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.

Mavis Staples – Hope At The Hideout

mavisliveAlong with her fellow family members in the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples provided a soundtrack for the American civil rights movement, something she refers to simply as “The Struggle”.  So it’s fitting that Staples would release the stunning live collection “Hope At The Hideout” on November 4, the day the United States elected its first African-American President.

Working in front of an intimate crowd in her hometown of Chicago, the 69-year old singer brings ferocious energy to protest songs and spiritual standards.

Much of the material is drawn from the 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced “We’ll Never Turn Back,” but it’s more raw and immediate in this setting, with the audience behaving less like patrons in a club than parishioners in pews.

She leads off with a growling rendition of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” and never lets up from there.

Highlights include J.B. Lenoir’s swampy “Down In Mississippi,” given a powerful autobiographical touch with Staples’ story of colored-only water fountains.  On “Wade In The Water” guitarist Rick Holmstrom channels John Fogerty while Mavis leads the group, which includes her sister Yvonne, in a rousing call-and-response.

There’s a sense of living history throughout, but never more so than three songs at the record’s center, offered in sequence.  She brings the same fierce determination to “Why Am I Treated So Bad” that Pops Staples did when he wrote it in response to a Martin Luther King sermon.  “Freedom Highway” brims with hope and optimism; on “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Staples recounts a confrontation at a southern lunch counter a mere 45 years ago.

After performing a rousing encore of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” Staples isn’t ready to leave the stage, so she launches into an equally spirited “On My Way”.  The audience’s energy level acts like an extra instrument, as shouts and whoops of joy punctuate her (as one writer so vividly put it) “honey and grits” voice .  Unwilling to let the night end, she finishes with “I’ll Take You There,” one of her biggest Staples Singers hits.

“I’ve had such a good time, “ she finally thanks the crowd.  “I’m home – so I guess I’ll come back tomorrow night.”  You’ll probably do the same, and let this inspiring live album go immediately for a second spin.

Green River Wrap-Up

After Lucinda Williams closed out Saturday’s all-day show, Green River Festival organizer Jim Olsen was openly relieved.  “We’ve been ringed with storms all day,” he told the crowd.

But the weather, like the music, went off without a hitch, as fans were treated to one of the most varied bills in the festival’s 22-year history.

Highlights included a spirited set from Forro in the Dark, capped with the chorus, “if you don’t like Bob Marley, you’d better stay away from me.”  The Brazilian band played two sets, one on the main stage and another in the dance floor tent, attracting a large contingent of shaking bodies.

Gokh-Bi System, dressed in the traditional garb of their native Senegal, mixed Afro-pop with funk and soul.  It was quite a different sound for an audience in years past more accustomed to folk and bluegrass, but they seemed to enjoy it.

Eilen Jewell and her band did double duty, performing as the gospel Sacred Shakers early in the day, and ending the night in the dance tent with a set that ended about 40 minutes after Williams.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys proved the biggest hit in the dance tent, with a barrio rockabilly sound that recalled Los Lobos and Eddie Cochrane.  Big Sandy was also the busiest performer of the day, fronting a stripped-down “Little Sandy” group and doing guest vocals with gonzo guitarists Los Straitjackets on the main stage, in addition to an hour-long set with his own band.

Los Straitjackets combined Dick Dale-flavored surf music  with tongue-in-cheek theatrics, wearing Mexican wrestling masks (recently popularized in the Jack Black movie, “Nacho Libre”) and using badly mangled Spanish to introduce their instrumental songs.

With Big Sandy, they played a rollicking, multilingual version of the Ernie K-Doe classic, “Mother In Law.”

Lucinda Williams’ set ranged across her last two albums, along with several unreleased songs (she has a new record due in the fall).  She ended with a surprising cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” which she called a “quintessential rock and roll song.”

Williams had the unenviable task of following Mavis Staples, who stole the show with a set that mixed powerful music with a social message underscored by current events and her own experiences living the changes that led to them.

She opened with a soulful cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” followed by the movement anthem, “Eyes on the Prize.”

She added her own lyrics to J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” reminding the crowd of her experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles.  Recalling her grandmother directing her to drink from a water fountain marked with a “colored only” sign, she sang, “Dr. King tore every one of those signs down, down in Mississippi.”

She touched on her appearance in the documentary “The Last Waltz,” performing “The Weight,” and name-checking the Band’s “Robertson, Danko, Garth, Manuel and Levon.”

But her set focused on soul and gospel, a church service of sorts in the middle of a sunny day.  She choked with emotion while performing Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad” – a song he wrote after attending one of MLK’s sermons.

“If it weren’t for Dr. King, I wouldn’t be able to say, a black man is running for President of the United States,” said Staples through tears.  The crowd was obviously with her – when Jim Olsen introduced her, he’d pretty much called the election for Obama – but it was nonetheless a stirring moment when she sang the song’s final line:

“I think I hear someone calling my name/saying further up the road things are gonna change.”

The thread of history stretched from the stage across the field, and not a soul there wondered how they’d managed to avoid the rain drenching everyone to the north, south, east and west of them.

It was that kind of day.