Was 2013 my best ever live music year?
A big call I know but let’s just go through it.
The case FOR
- a great Byron Bay Bluesfest (probably the best ever) which featured stellar performances from (in no particular order) Go Jane Go, Shawn Colvin, Tav Falco and the Panther Burns (wow!!), JD McPherson, Wilco (twice), Ben Howard, The Lumineers, The Royal Southern Brotherhood, Shuggie Otis, Tedeschi Trucks Band and The Music Maker Blues Revue.
- A wonderful five-week trip to the USA where I could show my wife places I’d been to before like Clarksdale MS, the Mississippi Delta and Memphis TN. Exploring with good friends with similar music sensibilities three big, new music festivals, relaxing road trips, cracking side gigs and new places to visit. Having experienced the splendour of the Americana Music Awards and Conference for the first time – The Awards Show at the historic Ryman, the Showcase performances, the Conference itself and enjoying other aspects of one of the great music cities in the world. I calculated that there were around thirty-five acts that I wanted to see that I didn’t get to! Getting the biggest dollop of bluegrass imaginable at the Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh NC (in some ways it was just as intense as Americana in having to make tough choices which acts to see). Soaking up the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco which boasts probably the best roots music line-up on the planet.
- The local music scene in Melbourne Australia probably has never been stronger. The number and quality of venues and musicians, both local, national and overseas is at times a little overwhelming – so many choices. Of the visitors, I got to see two of my all-time legends within two weeks – Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Then there were other highlights from visitors Elizabeth Cook, First Aid Kit, Robert Ellis, Paul Thorn, The Reverend Horton Heat, Kevin Welch, Bear’s Den and Dale Watson and His Lone Stars.
- Local, delightful performances were a plenty – Raised By Eagles, Fraser A Gorman, Heath Cullen, The Livingston Daisies, Jack Howard, Ron S Peno, Russell Morris, Dan Waters, Mustered Courage, Liz Stringer, Mia Dyson, Jen Cloher, Charles Jenkins & The Zhivagos, Tex Perkins and Sweet Jean.
The case AGAINST
- I should have gone to more local gigs.
- I need to work out how to afford two trips to the USA each year!
- Best year ever!
So here are my top fifteen gigs for the year – this took a while as it was very tough to get the list down to a reasonable number.
15. Dyson Stringer Cloher – Balnarring Hall Regional Victoria (22 November)
Three Australian roots divas. All within striking distance of three recently-released glorious albums (Mia Dyson and The Moment, Liz Stringer and Warm In The Darkness and Jen Cloher’s In Blood Memory). The brilliant idea of touring together extensively and in some far-off, out-of-the-way places around Australia.
They shared the stage effortlessly and the material was of the highest calibre. I was lucky to see them perform at a community hall on the Mornington Peninsula where you were able to take in your own food and drink – a terrific, convivial atmosphere with good friends.
14. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Rod Laver Arena Melbourne (24 March)
The E Street Band numbered seventeen strong and were impeccable. Is drummer Max Weinberg the most important ingredient in this mixture (after Bruce of course)? It’s worth noting that there are so many songs that have Max’s trademark rolling powerhouse as the foundation – simply marvellous to behold.
Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave) filled in for Steve Van Zandt (absent due to acting duties). At first he seemed a little out of place but that thought quickly evaporated. In fact his performance on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” was for me the highlight of the night – maybe because it was a significant departure from previous versions and an unexpected treat.
The crowd was adoring. Bruce the showman was magnificent.
I thought for a moment that I was going to be able to touch him as he steamrolled by (see photo). If I could have shaken his hand, I would not have washed for who knows how long.
13. The Infamous Stringdusters – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina (28 September)
The last night in the Red Hat Amphitheatre at the Festival. This bluegrass outfit from Nashville released their first album in 2007. They were on the Americana Conference bill a week before in their hometown but I couldn’t get to see them.
Unlike most bluegrass acts at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, the Stringdusters have a dobro player which suits my sensibilities. Four lead singers, aforementioned dobro, banjo, guitar, fiddle and double bass. Players with persuasive prowess. Great jamming – absorbing and captivating. The real ‘grass deal but with Americana cross-over for broader appeal.
12. John Fullbright – Cannery Ballroom – Nashville Tennessee (19 September)
He plays with a sense of urgency and purpose. A guitar malfunction in the middle of the opening song did not faze him – he simply moved to keyboards.
Most of the material I heard was new to me, a sign of an artist on the move, never wanting to stand still. A fellow punter in the crowd told me of Fullbright performing a number of times at his house – I learned a lot from him. Apparently legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb was playing elsewhere in town and Fullbright dedicated a song to him, indicating that he rather be elsewhere so he could see Webb perform.
An emerging, forthright and serious artist.
11. Punch Brothers – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina (27 September)
A balmy and still evening. The Del McCoury band had just finished a set and the Punch Brothers were stunningly different.
Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile assembled this all-star quintet. Many of the band seem to have had classical training as it is infused in all their material. A fascinating, talented and unpredictable outfit. Recorded output started in 2008.
Be prepared to be challenged.
10. Wilco Bluesfest (1 April)
It was the fifth and last day at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest and we were pretty well done in. We had agreed to meet for an early departure when we noticed hordes of people leaving – this must be the Paul Simon crowd exiting. So the car park would be clogged and, most importantly, it meant that the crowd for Wilco’s second appearance would not be very large.
We willed ourselves to walk across to the other end of the site (again!) and so it turned out – a small crowd and we had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wilco’s entire ninety minute set from close up to close the festival.
The band was in career-best form on stage and I was thrilled that there were only a handful of songs repeated from the show I saw two days ago.
9. The Milk Carton Kids Thornbury Theatre Melbourne (6 June)
The funniest gig of the year! As you explore the lyrics of The Milk Carton Kids (and indeed even reflect on their choice of band name) and get a dose of them performing live (which I did twice this year), the depth of the material, the thoughtfulness and the arrangements comes rolling through. When Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are in the middle of one of the many instrumental pieces and deep into the playing, you swear that they may have lost their place, but the groove always returns.
The funniest performers to witness – such delightful and seemingly impromptu wittiness. I for one cannot wait for their next step.
8. Bear’s Den Downtown Presbyterian Church Nashville Tennessee (19 September)
Bear’s Den is a three-piece from London, beautiful harmonies – two guitars, one acoustic and one electric (or banjo) and the drummer (who also sometimes played bass at the same time!). I had no preconceptions about the band and I was captivated by their vocals, songwriting and banter. The sound in the large, square, flat-topped church was brilliant. Also, having a gig in a church has one huge advantage – no noisy bar and people talk only in whispers. It is all about the music.
I saw the band again that evening at the Mercy Lounge and was fortunate enough to see them on my return to Melbourne. One EP has been released and another about to become available. They had driven fifteen hours to make the church gig and they were out of their feet. It didn’t show. A delightful surprise. THE BEST BAND ON THE PLANET WITHOUT A FULL-LENGTH CD TO ITS NAME!
7. Calexico – Slim’s – San Francisco (4 October)
Calexico had played at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that day, finishing just before 7. The band spent a lot of time sound-checking (presumably they had no other time to do it) and by 10.15 they launched into “Pepita”. To say their performance was a sheer joy is an understatement. Much of their set comprised about seven songs from their most recent New-Orleans-recorded release Algiers which is a fine addition to the band’s impressive discography.
Favourites such as “Alone Again Or” and “Not Even Stevie Nicks” were well received. By the time they completed a rousing encore with “Guero Canelo”, the assembled were very content.
An excellent support set from Robert Ellis as well.
6. Peter Rowan – Raleigh Convention Centre – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh NC (28 September)
Michael Cleveland was absolutely stellar on the violin – you might like to check him out (see picture). He has won the Best Bluegrass Violinist Award nine times.
The forty-five minute set was over in what seemed a flash. There’s a calm and a simplicity about this man with a glorious history. I later chatted with his mandolin player Chris and collected Rowan’s excellent new CD Old School.
5. Ryan Bingham – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – San Francisco (6 October)
An Oscar-winning song for the movie Crazy Heart, the prestigious “Artist Of The Year” award from the Americana Music Association, an impressive and growing discography. Today it was just him and a fiddle player which provided a nice variation as I had last seen him with a full band in Austin a couple of years earlier.
It was a slow and moving set – just the guitar, fiddle and harmonica. He evoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie.
An excellent set, one which convinced me that he is a roots music star in the making.
4. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Rod Laver Arena Melbourne (15 March)
(By Geoffrey and Rob Dickens)
Neil plays what Neil wants. Anyone looking for a sweet, folkie dream would have been disappointed. What we got was “A Day in the Life” over the PA as an introduction (Beatles, not Neil) followed by an unexpected and slightly awkward Australian National Anthem with band on stage. But mostly what we got was a wall of grunge and feedback throughout the night. Long songs drawn out even further as Neil and the Band joyfully got in the groove and played their material as fresh as ever. Save for a rare acoustic rendition and a piano piece, it was all-electric and power-laden.
It’s pretty impressive how a 67-year-old performer who has released countless albums since his debut in 1968, decides to play almost twenty-five per cent of his material for the night from his most recent release Psychedelic Pill. It’s also praiseworthy that he includes an over twenty-minute rendition of “Walk Like A Giant” and two unreleased numbers in the set.
It’s fair to say that some of our number were starting to lose a little faith after Fork In The Road, Le Noise and Americana. It’s fair to say that after Psychedelic Pill and his show last week, we think that Neil continues to Walk Like A Giant. It would take your whole lifetime (and a generous stack of ticket stubs) to try to cover each aspect of this live persona, but this IS the way to see Neil Young, and this could have been THE night to do it.
All hail Neil – Long May He Run!!
3. Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express – The Make Out Room San Francisco California (5 October)
After some pretty mellow music over some of our trip (at Hardly Strictly and Wide Open Bluegrass Festivals), it was thrilling to get a high-octane rock show and even more so for me to see an artist that I have followed for many years but never had the opportunity to see live.
A privilege to be there. Another punter told me he had seen Prophet about twenty times and this was the pinnacle performance. Peter Case was a special guest.
The Mission Express comprised James DePrato on guitar, Kevin White (bass) Stephanie Finch (keyboard and vocals – nice version of “Different Drum”) and Vincente Rodriguez (drums). (The “Mission Express” is a bus line that runs through Chuck’s neighbourhood).
2. The Black Lillies – Levitt Shell – Memphis Tennessee (12 September)
Since picking up the band’s excellent 100 Miles Of Wreckage, I have been a big fan and enjoyed their follow-up release Runaway Freeway Blues which enhances their reputation. When I discovered they were playing in Memphis in September we made sure our trip itinerary was altered to see them play.
Sensational. I have waxed lyrical about this band previously on this site – see previous entries. This night we got to see Levitt Shell where Elvis Presley first performed professionally. An outdoor venue with a gentle grassy slope for universal viewing. It was a balmy night and we managed to get a park bench right up the front. The mood was festive, families on rugs and much dancing. The band performed their distinctive alternative country material with flair. And it was free.
1. Lucinda Williams – 3rd and Lindsley – Nashville Tennessee (22 September)
The gig was centred around the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of her third and self-titled album, one of my absolute favourites. The band was much the same as on her last tour of Australia – Stuart Mathis on guitarist (awesome), Butch Norton on drums and David Sutton bass.
The sound was a good as I have ever heard. Lucinda was relaxed and her voice strong and true – the great songs just kept coming, from her album aforementioned and others – she showcased a new song “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Jim Lauderdale guested on many of the songs. A cover of Gregg Allman’s “I’ll Make My Cross again” was excellent and the blistering band building to the encore Neil Young’s “Rocking In The Free World”.
The support act The Kenneth Brian Band were really interesting (“country-fried rock n roll”). The table we were on provided us with some interesting discussions at first and some revelry later.
A joy. The best concert I have seen this year. The best sound. The audience rapturous and adoring. It was a stunning night and perfect way to close the Americana Conference and Awards.