Updated due to extra festivals added
Thanks to Vicki Frederick and Doug Ashford for the extras
Updated due to extra festivals added
Thanks to Vicki Frederick and Doug Ashford for the extras
Was 2013 my best ever live music year?
A big call I know but let’s just go through it.
I’ve just returned to Australia from five weeks in the USA with (long-suffering) friends, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. As well there were gigs elsewhere along the journey. I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California.
I have already offered my favourite gigs for the trip – see previous entry. As well as a host of specific performances, there were a number of other experiences that were forever memorable on the trip. Here are my top picks.
8. Paul Kelly – Film, Interview and Songs – Nashville TN
The recent documentary on Paul Kelly, Stories Of Me, was screening at the Nashville Public Library, along with an interview and a short live performance from Kelly. The film was excellent (I had not seen it before) and it filled in a lot of gaps for me about this iconic Australian. Journalist and performer Emma Swift conducted the interview and there were a few familiar faces in the audience – Damian Howard, Anne McCue and Kim Richey. Paul sang three songs from his most recent album Spring and Fall.
The event provided us with an opportunity to examine the impressive Nashville Public Library as well.
7. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Day #3 – San Francisco CA
It was my first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It took a while to get used to the layout of Golden Gate Park, how to manage the large crowds and get good vantage points and getting to and from each day. But on day 3 it clicked in beautifully.
One song from the impressive The Deep Dark Woods on the way in, with sets from the exciting duo Shovels and Rope and favourites Kane, Welch and Kaplin to follow. Ryan Bingham was a revelation with a solo and acoustic set that I have enthused about in my Best Gigs post. A Kate McGarrigle tribute was next with Martha Wainwright, Sloan Wainwright, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III. All the gang joined in for a fitting finale. A quick peek at Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey on the way out. An action-packed day of musical highlights.
6. Wide Open Bluegrass Festival (Overall) – Raleigh NC
The two-day Wide Open Bluegrass Festival that I attended was an eye-opener. It was only a part of the World Of Bluegrass event which spread over five days, but our two days there were difficult enough to take in – there was:
It was pretty challenging to choose what to do and who to see. But challenging in a really nice way. The level of musicianship was stunning as was the sheer depth of talent in this one music genre. Simply thrilling to have a first look of such an event.
5. Bishop Al Green’s Church Service – Memphis TN
This man today lead the service for 90 minutes – preaching, singing and bringing joy and laughter. A twenty-odd choir, a full electric band – keys, guitar, drums, base and bongos, as well as a grand piano and three other preachers.
When Al sang “Amazing Grace”, I was so moved – never have I heard the song in such an emotion-charged setting, sung with skill, beauty and elegance. Never I believe will I hear that tune again with such emotional resonance. During the plate collection, he sang “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and I was a true believer. So uplifting. So optimistic. So soothing.
At the end of the ceremony, many went up for a blessing – he put his hand on their head and then prayed and sang, other preachers gathered around in case the recipient might fall in a trance-like state.
What an experience and we were lucky that Bishop Green was in Memphis and led the whole service. Praise The Lord.
4. Rodney Crowell Session – Nashville TN
As part of Americanafest, there was an interview with Rodney Crowell at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Auditorium.
I say an interview but it was just Crowell taking questions from the audience and playing whatever songs fitted in with the conversation flow. When, in response to an enquiry about the songwriting craft, Crowell mentioned his experiences with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, I knew we were in for a special experience.
The questions from the assembled were pretty good and we learned an enormous amount – the high standards of Clark and Van Zandt, the perspiration and commitment to songwriting, the influence of the death of his mother on his superb The Houston Kid. He played the last track he wrote for that album, one that he penned after a dream in which his mother and father said to him that he needed something else to finish the album – that song was “I Know Love Is All I Need”. You could hear a pin drop.
He also played a new song, I think called “These Houston Blues”, quite a departure from his work with Emmylou Harris on Old Yellow Moon. The hour and a bit went in a flash – heady stuff.
3. Wayne Jackson Tour Of Stax Museum – Memphis TN
I have waxed lyrical about our experience with Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns and his lovely wife Amy. A personal tour of Stax Museum and a visit to their home. Just search “Wayne Jackson” on the home page and you’ll find all the details. Unforgettable.
2. Americana Music Association Conference and Awards – Nashville TN
This one is pretty simple choice. In a little over two hours, we witnessed at the Ryman Auditorium:
1. Americana Music Association Honors and Awards (Overall) – Nashville TN
I’ve already mentioned parts of the Americana Music Conference – the Paul Kelly and Rodney Crowell sessions, as well as the Honors and Awards ceremony. Three of the great side shows were “Best Gig” performances by John Fullbright, Bear’s Den and Lucinda Williams (see Best Gigs post). On top of these were:
So many highlights. So many acts not able to be seen because of constant schedule clashes.
An amazing event.
I’ve just returned to Australia from five weeks in the USA with (long-suffering) friends, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. As well there were gigs elsewhere along the journey. I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California. I saw performances in Clarksdale MS, Memphis TN, Nashville TN, Raleigh NC, Austin TX and San Francisco CA.
I estimate that I saw over 100 different performances. What were the best ones?
10. The Infamous Stringdusters – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina
The last night in the Red Hat Amphitheatre. 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 Wide Open, 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.
9. John Fullbright – Cannery Ballroom – Nashville Tennessee
John Fullbright’s recent solo debut From the Ground Up blew me away this year. He performed one song at the Americana Awards the night before – “Jericho” with gusto and passion. Tonight he was playing at the Cannery Ballroom, a large venue and we were able to go right up front.
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 to see Webb perform.
An emerging, forthright and serious artist.
8. Punch Brothers – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina
The second and final night of the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival.
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.
7. Bear’s Den Downtown Presbyterian Church Nashville Tennessee
Jenny and I got to the church as the first act on the bill Black Prairie started. Bear’s Den were next.
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.
6. Calexico – Slim’s – San Francisco
My third live viewing of this band did not disappoint.
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.
5. Peter Rowan – Raleigh Convention Centre – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh NC
Rowan had an eight piece line-up behind him with a very strong communal and familial feeling. In fact it wouldn’t surprise if he hadn’t assembled the players from the hotel lobby – beautiful players all.
Michael Cleveland was absolutely stellar on the violin – you might like to check him out (see right). 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.
4. Ryan Bingham – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – San Francisco
Ryan Bingham is now based in L.A. His career is on a strong upward trajectory.
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.
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.
3. Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express – The Make Out Room San Francisco California
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
Now for me and my companions, The Black Lillies’ performance was a revelation, above and beyond our high expectations.
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
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.
Sunday in San Francisco.
The third and final day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2013. I was determined to make the most of it.
Our usual walk up the hill and a coffee stop at our new favourite spot, Stanza. Then a bus trip down Lincoln Street. The buses here are regular and good value – $2 for two hours or so. A relatively short walk from 19th avenue led us firstly passed the small and intimate Porch Stage where Deep Dark Woods were playing (we stopped for their opening song which sounded good), then past Mike Farris on the Banjo Stage. Sandra, Trish and Jenny stopped there.
I ventured to the Arrow Stage, intent of capturing Shovels and Rope. I have written about my very positive feelings on this Charleston-based duo before. I love their album O Be Joyful and enjoyed their one-song performance of “Birmingham” at the Americana Awards about two weeks back.
They did not disappoint – a shining light on the Americana scene with a unique blend of stomping, somewhat macabre ballads. An unexpected cover of Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” was a treat.
They finished their set with a fuzz-laden, boisterous “Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll”.
The day is off to a flyer.
Next a short walk to the Rooster Stage for Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin.
We managed to find a choice, central spot. As the festival program stated, Kane, Welch and Kaplin are not into background music. It needs to be absorbed for they are supreme songwriters and precise deliverers. They’ve played every HSB since 2001. I’ve seen Kane in Go Jane Go and Kevin Welch solo, both this year, so seeing the three of them together (with Lucas Kane on percussion) was a treat to be savoured. Kaplin’s violin evocative.
Welch’s “Anna Lise Please” and “Jersey Devil”, Kaplin’s instrumental “Little Egypt” and Kane’s “Eight More Miles” were highlights I recall.
Given our vantage point, we decided to stay on Rooster for Ryan Bingham.
During the music break, there was a tree break. A substantial pine tree limb fell off very close to people on the hill. Luckily no one was hurt.
Ryan Bingham is now based in L.A. His career is on a strong upward trajectory. An Oscar-winning song for the movie “Crazy Heart”, the prestigious “Artist Of The Year” award from the Americana Music Association, as well as 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.
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 star in the making.
Next up was a Kate McGarrigle tribute with Martha Wainwright and her aunt Sloan. Martha and Sloan invited some friends and family to celebrate the music of Kate McGarrigle. After a song each by the two Wainwrights, the star guests started streaming on to the stage – Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III.
All the gang joined in for a fitting finale.
The sun was beating down and we decided time to go.
On the way out, we espied Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey.
Trish and I grabbed a bus – this time the 71 down Lincoln and Haight to within a block and a bit of our digs.
Thanks Warren Hellman and the HSB administration – the Festival is a blast.
Three days of festival, two night gigs – time for a quiet night.
First up, i have to say that we may have found just about the best coffee on the trip which has now extended for almost a month.
Stanza Coffee 1673 Haight St.
One thing led to another.
We certainly weren’t going to walk it today so Richard and I strolled a few blocks to Fulton St and caught the number 5 bus to just near a side entrance to the Rooster Stage.
I was keen to watch Tim O’Brien particularly after seeing him interviewed at Americanafest a little while ago. He was on the Banjo Stage but I couldn’t get close enough to give him justice so I doubled back and decided to get a good and hopefully shady spot in advance of Dave Alvin with Greg Leisz at the Star Stage.
Mission accomplished with a cement seat for a friend for the thirty-minute wait.
I’m pretty familiar with Alvin’s post-Blasters material. I have seen him only once live – at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl in New Orleans with The Guilty Women. I recall there were microphone problems that seemed to distract him a little but a good night nonetheless – seeing Cindy Cashdollar on pedal steel was a bonus.
Speaking on pedal players, Greg Leisz is on the bill with Alvin and he is one of the very best. He has played with Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Eric Clapton and Wilco, to name a few. He is also an accomplished producer and long-time collaborator with Alvin. Originally announced as part of Buddy Miller’s super house band at this year’s Americana Awards, however for some reason he wasn’t in attendance.
In the festival program, Dave Alvin is quoted “There are two kinds of folk music – quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both”. He is a Grammy Award winning singer songwriter and his Every Night About This Time was the first CD I bought.
My vantage spot were perfect, standing right behind a large, slightly elevated concrete drain cover – an uninterruptible view. The acoustics were nice as well.
Alvin’s voice, acoustic guitar and the slide of Leisz were a perfect complement, together with Christy McWilson on support vocals. She has a strong voice, a little reminiscent of June Carter.
I then made my way to the Banjo Stage where there was a Hardly Strictly Tribute to the Masters, followed by the Jerry Douglas Band. But again there was little or no shade, so my weary legs took me to the Rooster Stage where Loudon Wainwright III was doing his drug, youth and rebellious schtick – not really my thing.
It was at this point that I started to focus on being in good shape for Chuck Prophet tonight, an early gig, on stage at 7.30 pm. I was tossing up whether to see part of the Jerry Douglas or Patty Griffin set (both on at the same time) and then rush back to the apartment and try and find dinner before Chuck comes on.
Ultimately, I decided on beating a strategic withdrawal and head back early. In the words of one Mr Rogers – you have to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
I managed to catch the bus and get off at about the correct stop before trundling up the 8 or blocks to home base.
The Make-Out Room was our destination for the chuck Prophet gig. A cab ride was necessary on this occasion. The cabbie put us on to a restaurant around the corner – Foreign Cinema which proved to be an excellent choice.
Ten minutes before the gig was due to start, we arrived to get a great spot on the side. Bazz and I had a quick chat with the great Chuck Prophet himself.
What a great performance we saw that night. Chuck was in brilliant form – his band the Mission Express was on fire. After some pretty mellow music over the past two days, it was thrilling to get some high-octane rock show and even more so for me from an artist that I have followed for many years but never had the opportunity to see live. A privilege to be there. Another customer there told me he had seen Prophet about twenty times and this was the pinnacle performance. Peter Case was a special guest.
A contender of gig of the year.
After we got ourselves organised for the day, we walked up from our apartment in Lower Haight. We now have a pretty good idea as to why there’s “Lower” in the name – it’s a long way to the top if you want to get to Upper Haight.
It was good to catch up with Baz and Sue who we hadn’t seen since Americanafest in Nashville. Baz put us on to tickets for a little Chuck Prophet gig tomorrow night.
Jenny, Richard and I then continued up Haight St into the east end of Golden Gate Park where we walked and walked and walked.
Luckily a girl was giving away Hubert’s Lemonade which was very refreshing.
Finally we arrived at a Festival entrance. There are only three stages running today (being a work day) – Banjo, Arrow and Rooster Stages. Jenny and I purchased some well-earned food – a knish (potato,spinach and garlic in a light, seared dough). A good first up choice. While there, Jesse DeNatale was playing a set on the Banjo Stage.
We decided to walk further (it was an effort) to the smaller Rooster Stage set in a little dale, with plenty of shady vantage points up the hill to the right.
My Festival Tours poncho came in handy as a ground cover.
Jenny got out her knitting and we watched The Felice Brothers (se above). No strangers to Australia, they hail from the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. A blend of revivalist, folk and Americana, they played many songs with which I was familiar from their breakthrough 2008 self-titled album. It was the first time I’d seen them live and they were engaging and kept the crowd focused.
A chicken quesadilla was the next snack – plenty of water too, it was warm in the sun.
The crowd was pretty big around the Rooster Stage but not uncomfortably so. I expect there will larger groups tomorrow, even with three additional stages in operation.
I then sat and watched The Evens (above) knowing little of them except the name. They are based in Washington D.C. and, according to the Festival program, are ‘indie pop’ – a duo of Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina. The Washington Post has described their sound as “what happens when post-hardcore becomes post-post-hardcore”. I’m not sure if that helps you (it doesn’t me). I found their set somewhat jarring and self-indulgent – a lot of stage banter with attitude but not much momentum gained during proceedings.
I have written about First Aid Kit (see below) before. I attended their show at The Forum in Melbourne this year which for me was truly revelatory. Angel voices and harmonies, strong material from their first US-recorded album The Lion’s Roar and a beautiful cover of Paul Simon’s “America” made it a surprisingly special night.
Here at Golden Gate Park they played a similar set – two or three new songs and their voices a feature and the crowd (below) were clearly enamored of their sound.
We had a dinner connection at 6.30 before traveling to see Calexico at Slim’s, so we decided to leave the Park a little early to have a quick, refresh turnaround before the evening’s activities. A cab back to our apartment (shared with Baz and Sue) and within 45 minutes, all five of us walked one block to Haight St to get on the bus up the hill. The bus was very busy but we made it to our designated dinner spot Cha Cha Cha (Cuban). Originally identified as the place to go by Brian Wise (an expert in such matters), it was excellent – plenty of good, plentiful food and a nice glass of Zinfandel to wash it down.
After the meal, another bus ride, this time about twenty minutes and a walk and we finally managed to arrive at Slim’s. Jenny and I worked our way to get to the stage front right before the support Robert Ellis commenced. I saw him three times in quick succession this year and already can see that he developed even further in the interim. New songs on top of his fine debut album material, a good sense of humour and winning stage presence – you will hear a lot more about this performer.
Calexico (see Joey Burns above) had played at Hardly Strictly today, 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 delight 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.
The band played in Melbourne, just weeks ago. We were disappointed that we wouldn’t see them there due to traveling through the U.S. When Hardly Strictly announced that the band was on its line-up and the side gig at Slim’s became public, I was extremely appreciative of seeing this unique, passionate and evocative outfit again (John Convertino of Calexico below).
After the show, I purchased the band’s CD Aerocalexico which I understand is a collection of instrumental, spaghetti-Western material. By the time I found Jenny, she had chatted with Joey Burns and achieved his signature on the band’s set list (see below). Very nice work.
We managed to get the bus back, arriving at the Waller St apartment well after midnight.
A brilliant day.