Local Rhythms – Best Live Shows of 2008

viennateng
Vienna Teng

Music thrived in 2008.  For every show on my best of list, there was at least one I wished I’d seen.  It was also a year of discovery.  Almost half of the top ten includes performers I witnessed for the first time.

These evenings of live music proved to me that the creative spark is alive and well, even if the business is in the doldrums.

In chronological order, here are my 10 favorite live music experiences of the past year:

Gully Boys @ Middle Earth Music Hall (2 February) – This working class band captures the essence of the area scene.  Every member has a day job, and they get together because they want to.  “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing” is their motto.  This annual “reunion” night, at the soon-to-close Bradford Hobbit Hole, was particularly inspiring, with a Dead-length set that ran past 1 AM.

Jenee Halstead House Concert (19 April) – Akin to the Renaissance system of patronage (without the religious guilt), affairs like this one, in an elegant Milton, Massachusetts home, helped struggling musicians earn a living and make fans – one at a time.  Lit by 28 candles, Halstead and her band took the intimate gathering back in time with songs from her wonderful album, “The River Grace.”

Trixie Whitley @ Bellows Falls Opera House (26 April) – Nothing prepared me for the raw emotion of this night, a tribute to the memory of Chris Whitley.  Trixie seemed to muster courage and strength with each note. By the end of the evening, she’d won the crowd as well as the artists who’d come to play her father’s music, memorably sitting in with her brother Dan and headliner Alejandro Escovedo.

Robert Plant & Alison Krause @ B of A Pavilion (5 June) – There was no Led Zeppelin reunion this year, and it likely won’t happen in 2009 thanks to Plant.  He’s having too much fun with T-Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller and fiddler/vocalist extraordinaire Krauss.  The acoustics at this waterfront show weren’t the best, but the sheer joy on stage made up for that.  “Black Dog” never sounded so good.

Sarah Borges @ Roots on the River (7 June) – Borges and her rockabilly boogie band, The Singles, provided non-stop energy for her early set.  The festival was blessed with perfect weather and stellar talent, but Sarah stole the show – at least until Fred Eaglesmith walked on stage to remind everyone why Roots on the River is known far and wide as “Fredfest.”

Mavis Staples @ Green River Festival (19 July) – She marched with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, which she called “the struggle,” and in the weeks following Barack Obama’s Democratic primary win, Staples performed with extra punch and power.  She reinvented “For What It’s Worth,” added a personal note to “Down In Mississippi” and brought many in the crowd to tears.

Collective Soul @ Meadowbrook (9 August) – In a de facto battle of the bands with Live and Blues Traveler, this sonic force of nature came out on top.  Toward the end of their set, lead singer Ed Roland hauled over a dozen fans up on the 8-foot high stage, to the shock and dismay of security.  One of the best nights at the region’s number one outdoor music facility, which won’t stay a hidden gem for long.

Lindsey Buckingham @ Lebanon Opera House (12 October) – Tickets for the upcoming Fleetwood Mac reunion are trending towards 300 dollars, but I doubt a night at the Enormodome could top this intimate show. Buckingham indulged his muse with several obscure Mac nuggets, performed multiple encores, and even took time out to sign a fan’s 35 year old copy of “Buckingham/Nicks”.

Molly Venter & Cahalen David Morrison @ Canoe Club (3 December) – Two musicians who’d never met before this night, thrown together by circumstance and management, traded songs while a room that often buries the talent on stage with dinner conversation stopped and took notice.  It wasn’t perfect, but it felt magical nonetheless.

Vienna Teng @ Iron Horse (8 December) – My best night of 2008 was, coincidentally, the last.  In a perfect world Teng, a literate songwriter and scary good piano player, would be a star on the order of Sarah MacLachlan, whom many have compared her to. Instead, she was on a 5-show club tour with Peter Bradley Adams, with nothing more luxurious than XM radio in the rental car towing her trailer from town to town.

Lindsey Buckingham Right At Home in Lebanon

Lindsey Buckingham/Lebanon Opera House/Lebanon, New Hampshire/12 October 2008

Midway through Lindsey Buckingham’s sold-out show Sunday night, he spoke about the tension that exists in making music for a “selling machine,” and working from what he termed “the left side of the palate.”

“I think one helps the other,” he said. “The audience for the ‘other’ is – you.”

Though obviously a reference to solo projects like the recently released “Gift of Screws,” Buckingham’s “left palate” includes a few turns his group Fleetwood Mac have taken away from their hit-making formula over the years.

The singer/guitarist evenly divided the evening’s music between solo material and Mac songs, but stayed esoteric, saving the big hits for the end of the show.

An enthusiastic crowd was with him for every note.

He opened with two songs from the new album, the frenetic “Great Day” and “Love Runs Deeper,” followed by a pair from his earlier solo works (“Trouble” and “Go Insane”),

The clearest indication that Lindsey Buckingham’s iconoclastic, left-leaning palate was on display came with the first Fleetwood Mac selection of the evening – “Tusk,” the title track of the 1979 album that confounded the music industry, and more than a few fans, who expected another “Rumours.”

He followed it with the poppy “I Know I’m Not Wrong” (also from “Tusk”), and the title cut from “Gift of Screws,” an Emily Dickinson poem turned punk rave-up.

A three-song acoustic interlude surprisingly provided the strongest guitar pyrotechnics of the night. A slightly revved-up “Never Going Back Again” (an overlooked “Rumours” gem) gave way to “Big Love,” a percolating boogie first stripped down for “The Dance,” Fleetwood Mac’s 1997 live reunion album.

The solo turn ended with “Shut Us Down,” as Buckingham’s fingers ranged up and down his guitar’s fret board with the finesse of Leo Kottke, taking the poignant song from a whisper to a scream.

The intimate opera house booking provided a special opportunity to see a performer usually at home in arenas and, during the heady 1970’s, baseball stadiums.  At times, the room seemed too small to contain him.

Several in the crowd reacted like smitten teenagers, rushing the stage and standing for the entire show.

For “World Turning,” drummer Alfredo Reyes tried his best Mick Fleetwood impression, flailing the drums with his bare hands, but came up a bit short.  What followed – a brief hip-hop excursion using Buckingham’s sampled voice – was equally unnecessary.

But all was forgiven with the incendiary “So Afraid,” which brought the entire crowd to its feet, where they stayed for the first finale, “Go Your Own Way.”

His three-song encore included the infectious Mac classic, “Second Hand News,” along with “Don’t Look Down” and “Treason.”  Buckingham was quick to point out that the latter song, the final track on the new album, had nothing to do with current events, but was more about “the lies we tell each other.”

As the night progressed, Buckingham opened up to the adoring crowd, and his stories grew longer and more personal. “You’re blessed to live in a beautiful place,” he said at one point.  “It’s transcendent.”

He was clearly having a great time, and after a feeble attempt to say good night, obliged demands for a second encore.  To the delight of everyone, he played an audience request, “Bleed To Love Her” (from Fleetwood Mac’s last studio album, “Say You Will”).

While he waited for a roadie to deliver a different guitar with a special tuning, he bantered with fans, and even signed a proffered copy of “Buckingham/Nicks” – the pre-Fleetwood Mac album he did with Stevie Nicks 35 years ago.

It was a neat closing of the circle, on a night that left everyone, band and fans alike, satisfied beyond expectations.

Fleetwood Mac News – No Crow

Lindsey Buckingham did a roundtable press conference today, on which there will be more in a future article.  During the telephone sit-down, he addressed the rumors (Rumours?) about Sheryl Crow joining the band next year, and he didn’t pull any punches:

When Fleetwood Mac was touring [in support of 2003’s “Say You Will”], Christine McVie had left, having burned all her bridges, selling her house in L.A. and moving to England.  We divided material down the middle. I had a great time because it allowed me to be a guy on stage.  In retrospect, Stevie wasn’t as comfortable with that divide.  When it came to contemplating working next year… we [thought] bringing Sheryl Crow would be an intiguing idea.  We put out the feelers and that’s about as far as it got.  Last spring, Sheryl took it upon herself to tell the world she was joining Fleetwood Mac. It was in itself inappropriate – you sit down with a band and announce it.  It bothered Stevie a great deal and Mick as well.  I thought it was off the wall. There were some harsh words, and she was given her marching orders – not that she’d been in the band in the first place.

Lindsey went on to say that Fleetwood Mac is contemplating doing a “long term thing” beginning in early 2009, which included making a new record and touring.  He wasn’t certain that Crow understood that a commitment of 3-4 years was what he had in mind.  “Probably in January,  the band will start rehearsing, then see what happens,” he said.

No guarantees, but it sounds like the Mac is back.

The press conference was done as part of the promotional effort for “Gift of Screws,” which drops September 16,  It’s harder-rocking follow-up to 2006’s “Under the Skin,”  featuring contributions from Mac alums John McVie and Mick Fleetwood.  Buckingham says the boisterous title track lifted its’ chorus from an Emily Dickinson poem.  “I’m always looking to rip off things that are public domain,” he joked.  Lindsey went on to call the song, which sounds more like circa-1978 Elvis Costello than anything the Mac ever did, “Mick’s favorite drum track ever.  I played the album for him the other day, he came to my house, and he wishes it could have been on a Fleetwood Mac album.”

“Gift of Screws” was conceived way back in 1995, and shelved over the years due to Buckingham’s many (mainly Fleetwood Mac) commitments (he called them “interventions on solo work”).  Several cuts from the oft-bootlegged disk, including “Peacekeeper” and “Murrow In His Grave,” ended up on other records.  The new CD has only one surviving song from the original “Gift of Screws” – the title track – along with bits and pieces of a few others.

It’s a solid, electrified effort – lyrically mature, well-rounded and tight.  It might not be Buckingham’s most successful record ever – the music business has changed too much for that – but it’s among his best.  Lindsey’s Mac fans will feel right at home with songs like “Love Runs Deeper” (co-written with Buckingham’s wife) and “The Right Place To Fade,” which is reminiscent of a revved-up “Monday Morning.”

Lindsey Buckingham’s tour to support “Gift of Screws” begins September 7 in Saratoga, California; he’s in Lebanon, New Hampshire October 12, and Northampton, Massachusetts on October 14.  There are also shows in Boston and Ridgefield, Connecticut.  The tour ends October 19 in New York City.