Wrapping Up the Year Part One
The Gift of Live

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The time when I can finally listen to Christmas music.

I have certainly mentioned this before, but for the benefit of people who don’t hang on my every word: I love Christmas music. Love. It. But I have a difficult time listening to it outside its proper season. To my mind, that season begins the day after Thanksgiving and ends the day after Christmas itself. (I’ve occasionally extended it to new year’s day before, but that’s it.) Radio stations that start playing Christmas music around Halloween baffle me.

But within that short window, I revel in Christmas music. This year I’ve already pulled out my favorites (Timbre’s Silent Night and Sufjan Stevens’ two Christmas box sets) and cued up the Violet Burning, the Choir and even Harry Connick Jr. However, I realized just the other day that I’ve only bought one Christmas album this year, and I don’t see any other interesting new ones scheduled. Not cool, 2015.

I will say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed the one I did buy: It’s a Holiday Soul Party by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Jones lends her powerful, soulful voice to horn-drenched Dap Kings arrangements of “White Christmas,” “Silent Night,” “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Silver Bells” and funks her way through Saundra Williams’ (of Saun and Starr) “Big Bulbs.” My favorite here, though, is an original, a bluesy number called “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” that brings a hard-luck grit to a familiar story. It’s a Holiday Soul Party is short – only about half an hour – but it’s predictably great.

That’s it for this year’s new Christmas music, though, as far as I can see. Even Trans-Siberian Orchestra released a non-Christmas album. If anyone has any recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them. If not, it’s back to Sharon Jones for me.

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New music or not, it’s Christmastime, which means there’s a flood of new multi-disc DVD-and-Blu-Ray-enhanced live packages in the stores. Because what better gift to give someone than a reminder that they didn’t get to see an amazing show?

I’m not too upset that I didn’t get to attend the final Grateful Dead shows, even though they happened just up the road at Soldier Field in Chicago. (I was attending the third annual AudioFeed Festival in Champaign that weekend. I got to see dozens of bands for a sliver of a fraction of the cost of one of the Dead shows.) But now I can see and hear what I missed – the band has issued their last show in a number of formats, and called it Fare Thee Well.

The final show, from July 5, is available on CD, DVD and Blu-Ray, and a two-CD compilation of highlights from all three nights can also be obtained. I went with the highlight reel, and it’s pleasant enough – the vocals are generally weak, but the band sounds good, especially on extended jams like “Shakedown Street” (from the second night) and “Truckin’” (from the last one). Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio steps into Jerry Garcia’s shoes nicely, and piano god Bruce Hornsby slips back into the keyboard role he held with the Dead in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In all, it’s pretty interesting, if not quite an epic end to the long, strange trip. While I’m not sad that I missed it, I’m glad I get to experience it anyway, although the overpowering sense I get from Fare Thee Well is that it would have been a lot better in person.

I am sad that I’ve never seen Roger Waters perform The Wall, despite a couple chances here in Chicago. I know several people who went to these spectacles, and even one person who attended multiple times. Now, with the release of Waters’ The Wall on CD and DVD, I get to see what they’ve been talking about. I’ve loved the album since I was a teen – Waters’ dark fable of isolation and paranoia struck a chord with me then, and I still respond to the suffocating atmosphere it conjures. And Waters, who toured The Wall for four years, has expanded it into a tremendous audio-visual treat.

This new live document draws from the most recent year of this tour, and presents The Wall as it exists now. Waters has restored “The Last Few Bricks” to the running order (it didn’t make the original album), and has added a new song: “The Ballad of Jean Charles de Menezes” is an acoustic coda to “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” with a verse about London police killing de Menezes, a Brazilian man, after wrongfully suspecting him as a terrorist. This sort of integrates into the story, but it does feel pulled from another time.

The rest of The Wall is performed faithfully by a crack band, including former Saturday Night Live and Hall and Oates guitarist G.E. Smith. As an audio document, this is fine. But The Wall is a show you really need to see – it’s a full-on spectacle, and the music is only a part of it. And now you can.

Speaking of things I loved in high school, there’s Rush. I’ve never seen Rush live either, and was seriously contemplating heading out for the R40 anniversary show this year. But I didn’t, for reasons financial and otherwise. This despite the fact that the Canadian institution is on a creative roll – 2012’s Clockwork Angels was one of their best albums, and the subsequent tour one of their most fiery. Life is full of regrets.

But thankfully, I get to pretend I was there with the new R40 Live album and DVD. Yes, it’s another Rush live album – I think there are ten or eleven of them now – and yes, Rush remains Rush in any setting. They perform their songs with faithfulness and alacrity, which doesn’t detract from the purely amazing musicianship on display. They’re over their ‘80s reliance on keyboards and their ‘90s tendency toward the meandering – the new Rush sound is a throwback, a guitar-heavy power trio progressive rock powerhouse at the top of their game.

The conceit of R40 is a trip backwards in time – it begins with the Clockwork Angels material, most effectively “Headlong Flight,” and tumbles down their catalog, visiting the likes of “Roll the Bones” and “Subdivisions” and, yes, “Tom Sawyer” on the way back to their truly prog early days. Hearing “Cygnus X-1” and “Xanadu” and the opening to “Hemispheres” is pretty special, and they conclude with the raw rock of their first efforts. The closing track is a medley of “What You’re Doing” and “Working Man” that lasts a joyous 10 minutes.

The 3-CD set even includes a bunch of bonus tracks, arranged in no order, but including some of the best Clockwork Angels material next to “Red Barchetta” and “Distant Early Warning” and “The Camera Eye.” I wish I’d seen this show – the band sounds amazing, absolutely on fire, and it’s a fine way to celebrate 40 years (!) of their fantastic work.

Then there are the shows that I never could have seen without an enormous outlay of time and cash, but wish I could have. Earlier this year Devin Townsend staged a full theatrical performance of Dark Matters, his second album starring his tyrannical puppet creation, Ziltoid the Omniscient. Ziltoid is a war-happy alien in search of the universe’s best cup of coffee (really), and Dark Matters introduces us to his warrior princess and her spawn, the Poozers, in an intergalactic battle for supremacy. Yes, it’s completely ridiculous, and yes, Townsend knows this.

Townsend, in many ways the next generation of Canadian progressive rock, performed this show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and it’s… something. The new 3-CD/DVD set captures the show in its entirety as Townsend, his incredible band and a handful of actors in crazy costumes burn through Dark Matters in just over an hour. This is incredibly complex music, a mix of thunderous metal and ambience and hairpin-turn arrangements with huge vocal parts and orchestrations, and the band pulls it off with style.

And like The Wall, though on a smaller scale, this is a show you need to see. Hearing it is one thing, and the music is excellent, but seeing the full stage show is something else. Once the Ziltoid portion of the program is done, Townsend and his band get to performing an hour and a half of his most popular songs (“Supercrush,” “Christeen,” “Lucky Animals”) and an extended, extraordinary take on “The Death of Music” before calling it a night. There’s never been anyone like Devin, and the Ziltoid show is unlike anything else he’s done. That alone should make it a must-see.

But the live album I’ve been spending the most time with lately documents a set of songs I couldn’t have experienced live this way even if I’d wanted to. (And I would have wanted to.) 10 Years Solo Live is a four-CD box set from pianist Brad Mehldau collecting, as the title suggests, solo live renditions from the past decade. And if you’ve never heard Mehldau before, this is a slightly overwhelming but absolutely amazing way to find out what he does.

What he does is reinvent songs through interpretation. Mehldau is a tremendously skilled and original player, and if that were it, he’d still be thought of as a leading light of the modern jazz scene. But Mehldau has an exceptional gift for embracing and revealing music from all corners of the canon. Just on the first disc of 10 Years Solo Live he covers Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, the Beatles and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Elsewhere he interprets Nirvana, Massive Attack, Brian Wilson and the Kinks alongside Brahms and Thelonious Monk. Jazz standards like “On the Street Where You Live” and Coltrane’s “Countdown” sit next to Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland” and Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” It’s a massively inclusive list of songs, and a strong argument for the idea of music without boundaries.

It’s what Mehldau does with these songs that is truly remarkable, though. His playing is not just technically marvelous, it’s endlessly inventive. He begins this set with a 13-minute take on Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” and whenever you think he’s spun off into the realm of complete improvisation, he’ll work in a facet of the original song again and build off of it. I have no idea how much of what Mehldau does exists in his head before he plays it, but he always seems to know exactly when to remind you of the song he’s performing, and how to dig deep into it.

These four discs are themed – one is entirely in E major and E minor, for instance, while another is arranged like a single concert. As a listening experience, the entire set is surprisingly accessible. There are too many highlights to list, and in fact it’s all spectacular, but I will note a couple things I particularly enjoyed: the superb 16-minute mashup of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” and the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the truly great quarter-hour deep dive into the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” and the closing number, a sweet version of “God Only Knows.”

Mehldau really is one of a kind, and to hear him work his magic alone is a beautiful thing. Away from other instruments, he has to carry the entirety of the sound, and he does so brilliantly, ducking down corners and allowing passages to blossom. It’s wonderful stuff, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you know someone who likes piano playing, or in fact likes music at all, this would be an excellent gift. I already think of it as one, and I’m grateful for it.

Next week, the final reviews of 2015, starring Coldplay and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.