By Rob Dickens
If I was to include every single set which involved at least one song, I have borne witness to way over two hundred performances during the year. Accordingly, to distill into my top twenty is not that easy!
As I look in the rear vision mirror, the year had a number of major influences.
Firstly, some magnificent overseas tourists wowed Australia early on. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings Machine contiguous tours won our hearts and, for many, our wallets as we followed them around Australia. The Decemberists, Jackson Browne and Calexico were here too, although Calexico‘s show was severely mauled by poor sound (at Hamer Hall in downtown Melbourne astoundingly).
The live year was dominated by my five-week US tour which brought so many joyous shows that have led to the best of list below being overpowered by them. In fact three festivals – fayettevilleroots (Fayetteville, Arkansas), Rhythm and Roots Reunion (Bristol Virginia/Tennessee) and AmericanaFest (Nashville) – overwhelmed me with the level of graceful musicianship and the sheer volume of crack shows. I was also taken by the number of new, youthful faces that I observed first hand – Rorey Carroll, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Dori Freeman, Kaia Kater, River Whyless, The Americans, Forlorn Strangers, Miss Tess, Levi Parham and Woody Pines – and it is very comforting indeed that our music future is assured.
House concerts continue to flourish and are a perfect way to see artists up close, with friends, in a respectful environment and with those on stage getting all the benefits directly without anyone in the middle. I attended quite a few during the year and am indebted to my hosts – Baz and Susan, Monica and Bruce, Geoff and Kerry, Peter and Jane, and Dawn for taking me along in Fayetteville AR.
Next year will have some new thrills for me on the live performance front – two music boat cruises out of Florida, my first visit to the long-standing and much-loved Port Fairy Folk Festival and escorting the Total Tennessee Tour and Blue Ridge Mountain/Appalachian Experience which is going to be so much fun, where I get to share the best music with new like-minded friends.
Anyway, enough of the pre-amble.
Here are my twenty favourite shows of 2016!
How About You!?
Did you go to any of the shows below? What did you think?
Put in a comment below, right at the bottom of this page, about your best show or shows of the year
Be good to hear from you!!
20. Peter Rowan Band – Fayetteville, Arkansas (Fayettevilleroots Festival)
This was the third time I’d seen The Peter Rowan Band in three days. It was the best. In front of a large crowd and with a longer set they provided a terrific array of material, reminding us as to what a bluegrass/singer-songwriter/folk icon is Peter Rowan. The subject of a recent documentary The Tao of Bluegrass, Rowan has played with Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia and just about everyone else in what has been a stellar career.
His band tonight was exemplary, some of the great players – Keith Little (banjo), Chris Henry (mandolin), Paul Knight (bass), Blaine Sprouse (fiddle) and Jamie Oldaker (percussion). As well as being The Peter Rowan Band, they also come under the wry moniker The Awesome Possums.
The chilling ‘Land of The Navajo’ showed Rowan’s voice to be in fine fettle and this extended version had everybody jamming in an incredible groove. The set included some Ralph Stanley, punchy instrumentals and gospel infusions and finished with rapturous applause.
19. Gregory Alan Isakov – Fayetteville, Arkansas (Fayettevilleroots Festival)
Gregory Alan Isakov is based in Colorado, after moving from his birthplace of Johannesburg, South Africa and being raised in Philadelphia PA. He has been touring since the age of 16, and the constant movement has had a significant impact on his story-telling which is vivid and full of emotional landscapes. His measured, breathy vocals are reminiscent of the great Leonard Cohen and strikes me as someone who cannot imagine doing anything other than being a musician.
He has four or so albums out, with the latest being Gregory Alan Isakov With The Colorado Symphony released this year. It was an interesting insight for me this night. He had a sizable band, plus a string orchestra for much of the set. One song he played with all the lights in the auditorium down. His voice has a likable, rough-hewn timbre and there is a powerful world-weary observation around his lyrics. The terrific ‘Liars’ was a highlight. The Shook Twins joined for one song, as did many other performers for a wonderful finale.
It was a classy and thought-provoking experience and the Isakov records that I have listened to since have cemented my admiration for this artist.
18. River Whyless – 12th & Porter, Nashville (Americana Festival)
This was just about the last act I saw at the Americana Festival. I had been on the road for five weeks in the US and, after five very busy days at Americana, was dog-tired. I recall bumping into renowned music journalist Craig Havighurst at this gig and wasn’t much company (sorry Craig!). But River Whyless inspired and invigorated me just one last time.
Chanting, jaunty, great harmonies, some Eastern mysticism and just about anything else goes into this band’s heady mix.
This Asheville, North Carolina outfit really impressed – Ryan O’Keefe (vocals, guitar), Halli Anderson (vocals, violin), Daniel Shearin (bass, vocals) and Alex McWalters (drums). They have released two full length albums A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door (2012) and 2016’s We All the Light. They jumped into the middle of the crowd at the end and performed a beautiful rendition (sans microphones) of Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. A joy.
17. Todd Snider – Black Mountain, North Carolina (Todd Snider’s East Nashville Revue)
This was a great bill – Elizabeth Cook, Kevin Gordon, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Rory Carroll had all played in this beautiful outdoor setting. The headliner Todd Snider I had seen last year as front man for the Hard Working Americans. It was one of my favourite shows of the year – he was charismatic on stage, in the moment, passionate, jaunty, enjoying himself and being in such a classy outfit. Tonight, for now, it was just him and an acoustic guitar (he came out later and played a group set). My affection for his work grew further as a result of his set – such an easy rapport on stage, joking with the interjectors and handling song requests (most of which he accepted with grace and memorable retorts). He too has a new record coming out (doesn’t everyone it seems?!) Eastside Bulldogs.
The set list included the philosophical ‘Can’t Complain’, ‘Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Males’, the playful ‘Tension’, a co-write with his old friend Will Kimborough that he hadn’t played for a long time ‘Horseshoe Lake’, the hunt for ‘D. B. Cooper’, ‘Double Wide Blues’, the hilarious ‘Alright Guy’, ‘Just Like Old Times’ and the life-affirming ‘Enjoy Yourself’. It was a long treat.
16. Old Crow Medicine Show Fayetteville, Arkansas (Fayettevilleroots Festival)
From delicacy to vibrancy. Old Crow Medicine Show followed the Peter Rowan Band (see above), cranking up proceedings and whipping the crowd into a frenzy from the get-go. This was the first time I had seen the band without the impressive Willie Watson and they have not missed a beat.
OCMS has been an integral part of the revival of folk/old-time music, bringing a vitality with great theatre and highly attuned to the music traditions that preceded them. The set list included ‘Alabama High Test’, ‘Take ‘Em Away’, ‘Sweet Amarillo’ (from the latest album), ‘Back Home Again’ (John Denver), ‘Country Gal’, a frenetic ‘Tiger Rag’ followed by a rousing and emotional medley of ‘I Hear Them All’ and Woody Guthrie’s classic ‘This Land Is Your Land’.
The encores of Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’ and [Nat King Cole’s (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66] did not quite work as well for this listener, but it would be nit-picking to deny OCMS the triumph they deserved tonight, as they closed the night’s proceedings tremendously well.
15. Birds of Chicago Fayetteville, Arkansas (Fayettevilleroots Festival)
Birds of Chicago are Allison Russell (vocals, banjo, clarinet) and JT Nero (vocals, guitar), releasing the terrific Real Midnight album earlier this year with Joe Henry at the production helm.
Their music is a classy blend of roots, blues and soul. Tonight the band was extensive and impressive – Joel Schwartz (lead guitar), Nick Chambers (drums), Christopher Merrill (bass) and JT’s brother Lindsay Nero (keyboards). Proceedings kicked off with the simmering ‘Real Midnight’ and led into the rocking and layered soul of ‘Flying Dreams’. ‘Til It’s Gone’ was sensational.
The warmth of Russell and the humour of Nero is an engaging combo and the banjo and, particularly, the clarinet add a beautiful brushed nuance to the band’s overall sound. The strength of the material demonstrates the passionate strength of the musical partnership. This set was breathtaking.
14. Steep Canyon Rangers – Brevard, North Carolina (Mountain Song Festival)
The Steep Canyon Rangers today enjoyed a home-town advantage, clearly showing they own this turf, like home-town sporting heroes that can do no wrong. And, of course this accomplished six-piece are at the top of their game and were in front of an adoring crowd – what is not to like?
I had first seen the band as a support outfit for the talented and scene-stealing Steve Martin in New Orleans a ways back, and subsequently on their own twice at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in Raleigh North Carolina. I had had, however, little exposure to the band’s new 2016 album Radio and there seemed to be nowhere better to experience it than here.
‘Radio’, ‘I Can’t Sit Down’, ‘Be Still Moses’ were excellent and then The Kruger Brothers were invited on and played on a mighty instrumental which featured not less than one fiddle, two banjos, two guitars, acoustic bass, electric bass, percussion and a mandolin. It was magical.
The Rangers then came back for a stirring encore, the uplifting ‘The Mountain’s Gonna Sing’.
13. Deering & Down – The Filling Station, Nashville (Americana Festival)
Deering & Down are Canadian-born chanteuse Lahna Deering and rock and roll journeyman Rev Neil Down.
The mix I witnessed as part of a Memphis showcase at The Filling Station in Nashville was unusual and compelling. The merging of Deering’s strong belt-it-out voice, and Down’s quirky guitar playing was a creative joy. I had their CD while the set was on, but could not guess one song they were playing. Nor could I tell when the song was going to finish. I like that.
12. Honeyhoney – Bristol Virginia/Tennessee (Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival)
The third full-length effort from Los Angeles-based duo HONEYHONEY (3) was produced by man-in-demand Dave Cobb.
It is an album born from fascination with light and dark, beauty and danger.
On stage, the duo was a force of nature – lead singer/banjo player/violinist Suzanne Santo provides a real striking presence while vocalist/guitarist Ben Jaffe provided the engine room with gritty guitar twists. Their harmony-driven brand of driving indie roots rock was a little akin to Shovels & Rope, but they do mix it up more, with their sound ever-changing.
11. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Bristol Virginia/Tennessee (Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival)
The scene was the pretty and ornate Paramount Theatre in the middle of State Street which is in the heart of Bristol Virginia/Tennessee and therefore the epicentre of the Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival. The theatre was just about full but the band was nowhere to be found – apparently “lost”.
Finally, they arrived, set up their gear in quick time, and without so much as a “check, check, check” blasted into the first song with brilliance and precision. Aaron Lee Tasjan is on the ‘hot radar’ at the moment. A young performer from hip East Nashville, was heralded as ‘one to watch’ for the crowded Americana Music Festival bill the next week.
I had, in fact, seen him just one week ago in North Carolina where he did not make a huge impression on me (he was acoustic solo and I was distracted by talking to some locals, admittedly). This time though, he was a revelation. A four-piece that rocked the Paramount Theatre Stage. He has the looks of Gram Parsons and the band does rocking boogies like T Rex. I subsequently have listened to his new CD Silver Tears which is brilliant, one of the finds of 2016.
10. Eric Burdon and the Animals, Palais Theatre, Melbourne
This had been a long time coming. Eric Burdon was a huge influence during my formative years. Despite this, I confess that I had never been able to manage to see him perform live. This was largely due to having previously lived on the lovely island of Tasmania where tours are rare and partly because Burdon does not come to mainland Australia that often – this was his first visit in nearly a decade.
The news of the day that Texas singer/songwriter Guy Clark passed away at about the same age as Burdon added some extra emotion to the evening.
The opening ‘Spill the Wine’ set the scene beautifully. He was dressed in black, a peace sign on his T-shirt, shades and white hair. The voice is great. ‘See See Rider’ with its thumping organ, ‘When I Was Young’, ‘Monterey’, ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ and the ballad ‘Anything’. During the middle section, there were some interesting and enjoyable choices from his latest album Til Your River Runs Dry), ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’, a scorching ‘In The Pines’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Downbound Train’ (an absolute highlight) and an engrossing ‘Star Man’/’Sky Pilot’ medley.
As Burdon left the stage to a standing ovation from the near-full house from which there were many cries for “more”, he pointed to his watch with a cheeky grin – it was closing time.
Still the cool guy in charge, Eric Burdon’s legend remains well and truly intact.
9. Shovels & Rope – Fayetteville Arkansas (Fayettevilleroots Festival)
Shovels & Rope (Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Kent) hail from Charleston South Carolina and burst on to the scene with O Be Joyful (2012) and followed up with Swimmin’ Time (2014) and, just recently, Little Seeds, which coincides with the birth of their daughter.
They form a powerhouse duo of drums, electric guitar, keyboard, effects and associated percussion devices. They swap instruments as easily as passing the plate over the dinner table. The music is a highly individual and high-octane take on roots music and derivations.
A delayed start due to sound problems meant a late finish to the set, but no one seemed to mind as they watch the force-of-nature set unfold – ‘Birmingham’, ‘Keeper’, ‘The Devil Is All Around’, a slow burning, soulful ‘After The Storm’, ‘Lay Low’ and an incendiary version of ‘Swimmin’ Time’. It looked like the set list was pretty pliable as the couple seem to have brief exchanges about what they (or they think the crowd) want(s).
The new songs on display sounded terrific.
8. Hayes Carll – Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee (Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival)
Texan Hayes Carll has been an alt. country feature for a while, with his last three releases capturing more and more attention – Trouble In Mind (2008), KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011) and 2016’s Lovers and Leavers.
Today he was part of a trio with a light drum kit (‘can’t afford a full set’) and a pedal steel/electric masterful guitarist, Geoff Queen. His is a casual and amusing stage presence, like he’s talking to folk on his front porch over a beer. The songs included ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’, the driving, talking blues, ‘KMAG YOYO’, the rolling, country blues of ‘Bible on the Dash’ and ‘Chances Are’ (which Lee Ann Womack recorded).
I was won over.
7. The Decemberists – Hamer Hall, Melbourne
This Bluesfest sideshow was an acoustic delight as this indie folk outfit from Portland Oregon showcased songs from their latest release and took material evenly from most of their earlier albums.
And so it was from the beginning. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy walked alone to the microphone, acoustic guitar in hand and started with the beautifully appropriate ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, the opening track of the band’s latest release What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. The rest of the players then quietly entered and rode the song to a splendid crescendo.
The band members are incredible players without overly drawing attention to themselves. Chris Funk (guitars etc), Nate Query (bass), Jenny Conlee (keyboards) and John Moen (drums) are also members of the fascinating ‘new grass’ outfit Black Prairie and they carry out whatever they turn their minds to with ease.
But the centrepiece clearly is Meloy, whose voice is strikingly good. In a strange sort of way, he reminds me of Michael Stipe of REM. Vocals so rich and resonating, articulation so complete that he would make an English teacher smile. Lyrically, he is an astute and wry observer of humanity.
There were many highlights – ‘Down by the Water’, ‘The Rake’s Song’ and ‘Cavalry Captain’ come to mind. More rollicking fun ensued with an epic version of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ featuring a large and delightful toothy whale prop.
Three encores were met with standing ovations which capped off a memorable night, a triumph for a band whose shadow continues to grow rapidly.
6. Darrell Scott Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee (Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival)
Respected singer-songwriter Darrell Scott had some unexpected help during his set at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival.
Scott provided a moving rendition of his recently deceased friend Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ and, at the perfect and most poignant moment at the close of the song, a freight train blew its whistle and shuffled past only meters behind the stage, as if it was part of the act.
Add to that, a virtuoso performance – Scott’s exemplary guitar playing, the great Kenny Malone on drums and Bryn K Davies on acoustic bass. His version of Paul Simon‘s ‘American Tune’ was brilliant. There were a few songs from his captivating 2016 release The Couchville Sessions and many from his impressive back catalogue. ‘Down to The River’, which opens the new album was played with Clark’s recorded voice-over broadcast tonight over the P.A.
5. William Bell 3rd & Lindsley, Nashville (Americana Festival)
William Bell received an Americana song-writing award two nights earlier – he released great songs when the Stax label ruled Southern soul, including ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, ‘Born under a Bad Sign’ and ‘Everybody Loves a Winner’, and have been covered by Albert King, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Idol, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James and Warren Haynes.
In 2016 he released This Is Where I Live (produced by John Levanthal), on a revitalised Stax label.
Here he had a twelve-piece band, the sound was brilliant, his voice amazing and the new material stood up very well e.g. ‘Mississippi Arkansas Bridge’. Stax is back and Southern soul reigns again.
4. Chris Stapleton – Waterfront Park, Louisville Kentucky
It was not the easiest build-up, as a series of somewhat strange and unsettling things happened to me during that day.
Plus, the concert itself was not particularly well-organised.
But… when Chris Stapleton hit the stage with the growling ‘Nobody To Blame’, everything was forgotten. Songs from his recent (and, incredibly, only solo album) Traveller featured throughout the night as you would expect, the beautiful two-step duet ‘More Of You’, the long, burning ‘Outlaw State of Mind’, the chilling ‘Was It 26’, ‘Might As Well Get Stoned’ which really showcased his ‘monster’ voice, ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ and the soaring ‘Fire Away’ were there as well.
I was surprised that Stapleton was doing all the guitar work himself, accompanied by bass, drums and wife Morgane on backing vocals. A fine player he is too.
An encore of ‘Whiskey and You’, ‘Traveller’, ‘Parachute’ and the breathtaking ‘Sometimes I Cry’ and it was all over.
I still remember the first time I heard Stapleton’s voice as a member of The SteelDrivers and it has taken me a while to finally see him in concert. Attending this event was not without its challenges – but…if I had to do it all again, I would without hesitation.
The concert was a triumph and a showcase of an incredibly talented and versatile performer. Stapleton is one of those performers (along with Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson) who is revitalising country/alt. country/Americana music.
This night I got to see him do it in person
3. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Some friends have suggested that the Dave Rawlings Machine concert days later at the same venue was even better, but I could only get to this show.
The Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings Machine 2016 tours in Australia came after the legendary performances now some years ago. Every show was like as a renewed love affair as the darling Americana/traditional music pair wowed us from one end of the continent to another (which they drove rather than flying). Never was the relationship between performers and audience so close as in Melbourne and the Saturday show this night was a joy from end-to-end.
Welch’s pure and stunning voice, Rawlings guitar wizardry and their enthusiastic invigoration of folk and traditional music are all now legendary. The opening song ‘Scarlet Town’, ‘Rock of Ages’, ‘The Way It Will Be’, ‘Time (The Revelator)’, ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, ‘Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor’, ‘Six White Horses’ The hoedown, leg slapping and stomp dance by Welch was delightful.
Two phenomenal sets over an interval and a wonderful encore (‘Everything Is Free’, ‘I’ll Fly Away’, ‘White Rabbit and ‘Long Black Veil’). Let’s hope it is not another twelve years before they return to Australian shores.
2. The Americana Honor and Awards Show Ryman Auditorium, Nashville (Americana Festival)
Steve Earle’s thunderous rendition, with the Buddy Miller All-Star Band, of ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’, a tribute to his close friend Guy Clark who passed away this year, was worth the admission price alone.
Other performances included Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan, Joe Henry, Bob Weir, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Shawn Colvin, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, The Milk Carton Kids, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires, Billy Bragg, John Moreland, The Lumineers, Parker Millsap, William Bell, Lucinda Williams, George Strait and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Numerous awards were handed out throughout the night and some Honors for some of our greatest artists.
- John Prine – The Station Inn, Nashville (Americana Festival)
The most RSVP’d event at AmericanaFest this year (where there were over two hundred performers and I don’t know how many more performances).
Prine performed two riveting sets – one which featured his first, self-titled 1971 album front-to- back, with a second set of songs around his new duets release and some of the greatest songs from his extensive catalogue. Prine’s debut album clearly has stood the test of time. As Prine himself acknowledged, the band regularly includes ten of the thirteen tracks in their live shows. And so it went – ‘Hello in There’, ‘Sam Stone’, ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get you Into Heaven Anymore’; (JP: “I keep this in mothballs until we have an election”), ‘Far From Me’, ‘Angel From Montgomery’, (JP: “It’s fun to learn your own songs again”), ‘Donald and Lydia’, ‘Six O’clock News’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Flashback News’.
During this first set, the bar was closed which was a significant commercial, respectful concession by the venue and helped keep any extraneous noise at bay.
After a quick break, proceedings renewed with the sublime ‘Souvenirs’, during which a young woman was clearly emotionally overcome, wiping tears away frequently. A young fellow I met in the admission line brought along his mother’s original vinyl release of Prine’s first album. He sat by the bar quietly throughout, soaking it up, his plan was to get a signature – he was both determined and optimistic, a good combination. The crowd was hushed throughout, reverential and in some sort of familiar awe. Even the Mayor of Nashville was there.
To add even further to the occasion, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires came up to share a glorious rendition of the hilarious ‘In Spite of Ourselves’. What followed included ‘Unwed Fathers’ , ‘Storm Windows’, ‘Please Don’t Bury Me’, a rollicking, joyous ‘Saddles In The Rain’, ‘Christmas In Prison’, ‘Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)’, the delightfully familiar opening riff of ‘Glory of True Love’ and one of the most incredibly quirky yet emotional songs ever written ‘Lake Marie’.
It was a special night alright and I suspect that the person front of stage enjoyed it more than anybody in this iconic room. This was a show for the ages. One that will gloriously stay with everyone in the room.