties teen-age garage band, the Zoo, who had passed away on Christmas Eve, by leading Smith and company into a day-glo race through the Blues Magoos' "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet." At another point, after losing her way in the second verse of "Break It Up" from 1975's Horses, Smith gave a long and winding explanation of the song's origins – a dream in which she envisioned Jim Morrison of the Doors as half-man, half-statue, trying to break free of the plaster – then cued the band back in to the music, finishing the song with a torrid fist-shaking chorus. Smith also prefaced a new addition to her repertoire with a vivid memory from a lonely 1967: sitting in a diner on the South Jersey shore, treating herself to a chocolate donut and endless refills of coffee – total cost, 25 cents – and playing one song repeatedly on the jukebox. "Then I felt better," Smith said, with a wide smile – just before she sang the opening lines of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever."

Gov't Mule, Beacon Theater, December 30, 2010

The first show of Gov't Mule's two-night stand hit an early gleaming peak at about the one-hour mark, with a curious instrumental treatment of the Grateful Dead's "St. Stephen" – done first with less acid than the composers intended, with guitarist Warren Haynes playing the introductory riff and vocal melody in a church-bell tone, at an evened-out country-rock gait; then, after a moment's pause, restarted at the old frisky Fillmore clip, and taken out, as a blues-jam party. That would have been enough to justify a set break. But then Haynes introduced Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford. It was the cue for a furious tear through the Get Your Wings arrangement of "Train  Kept a Rollin'," with Whitford soloing with a slashing aplomb that made you wonder: Why is Steven Tyler wasting his time as a talent-show judge when he should be strutting his stuff in front of this?

And that was just the first set. Later, Hayne brought singer-guitarist David Hidalgo of Los Lobos out for an electric-Christmas swing through the funky gospel of "Jesus Gonna Be Here," the stately Blind Faith hymn "In the Presence of the Lord" and a step down, way down, to the dirty groove of ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago." It was brilliant programming, played with delighted might.

Phish, Madison Square Garden, January 1st, 2011

For awhile, way into the first set, I had the suspicion that Phish would mark the numerical symmetry – 1/1/11 – of their first-ever New Year's Day show in New York by playing one lo-o-o-o-ng set.  Actually, the first set was a 90-minute high in itself, particularly in the extended sequence that started with guitarist Trey Anastasio's cleaving-treble guitar work in  "The Divided Sky," dipped into bassist Mike Gordon's soft whirlpool from Undermind, "Round Room," then jumped up to the clanging-guitar brassy-vocal  stride of the James Gang cover, "Walk Away." That momentum carried over into a second set that opened with the forward turbulence of Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless" and ended with an upward romp – Anastasio's climbing arpeggio-chase sequences in "David Bowie" – that sealed the evening's pace and tang and started my New Year just right.