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Favorite stage shows and music of 2021

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Looking back over the past year, The Day's arts writers chose their favorite live shows and recorded music.

STAGE SHOWS/CONCERTS

Flock Theatre’s “Cyrano de Bergerac”

July, Mitchell College, New London

Could this be Flock’s best production so far? Quite possibly. It was spirited and moving, and the acting was excellent across the board. I’d rather have seen it in the Arboretum, true, but the lawn outside the Mitchell College Red Barn was, if less bucolic, still very pleasant.

— Kristina Dorsey

Rick Wakeman

Oct. 16, Garde Arts Center, New London

The ex-Yes keyboard marvel mesmerized a half-full house with a perhaps unlikely blend of talents. The music was gorgeous and a technically mind-blowing piano/synth performance. Besides spotlighting Yes, there was solo material, classical pieces and select songs from Wakeman's time as a session player (David Bowie, Cat Stevens). Between songs, though? Wakeman was equally spellbinding with an array of anecdotes that focused on giggle-inducing locker room humor.

— Rick Koster

Garden Gatherings

June and July, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Waterford

Such a pleasure. The concerts by O’Neill alums were excellent. The garden is lovely, and the view over the Sound is spectacular. My friends and I arrived early to enjoy the O’Neill’s campus and to grab a beer at Blue Gene’s Pub and sat on its scenic patio. It all made for a perfect summer afternoon.

— Kristina Dorsey

John "Papa" Gros

June 4, Hygienic Art Park

On a solo tour designed to educate and delight audiences about the piano tradition of his New Orleans hometown, Gros, one-time leader of Papa Grows Funk, brought irrisistible joy by nimbly assailing the 88 keys of his instrument. Along with his own songs — including one performed during a long-distance phone call to his elderly dad back in Louisiana with a birthday serenade — Gros deftly nuanced Professor Longhair, Huey "Piano" Smith, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and more.

— Rick Koster

"Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical"

August, Goodspeed By the River, East Haddam

Laiona Michelle was an absolute showstopper. She played Nina Simone with all of the icon’s strength and pain and artistry and contradictions. And Michelle’s voice was stunning. When she came onstage as the show began and sang “Feeling Good,” it was a transcendent moment.

— Kristina Dorsey

Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra

October 23, Garde Arts Center, New London

There was a palpable sense of relief and excitement when the ECSO finally set foot on the Garde stage after a long, COVID-induced absence. As a "welcome back" gesture to the sold-out crowd, the orchestra performed a fiery Beethoven's 5th Symphony. The rest of the clever program featured Polina Nazaykinskaya's haunting Fenix and, starring trumpeter Tom Brown, Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major.

— Rick Koster

Melissa Etheridge

Sept. 5, Garde Arts Center

This was the Garde’s first concert after theaters shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic. Everyone seemed so thrilled to be back. Etheridge is always a dynamic performer, but she was even more exhilarating than usual.

— Kristina Dorsey

Make Music Day

June 21, Downtown New London

I'm not sure anymore if all the world's still a stage but, for Make Music Day, the boulevards of New London sufficed. On street corners, in shops and restaurants, on Parade Plaza and the Hygienic Art Park, Cultured Studios, the Garde Arts Center and the parking lot of Cumulus Media, an incredibly wide variety of melodies, genres and rhythms poured forth.

— Rick Koster

Rosanne Cash

Nov. 5, Garde Arts Center

This was the first concert Cash had played since the pandemic shut everything down. She was in fine form; that voice was as rich and evocative as ever.

— Kristina Dorsey

United Theatre

Canal Street, Westerly

Special mention goes to a new venue that offers stage shows and concerts: The United Theatre, which opened this year. The location had been dormant since it closed in 1986. This new version, which also uses the former Montgomery Ward space next door, has had amazing renovation work done; it will make you want to visit again and again, whether to see a movie or enjoy a concert or view an art exhibit.

— Kristina Dorsey

 

RECORDED MUSIC

"Chew the Scenery"

Oscar Lang

If Robert Pollard back-flipped through Time and was suddenly 21 again, living in present-day London, and stumbled across an uncle's Todd Rundgren-heavy record collection, he might have been Oscar Lang — or at least really jealous if Oscar Lang was the kid next door. Lang is a wondrously prolific and talented post-indie rocker whose giddily melodic work on this debut album is too unabashedly sincere to be anything but an exercise in fun and musical passion.

— Rick Koster

"Music"

Sia

I’m not writing about the movie this is from (I haven’t seen it) but rather the soundtrack, which is just wonderful. It’s as upbeat as I’ve ever heard Sia, and if you don’t want to dance to numbers like “Hey Boy” and “1+1,” well, you’ll never want to dance.

— Kristina Dorsey

"Through Shaded Woods"

Lunatic Soul

This seventh album from Lunatic Soul — Riverside's Mariusz Duda's ongoing solo entity — almost comes off as what you'd expect if Jethro Tull made the soundtrack to an elf movie. Three important things: Even though I don't like elves or movies, books and video games devoted to them, if someone's going to make an elf album, Duda is a better choice than Tull (I far prefer Duda's melancholy voice to Anderson's leering rasp). Secondly, the progessive Slavic folk-rock that flavors and connects the songs is distinictive, mesmerically earthy and otherworldly. Finally, aplogies to Duda because I don't think he was pondering elves when he wrote this.

— Rick Koster

"="

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran's last release, "No. 6 Collaborations Project," was disappointing (at the time, I said the songs "tend to fade into a midtempo, mellow-spirited haze"), but "=" brings him back to his vibrant self. "Overpass Graffiti," "Shivers," "Tides," "Collide" ... you'd be hard-pressed to pick a best song here. There's a reason so many young male singers sound like Sheeran imitators; they recognize good coattails to ride.

— Kristina Dorsey

"Wind Up"

Wind Up

Full disclosure: Three of the four members of this band are ongoing friends I played with back in the day, and the fourth is also a pal. Fuller disclosure: There are many reasons why they're better off without me, and "Wind Up" is a prime example. This is a tremendous album of thoughtful, hyper-melodic, ambitious and exceedingly well-played art-pop that looks to the future as well as the past. Perfect for NOW, in other words. No way to know, but I suspect that, even without the personal connection, I'd listen to this album all the time. And I do.

— Rick Koster

"Heart"; "Soul"

Eric Church

One album? Not enough! Two? Still not enough! Over a few weeks, Eric Church released three albums boasting a total of 24 songs. That includes an "&" album (Get it? Heart & Soul), but that one was only available to fan club members. No worries; "Heart" and "Soul" satiated my need for country-rock. "Rock & Roll Found Me" and "Heart on Fire" might be my two favorite tunes here. 

— Kristina Dorsey

"The Future Bites"

Steven Wilson

Now that Steven Wilson has reconvened Porcupine Tree — something he'd led us to believe would never happen — I wonder if part of it is that he regards "The Future Bites" as somewhat of a less-than-successful experiment. Probably not; Wilson doesn't think that way. On the album, in which he largely eschews guitars for a heavy onslaught of electronica and programmed beats, Wilson boldly attempted to move in a direction that, at least for the period in which he wrote and recorded, he believed was The Future. "TFB" is always musically interesting, and Wilson is seemingly incapable of NOT including great melodies. And, lyrically, his observations are as piercing and bleak as always.

— Rick Koster

"Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night"

Bleachers

Jack Antonoff is the "it" producer of the moment (just ask Taylor Swift or Lorde). Here, he steps in front of the microphone for a new release by his Bleachers. Songwriting remains an Antonoff forte, and the numbers are entertainingly diverse. A few songs have a decidedly E Street vibe, and The Boss himself shows up; Bruce Springsteen duets on "Chinatown."

— Kristina Dorsey

 

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