What were our very best live shows throughout 2017?
By Rob Dickens
Smoke On The Water
I had seen only a few shows on water before – the North Mississippi Allstars on the Steamboat Natchez paddling up the Mississippi River off New Orleans. It was when bassist Chris Chew was in the band. Man they funked it up. (I loved that era of the band – check out Hernando (2006)).
Another musica nautica adventure featured the wonderful English guitarist and songwriter Martin Simpson. On a flat watercraft along the upper reaches of the Thames near Windsor, he, along with master player Andy Cutting, gave us a wondrous insight into the best English folk. (The set proceeded while the boat went through a few river locks and paused when, on the captain’s orders due to passing under a VERY low bridge, the entire assembly sat on the floor as the vessel’s roof descended to our heads).
I mention this because my shows at sea experience have been blown out of the water (pardon the pun) by not one music cruise but two, back to back, in 2017 – same port, same ship, same cabin even.
The Big Four
The Cayamo and Outlaw Country Cruises were spiritual revelations in February. So much great music, at such close quarters, with a bunch of music-loving colleagues. The bar therefore was set very high early in the year. The other two great sources of live shows were AmericanaFest in Nashville in September and The Festy Experience near Arrington Virginia just after.
Back To The Well
Our Total Tennessee Tour dug deep into music roots this year and provided a timely reminder of where some of this wonderful stuff that we love came from. We stayed on in Nashville to go to The Opry and Music City Roots, visited Memphis (Gracelands, Stax, Sun Studio, Ardent Studio), Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, Clarksdale (Red’s Lounge, Ground Zero, Delta Blues Museum) and deep into The Blue Ridge Mountains heritage trail (Bristol, Galax, Abingdon) – hell, we even stopped off in Chattanooga. This provided me with a re-education, a re-positioning of where all this fits. It enhanced what I saw even more.
What was I thinking?!
It was the last evening of The Festy Experience. I had a writing deadline and a monster trip home the next day (30+ hours). It was raining steadily – there were acts on that I had seen before for the next three hours, at the end of which Billy Strings was due. I packed up early – big mistake!
There were a couple of exceptions – once at The High Watt and twice at the Cannery Ballroom, but the sound at AmericanaFest was again remarkably good, sound engineers seemingly invisible moving from one set to the next with aplomb.
Wanda Jackson on the Outlaw Cruise demonstrated that it best we all concentrate and rejoice in her legacy and that further live appearances, based on the ship performances, are not necessary. Amanda Shires‘ set at the Station Inn during AmericanaFest 2017 was meandering. Jason Eady‘s show at the aforementioned Cannery Ballroom was absolutely ruined by the sound no matter where I stood. Buddy Miller and Rodney Crowell were both absent from the Americana Honors and Awards Show due to illness. Van Morrison‘s acceptance of his Americana Honor (I won’t use the term ‘speech’ as that would be misleading) was awkward and frigid. Steve Earle kept checking his watch during one show even while he was playing the guitar – it broke the spell.
Easy. Deke Harp at Levon’s Bar and Grill in Clarksdale. Even the food covered its ears!
The best story-teller
Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) had some great stories – early band, War Of The Worlds soundtrack and touring with Cream.
Hard to fit everyone into twenty, as some wise person once said. Here are some terrific shows that got edged out:
Tim O’Brien Caravan Music Club Melbourne Aus
Rosie Flores (with Sophia Johnson), Outlaw Country Cruise
Lucinda Williams, Outlaw Country Cruise
Teskey Brothers, Music On The Hill Melbourne Aus
Doug Seegers, The Mercy Lounge Nashville TN (AmericanaFest)
Nick Forster and Danny Barnes, The Festy Experience
Carl Anderson, The Festy Experience
Robbie Fulks, The Caravan Club Melbourne
Christian Lopez, Cayamo Cruise
All photos Rob Dickens except where noted
20. Paul Thorn Band – Cayamo Cruise, Somewhere At Sea – 22 Feb
I’ve seen Thorn play quite a few times. Always love his enthusiasm, his folksy rock and blues vibe, no pretensions, nothing but uplifting messages. So embraceable. On the Cayamo Cruise, we attended the Stardust Theatre waiting patiently for the long-drop red velvet curtains to let go of their embrace and see beyond. Finally they parted like the Red Sea and we were greeted by a screen and engrossing mini-doco featuring Thorn and focussing on his pre-music, accomplished boxing career. He then appeared in person and announced that his permanent break with The Ring led him to his debut Hammer and Nail which he, in order to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, would perform the entire album front-to-back, with the whole set recorded. It was a celebration for him and, without a shred of doubt, everyone in that room.
19. Lori McKenna – 3rd & Lindsley Nashville TN @ AmericanaFest – 14 Sep
Now here’s a songwriter! Ten albums to her name, she has remained in Stoughton, Massachusetts despite the amount of time she spends in Nashville, so grounded is she with her extensive family and possibly being able to captures insights afresh living away from ‘the business’. That has not stopped her garnering considerable success – her songs covered by Alison Krauss, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. Number one Billboard hits, a CMA Award, a National Songwriter Association International gong and her first Grammy attest to her craft.
Her latest album The Bird & The Wire is highly acclaimed and adds to her already impressive set of achievements. This night she was humble, engaging and warm, with plenty of banter that provided context to her evocative stories.
18. Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen – Fern Tree Gully Bowls Club, Melbourne Aus – 21 Nov
A Grammy-nominated, twice IBMA-award winning (for the coveted Best Instrumental Band) outfit from Washington DC. As well as being a super group of musicians, their repertoire extends way beyond traditional bluegrass, mixing pop, rock and other standard fare effortlessly. I have seen them live a few times now, both in Raleigh NC and Nashville TN but tonight had a little edge to it. Perhaps it was the modest setting, the small but adoring audience, the collaborative willingness to share the stage with the support act and other musicians or their sheer joy of travelling around Australia for the first time and ending their tour this night. Whatever the reason, it was special.
17, Big Star and Friends – Cannery Ballroom, Nashville TN @ AmericanaFest – 12 Sep
In 2010 an all-star band unearthed the original scores, assembled an orchestra and performed fabled cult band Big Star’s album Third. Following the death of front man Chilton just before a scheduled SXSW performance in 2010, performer friends came to play the gig in his honor. A concert documentary film Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live…And More followed and screened at AmericanaFest 2017.
The day following the film, the concert at the Cannery Ballroom was performed in its entirety, featuring the original Third conductor Carl Marsh and core players including sole surviving Big Star member Jody Stephens along with Mike Mills (REM), Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), Chris Stamey (the dB’s) and Pat Sansone (Wilco) to name a few. The Third performance was followed by a set of Big Star hits with many special musical guests. Two hours of magic.
16. Joe Ely Band – Outlaw Country Cruise, Somewhere At Sea – 26 Feb
‘Twas a breezy night on the ship’s deck. The Joe Ely Band members were in cracking form. This Texas legend with his distinctive chants and unique blend of Texas country, honky tonk, rock and Tex-Mex held our attention with ease. Ely’s long-time band cohorts were tight, prancing around the stage ready to pounce (well, except for the drummer). It had been a while since I caught him at Antone’s in Austin TX. Absence DOES make the heart grow fonder!
15. Jerry Douglas Band – The Festy Experience, Infinity Downs Farm Virginia – 8 Oct
A new album (out just in the latter part of this year) What If represents another significant departure and music adventure for the redoubtable musician, producer and collaborator extraordinaire. The Jerry Douglas Band contains some of finest players in the land which reminded me of the sheer unadulterated virtuosity of Punch Brothers. Jerry was plugged in and a far cry from his more well-known bluegrass/country contributions. Tonight he was channelling his early influences Weather Report and Chick Corea. There was jazz fusion, Douglas’ party vocals and some highly inventive covers. For the record, the other band members are Doug Belote (drums), bassist Daniel Kimbro, violinist Christian Sedelmyer, Mike Seal electric guitarist. Spell-binding!
14. Bottle Rockets – Outlaw Country Cruise, Somewhere At Sea – 21 Feb
The Bottle Rockets make their music sound simple. Almost hay seed primal. Maybe that is the attraction. It is anthemic, lyrically cut-to-the-bone and contains a wave of sound that picks you up and dumps you if you’re not on your mettle. Pleasing us since the early 90’s, this St Louis, Missouri-based power four piece has been a stalwart of the thumping roots rock movement for a long time, well before it came into fashion in fact. This was my first viewing and after many attempts of travelling across the Pacific. ‘1000 Dollar Car’, ‘Welfare Music’ and, most of all, ‘Dog’. I must see them again – it was too much to take in.
13. David Luning – Music City Roots, Franklin TN 19 Sep
David Who? Former American Idol contestant? Hmmm. Well, consider me blown away by this unique rocking storyteller from California’s Sonoma County. Covering fast and slower material with aplomb, he has that knack that the best comedians have when telling a joke – using space and timing to gripping effect. The thundering ‘Bet It On Black’, the pleading ‘Danger’ and the reflective and majestic ‘Be Like Gold’. Go see him or buy his album Restless – or do both.
12. Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson with Val Storey and others, The Station Inn Nashville TN – 11 Sep
A wonderful band steeped in country, gospel and just about anything good. Larry Cordle is an acclaimed songwriter, singer, stalwart – Carl Jackson the same with guitar sidekick and close friend to Glen Campbell to add to his bio. Many guests including Campbell’s daughter Ashley (god-daughter to Jackson), the honeyed voice of Val Storey, even a visiting Irishman got up and sang a love song to his wife in the crowd (I admit it wasn’t a musical highlight of the night, but a glorious example of community and song). When someone sang Glen’s last release ‘Adios’ with Ashley in the crowd, it proved to be one of the heightened emotional moments of the year. AND this core outfit does this show EVERY MONDAY NIGHT.
11. Courtney Marie Andrews and Joe Pug, The Spotted Mallard Melbourne Aus – 13 July
I’m not sure why this tour pairing was arranged and how. Joe Pug, the Austin Texas troubadour who has graced these shores a considerable number of times before returning on the back of his release last year Windfall. The younger Courtney Marie Andrews, hailing from Phoenix Arizona, whose debut album in 2016 Honest Life was a serious eye opener. Tonight was the fifth stop on an eight-date tour of Australia, with both artists largely in solo acoustic guitar mode, except for Pug on keyboards for a spell. Eminently good vocals and songwriting through the night with not a dip in excellence to be seen.
10. Old 97’s Outlaw Country Cruise, Somewhere At Sea – 27 Feb
The next set after The Bottle Rockets (see above) in The Stardust Theatre. The new album from Old 97‘s released almost to the day – we got a wonderful opportunity to hear just about all the new material plus plenty of the old stuff too. Energy, passion, songwriting with messages crystal clear and highly agreeable. Much of it delivered at their renowned breakneck tempo but their sensitive side shone through as well. I heard that their later show on the pool deck was even better! Holy cowpunk!
9. Infamous Stringsdusters – The Festy Experience, Infinity Downs Farm Virginia – 6 Oct
The Infamous Stringdusters were from around these parts but have since spread themselves a little, with Brevard North Carolina now their base. But they are hometown picks for sure. In fact, they formed the backbone of the festival schedule. Members comprise guitarist Andy Falco, banjo man Chris Pandolfi, Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Travis Book (double bass) and together they are formidable. Roving around the stage with ease, they break out of any restrictions that other bluegrass outfits may feel hidebound by. A set list with plenty of covers, all of them distinctive and cleverly chosen. The band’s jamming was spectacular.
8. The Mavericks – Outlaw Country Cruise, Somewhere At Sea – 26 Feb
This one’s easy. The sail-away show of the Outlaw Cruise. Shots of something or other handed out to every passenger before it started. The large ship moved, as if propelled by the irresistible sounds of The Mavericks, gliding through the air and now across the water. What they do is make every moment a joyous one. If you can’t get uplifted when The Mavericks are playing, you need medical help or give up music. Funnily enough, the band mis-timed the set and walked off thinking they were done but plenty more was to come. They called a team huddle (see above) and proceeded with nary a scratch. A guest appearance from Steve Earle didn’t hurt either.
7. Lee Roy Parnell – Music City Roots, Franklin TN – 19 Sep
Texas country rocker Lee Roy Parnell looked the goods. His interview prior to the set was informative and gave me the impression that he doesn’t like being messed around. He carried that onto the set., fiery guitar perfectly attuned to that unique Texas take on many genres of which I never tire. His new CD Midnight Believer was on display with pride and it was a joyous opportunity to set my eyes and ears on someone who surprisingly is not a little (or a lot) more well-known.
6. Son Volt – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne Aus – 12 Oct
My first time with Jay Farrar in band mode. I had enjoyed a couple of acoustic shows over the years but this was revelatory. This night I made a decision to leave my notebook behind – determined not to write anything down as it would prove to be a distraction. It was a prudent call at the time as the band’s power interplay was astoundingly good but doesn’t help me now as I write this with only my memory to guide me. I have a lot of friends that were there or saw the band at Out On The Weekend festival just before who rate this as one of their best concerts EVER. If you want any information about the set list or other details, leave a comment and I’ll get my expert buddies onto the job (they know who they are).
5. Patty Griffin and Friends – Cayamo Cruise, Somewhere At Sea – 24 Feb
The ‘Patty Griffin and Friends’ session included Griffin, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris and Jedd Hughes (crack Australian guitarist). In the round, sharing songs, stories, emotions. I was in the front row (thanks Sixthman!) and it seemed like the shortest set possible. More more!
4. Americana Honors and Awards – Ryman Auditorium @ Americanafest, Nashville TN – 13 Sep
Again, a magnificent cornerstone for AmericanaFest, held on the Wednesday night. After five of these in a row, you can get a little picky (I rate the 2014 Show with Ry Cooder in the All-Star band as my favourite). Performers on this star-studded night were: Old Crow Medicine Show, Jim Lauderdale, Brent Cobb, Lori McKenna, Iris Dement, John Prine, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Sam Outlaw, Amanda Shires, Billy Bragg/Joe Henry, Graham Nash with the Milk Carton Kids, Drive-By Truckers, Aaron Lee Tasjan, The Lumineers, Robert Cray, Hurray For The Riff Raff, Margo Price, Jason Isbell and Van Morrison.
There was more but the list above is enough to justify a special night’s work.
3. Guy Clark Tribute – Cayamo Cruise – Somewhere At Sea – 21 Feb
I had just finished reading Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Story of Guy Clark (Tamara Saviano) and his departure became raw again. The tribute set was stunning and emotional – contributions both musical and personal from Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Sarah Jarosz, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Brian Wright, Angaleena Presley, Paul Thorn and others. Another of the seemingly shortest sets of the year but it actually stretched to ninety minutes. A wonderful emotional farewell to a legend.
2. Drive-by Truckers – The Festy Experience, Infinity Downs Farm Virginia – 7 Oct
A ninety minute blast that ended my busy festival day. I had seen Drive-By Truckers at the Cannery Ballroom as part of AmericanaFest just three weeks earlier (it seemed much longer) but tonight surpassed that one by a home stretch. Perhaps due to the beautiful setting here and my proximity to the stage hence the ‘immersion factor’. The light rain started almost at the same time as their opening greeting. They were pretty angry in the lead up to the release of their last album, the elegantly simple titled American Band and that was BEFORE the US Presidential election and its aftermath, not to mention a number of controversies and incidents down South during 2017. Tonight they really wanted to make a statement – ‘Black Lives Matter’ prominently displayed with pride. And so they did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley strode the stage with a Southern Rock majesty. This correspondent spent most of the time in the photography pit. A recent song “This Perilous Ride” was potent, a blistering version of one of my favourites “Ronnie and Neil”, the driving “Ever South”, “Tom Petty’s “The Waiting” and the closing protest “Hell No I Ain’t Happy”.
- Brian Wright – Fond Objects @ Americanafest, Nashville TN – 17 Sep
Not many words required for this. Brian Wright, guitarist for Aaron Lee Tasjan, solo artist and co-founder of Cafe Rooster Records at just about the last set of AmericanaFest 2017 – see below:
What ya reckon? Tell me if you were at these shows and what you think
How ’bout your own faves of 2017?
What were our very best live shows throughout 2017?