A look back at some of Charlottsville’s musical highs

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A young man with an old musical soul, Frank Fairfield played a charming show at The Garage last September. A young man with an old musical soul, Frank Fairfield played a charming show at The Garage last September.

Live music is one of the best aspects of life in Charlottesville, as each day of the week offers concerts in all genres from both local and touring musicians. Any personalized “best of” list is sure to be biased and idiosyncratic, but here are some of the most memorable musical experiences I have enjoyed since last year’s Best of C-VILLE issue:

Last August, James McNew (a member of college radio stalwarts Yo La Tengo) returned to his hometown for a rare appearance with his solo project Dump, a band which has played fewer than 20 shows in 20 years. McNew did not disappoint the Tea Bazaar audience, which included luminaries of Charlottesville’s musical past, including Girl Choir, a new band of C’ville rock veterans making its debut that night.

Ben Chasny, a.k.a. Six Organs of Admittance, played a superb set of solo acoustic guitar instrumentals at The Southern in August, but even better was the stellar performance by opening act Mss., debuting its six-piece live band. Mss. somewhat improbably covered songs from Lungfish and Gordon Lightfoot, and made them its own.

Speaking of Lungfish, two members of the defunct Baltimore group commuted down to Al-Hamraa for a concert last August. Asa Osborne now plays as Zomes, channeling hypnotically simple keyboard melodies that manage to sound low-fi in person. Daniel Higgs played electrified banjo ragas that were equal parts India and Appalachia. His set was instrumental and stone-cold serious until he elicited giggles by leaning into the mic mid-song and inquiring of the audience, “Has anyone seen that new Planet of the Apes movie?”

Frank Fairfield not only plays music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he seems like a gentleman time-traveler from that era. His early September performance at The Garage was charming and enlightening, and he made an encore appearance at the Tea Bazaar the following night, this time with local mountain man Eric the Red.

The Pigeon Hole hosted a wild musical brunch on the afternoon of September 30: Errantry cleansed the palate with ambient guitar tones, Harrisonburg’s Rubgy played charmingly dorky piano-rock, Nurse Beach made a furiously aggressive racket, and Great Dads played one of its finest sets of raw, catchy prog-punk. The afternoon culminated in an extended performance of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” in which all of the musicians and audience members were invited to join in.

Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum made headlines around the world with his return to performing last year, but his former bandmate Julian Koster has been staging a much quieter comeback for years with The Music Tapes, a group that tours every Christmas performing only at house parties—sometimes in three or four neighboring towns in a single evening. Koster was both charmingly eccentric and refreshingly down-to-earth during his early-December appearance in a small Ridge Street apartment, as he told tall tales and played a mix of wintry originals and eclectic covers with his trio of Athens bandmates.

The Charlottesville Jazz Society brought a number of notables to town this year, including percussionist Han Bennink and his partner Mary Oliver, who were joined by a variety of locals including Darrell Rose, for a concert on the eve of Bennink’s 70th birthday. The sold-out concert was held at Brooks Hall, which amusingly also held a large papier-maché Mastadon that evening. (“That Mamoose has such grand toosks,” the Dutch-born Bennink remarked.)

Another fine contemporary improvisational drummer, Tatsuya Nakatani, made his annual return to Charlottesville on May 8 for a concert at The Bridge PAI with his well-worn drum kit, a variety of found percussion instruments (including a few kitchen utensils), and five gigantic gongs. Nakatani generously demonstrated a few of his techniques to the audience afterward, but his performance still seems akin to magic: watching a man conjure immense and fascinating sounds with a few pieces of metal and wood.

Finnish folk singer Saara Markannen visited The Garage in June, a perfect venue for her gentle, whimsical songs. For a finale, she gamely attempted to lead the hillside audience through a sing-a-long in Finnish, despite being the only native speaker present. The crowd’s hilarious failure was a lighthearted conclusion to a lovely evening of outdoor music.

These are but a few moments in a year full of concerts large and small. There are many more I could include: the elegant guitar loops of Dustin Wong; the precise grooves of the Chicago band Cave; Elisa Ambrosio’s nearly unrecognizable back-to-back appearances in 200 Years and Magik Markers; or the carefully composed soundscapes of Mountains. Everyone’s “best of” list is different. What does yours sound like?

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