If I thought choosing twenty album releases for the year was a challenge, reporting on the best live shows in 2014 has been extremely tough.
My live music year in can be described as plentiful and remarkable. Plentiful in the sense that I outdid past deeds in attending seven music festivals for the year which I estimate to equate to about twenty three full days of music alone. After applying my first filter through the best gigs or sets of the year, I was left with over forty that left me thrilled. The remarkable bit is that two of the best live music experiences are not even included – the Americana Honors and Awards Show in Nashville TN and the IBMA’s Bluegrass Awards (Raleigh NC) – as they don’t really qualify, such is the composite nature of those evenings.
Choosing the best is extremely subjective. Who is on stage and how they perform is only a part of the deal. The chosen set list for the occasion, the acoustics generally, the sound where you are sitting or standing, who you are with, the level of extraneous noise and lastly but not leastly (sic), your own state of mind. Contributory factors all of them.
Here they are.
See you in 2015 and thanks for reading!
20. Sean Rowe – Soulshine Pizza Factory (Americanafest) Nashville Tennessee – 18 September
Sean Rowe was part of a Six Shooter Records (Canadian Label) showcase. An intense-looking man with the deepest, soulful voice. I was impressed by the spirit, intensity and individuality. Just him and a battered acoustic guitar. The song “Shine My Diamond Ring” was memorable.
19. Paul Thorn Band – Roots n Blues n BBQ Festival Columbia Missouri – 28 September
Not the first time I’d seen Paul Thorn, but by far the best. The difference here was the breadth of material he played and the more interactive festival audience that he seemed to enjoy. Always likable, engaging and honest, Thorn played tunes from his recent release, but also reached back into his growing back catalogue and produced super versions of “Snake Farm” and especially “A Long Way From Tupelo”. Also, he recorded “Doctor My Eyes” on the recent Jackson Browne tribute album and his rendition today of that song was highly effective. Great set from a man who never disappoints.
18. Old 97’s – Southern Ground Festival Charleston South Carolina – 12 October
Old 97’s really pumped it out. “Barrier Reef” was feisty, a Merle Haggard cover was interesting and respectful, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” was fun, “Wish The Worst” was pleading and “West Texas Teardrops” was sensitive. The boys from Dallas Texas released a new terrific album this year Most Messed Up and it was a joy to see them for the first time.
17. Marlon Williams – JamGrass Festival Melbourne Australia – 2 November
Saw Marlon Williams do a solo show earlier in the year, which didn’t quite engage me on the night. Here he had a crack band and his material (interesting originals and tasteful covers) was uplifting. His performance was hypnotising. At one point either he or I seemed to be a trance-like state and I swear I saw…Elvis and Hank together. Go see this guy!
16. Garland Jeffreys – Bluesfest Byron Bay Australia – 18 April
We were right up the front for Garland Jeffreys. What a tremendous performance. A golden voice and a showman to boot, intermingling with the crowd at every opportunity and knowing exactly how to deliver his New York-style edgy poetry with a hip groove. Joe Camilleri was on hand to play some tremendous saxophone, to support his old friend. Wild In The Tent!
15. Steve Earle and The Dukes – Bluesfest Byron Bay Australia – 17 April
I’d never seen Steve Earle with a band before (the economics of his touring Australia with a band have been prohibitive to date) and I was not disappointed. With The Mastersons (Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore), Kelly Looney (bass) and Will Rigby (drums) behind him, I was given a tremendous insight into his work over many years. From a number of songs from his debut Guitar Town in the 80’s to his most recent release (2013’s The Low Highway), the crowd was treated to the full breadth of his material. He also played some songs he wrote for the Treme TV series and “the first ever piano song I’ve ever written”.
14. Chatham County Line – Station Inn (Americanafest) Nashville Tennessee – 19 September
Chatham County Line had just released their seventh album. The Station Inn is an icon. Tonight’s set was terrific, full of classy playing and stage choreography involving sharing the one microphone, quality songs and playfulness. “Tightrope”, the title track from their new album, “Everything’s Going To Be Alright”, “Carolina” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” were excellent.
13. North Mississippi Allstars – Bluesfest Byron Bay – 18 April
Boogie all night long! The brothers Dickinson, along with Lightning Malcolm put on a stunner show – a brilliant and frenetic set of music. At various stages during the show, it was hard to keep up with who was playing what – drum kit, guitars, electric washboard, bass, bass drums, kettle drums. The interplay was engaging and fresh and it just looked so spontaneous. Their march through the crowd was memorable, all on drums and whistles.
12. Jason Isbell – Bluesfest Byron Bay – 21 April
I had been looking forward to seeing Jason Isbell almost above anyone this year, on the back of his recent Southeastern which was my favourite album of 2013. He was touring with his band The 400 Unit as well as his wife and performing artist Amanda Shires on violin and backing vocals. Many of the great songs from Southeastern were on the set list – “Stockholm”, “Relatively Easy” and particularly “Elephant” and “Cover Me up” were inspiring. A rousing “Super 8″ closed the hour-long set, the quickest sixty minutes of the music year.
11. Earls of Leicester – Yazoo Brewery (Americanafest) Nashville Tennessee – 18 September
The Earls of Leceister is a new collaboration, featuring dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp and other bluegrass alumni. The performance was traditional in sound, look and projection. Three mikes, two shared between five of the band members as they constantly shuffled on the stage to share the front. This bluegrass super group was a stand out, highlighting their self-titled release which is an unabashed tribute to bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
10. Leo “Bud” Welch – Crescent City Blues n BBQ Festival – 17 October
Leo “Bud” Welch had his first recording released at the age of 81. It was a pleasure to see a guy who’s finally got some serious recognition after all this time. True Mississippi blues, which has a distinct sound and sparseness. Sabougla Voices is the name of his album and, if my memory serves me, he only played one song off that release this day – “Mother Loves Her Children”. The other songs were sort of introduced but I found it pretty hard to pick up their names with much accuracy – so here goes: “Another Man’s Wife”, “I Don’t Know That Woman Thing” (a stirring, moaning repetitive chant, almost hypnotizing), “I Come To Play This Thing”, “Let The Devil Ride”, “I’ve Been Mistreated”, “Three O’clock In The Morning” and covers of “Mojo Working” (twice – the second time as an encore), a cracking “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Further On Up The Road”, “Put On Your Red Dress” and “My Babe”. I loved his closing remark to the audience – “hope you got something out of the deal”. We did Mr Welch sir. A joy.
9. Leftover Salmon – Ryman Auditorium Nashville Tennessee – 15 September
A celebration anniversary for Leftover Salmon, a band that recorded a seminal album called The Nashville Sessions in 1999. A packed house and standing ovation even before the band started and the entire event filmed for posterity. The band performed the album in its entirety and many other tunes – a couple of songs from the new album and some killer covers – “Cripple Creek” by The Band and Little Feat’s “Willing”. The guests were many and varied – including Sam Bush, Elizabeth Cook, Taj Mahal, Del McCoury, Rob McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Darrell Scott, Randy Scruggs and Reese Wyans. A special night of over three hours of music.
8. Sturgill Simpson – City Winery (Americanafest) Nashville Tennessee – 17 September
Straight after the Americana Honors and Awards show, Sturgill Simpson played a totally absorbing and impressive set. It is said that he is the new, brave face of Outlaw Country and I can see why. He looks like he was born on stage, a terrific voice and strong, no-nonsense attitude. A treat to hear songs from the brilliant Metamodern Sounds In Country Music live. The band was outstanding – Estonian lead guitarist Laur Joamets is hot!
7. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – AAMI Park Melbourne Australia – 16 February
What’s not to like about this legendary showman? The fans were fantastic, the venue first class, the sound pristine, viewing great and the music incomparable. Almost four hours, a set list longer than your arm and he performed the entire Born To Run album! Two women asked my wife to get up and dance during “Dancing In The Dark”. During their obvious euphoria, one of the women, a stranger, said to my wife: “You’d sleep with Bruce if you had the chance, wouldn’t you?”
6. Gary Clark Jr – Bluesfest Byron Bay Australia – 21 April
When blues music is going through a phase when there’s not a whole lot of innovation, Gary Clark Jr gives us hope. Clearly ingrained in traditional blues, he manages to refresh it to avoid the blues guitar cliches that are so prevalent. Add to the guitar prowess his soulful voice (well removed from the growly gravel vocals of many bluesmen), and you have a potent mix. His stature this night was one of a musician at the top of his game. The song “Blak and Blu” was a killer and the closing song “Bright Lights” was an epic which mesmerised the crowd.
5. The Fairfield Four and The McCrary Sisters – Downtown Presbyterian Church (Americanafest) Nashville Tennessee – 20 September
A two hour, televised tribute to The McCrary Sisters and the Fairfied Four, almost 100 years of tradition – gospel music at its very best. The Fairfied Four featured on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (“Lonesome Valley”). The harmonies and the kindred spirit were on display – an uplifting and joyous celebration, and all in the setting of a two hundred year-old beautiful and unique treasured building. The acoustics were perfect. Special guests were the icing on the cake – Amos Lee, Buddy Miller, Van Hunt, Lee Anne Womack and Lucinda Williams.
4. Rosanne Cash – Roots n Blues n BBQ Festival Columbia Missouri – 21 September
Rosanne Cash was a delight, demonstrating most songs from one of my favourite releases of the year, The River and The Thread. Those tunes are about the deep South and her emotional attachment to it and its influence on her and her father Johnny. When you hear those songs played, with her brilliant band, a highly respectful and attentive crowd, you have the perfect ingredients for a stellar set. “A Feather’s Not A Bird”, “Etta’s Tune” (her co-write Civil War tale with Rodney Crowell) “When The Master Calls The Roll”, “Money Road” (all from the new release), “Tennessee Flattop Box” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” just some of the highlights of this masterful session.
3. All Star Jam – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival Raleigh North Carolina – 3 October
Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan put on a ninety-minute, jamming, virtuoso performance that was breathtaking. There were tour de force tunes for every instrument on stage, solos, folk, bluegrass, Irish lilts, improvisations galore, a Bob Dylan cover (“Girl Of The North Country”) and a section of different duets. When Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek mandolin player Chris Thile joined in at the end, all hell broke loose.
2. Beth Hart – Bluesfest Byron Bay Australia – 18 April
I always knew Beth Hart had a killer voice. Seeing her live for the first time made me appreciate that the recordings I have heard don’t really capture the drama, fragility, passion and emotion of this dynamic performer. The interplay with the lead guitarist was memorable, as were many of the songs – “Caught Out In The Rain” was chilling. By the end of the performance, she looked emotionally and physically exhausted, holding nothing back.
1. Lucinda Williams – City Winery (Americanafest) Nashville Tennessee – 21 September 2014
Lucinda Williams closed the Americana festival for the second year in a row. Tonight’s band was the same as last year – Stuart Mathis (guitar), David Sutton (bass) and Butch Norton (drums). The set list spanned her stellar back catalogue and previewed many tunes from her then-to-be-released double album masterwork Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Her band set up is simple, they are wonderful players and have been together for a while now. There’s not much complication with other instrumentation thereby making it easier to get the sound consistently pristine. “Little Angel Little Brother”, “Pineola”, “Unsuffer Me”, “Essence” and the sweet, smouldering and soulful cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia” were highlights. Amos Lee and Elizabeth Cook guested. A special night again from the “Queen of Americana”.
Also highly worthy live shows in 2014, (in no order)
Neko Case – 1 March – Melbourne Zoo
Devon Allman – 19 April – Bluesfest Byron Bay
Robben Ford – 20 April – Bluesfest Byron Bay
John Murry 22 August – Spotted Mallard – Melbourne
Chatham County Line – 3 October – Red Hat Amphitheatre Raleigh North Carolina
North Mississippi Allstars – 11 October – Blackbaud Stadium Charleston South Carolina
Tift Merritt – 14 April – Mesa Verde Melbourne
Sweet Jean – 7 September – Worker’s Club Melbourne
Bobby Rush – 18 October – Lafayette Square New Orleans
Hurray For The Riff Raff – 17 October – Joy Theatre New Orleans
Peter Rowan – 4 March – Spotted Mallard Melbourne
Raised By Eagles – 5 April – Lomond Hotel Melbourne
John Prine – 27 September – Roots n Blues n BBQ 2014 Columbia Missouri
Valerie June – 20 April – Bluesfest Byron Bay
Darrell Scott – 11 October – Blackbaud Stadium Charleston South Carolina
Luke Winslow-King Band – 16 October – Three Muses New Orleans
Suzanne Vega – 17 April – Bluesfest Byron Bay
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks – 8 October – Birthplace of Country Music Museum Bristol Virginia/Tennessee