Critic's Choice: Dylan, FreshGrass among best concerts of the year

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As it often is, the past year in popular music in the Berkshires was a rich fabric of styles, genres and generational favorites.

The county's four major venues — Tanglewood in Lenox, the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Mass MoCA in North Adams and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington — all offered an impressive array of performers throughout the year.

Were we forced to make a pronouncement on "the best" concerts, Tanglewood's summer season packed some quality in the Shed this year.

The double bill of Nobel Award-winner Bob Dylan and Kennedy Center honoree Mavis Staples probably headed the list. Staples told us that her stint in July was her first Tanglewood show. Ah, Mavis, this correspondent recalls that halcyon night in the early 1970s when you and the rest of the Staples Singers opened for — wait for it — the monstrously self-indulgent Iron Butterfly.

Staples blended soul, gospel and funk in her signature style in July.

Headliner Dylan frustrated some in the sold-out audience by playing a vast majority of selections from his last three discs. But Bob is Bob, and those who do not expect the unexpected have been doomed to disappointment since he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Tanglewood this year was, in some ways, a fogeyfest, as a vast majority of the headliners were senior citizens. But boy, there was some serious talent. Highlights (for this reporter) were Brian Wilson's version of "Sail On Sailor" on July 2; Warren Haynes and the Boston Symphony Esplanade Orchestra's performance of "Blues For Allah" on July 1; and a crushing version of "Planet Claire" by the B-52s and the BSO on Sept. 2.

Other highlights, and there were more than this, but there's only so much space, was Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue," James Taylor's version of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" and blessings to the wonderful Phillip Bailey, who, at 65 still delivered an emotional version of "Reasons" at the June 18 concert of Earth, Wind and Fire.

At the other end of the musical spectrum is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which delivered a slate of performers of a decidedly younger strata.

Mass MoCA's now world-class Freshgrass Festival was their highlight, featuring Ricky Skaggs, Roseanne Cash and Old Crow Medicine Show, among many others. In addition, we were treated to solid shows from the National, Rubblebucket and Dinosaur Jr.

The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, the best neighborhood venue in New England, also saw some great shows. Melissa Etheridge's Christmas Show was probably the highlight, but your reporter has fond memories of saxophonist Joshua Redman, rocker John Hiatt, icon Arlo Guthrie and genre-defying musician ramblin' Jack Elliot.

The most intriguing show of the year was at the Colonial Theatre, where the amazing Havana Cuba All-Stars made their U.S. debut in October. The All-Stars were both entertaining and educational, as they presented a smooth blend of percussion, brass and superb harmonies to an enthusiastic audience.

Credit also goes to ex-Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, who performed a thunderous solo show; local faves Bela's Bartock and Tor Krauter's stunning recreation of "The Last Waltz" concert by the Band featuring local performers.

Reach staffer Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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