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.

Local Rhythms – Led Zeppelin “Idol”

The latest news for the Zeppelin-obsessed came last week, when Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford revealed that Steven Tyler recently jammed with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham in a London studio.

Don’t read too much into it, though.

Tyler idolized bands like the Yardbirds, Cream and Zeppelin back in his Sunapee Barn days, so I’m sure he had a fantastic time. But Whitford says Page’s high-powered invite was really designed to goad Robert Plant into touring.

“He was trying to light a fire under Robert,” Whitford told a British TV host. “Come on! Come on, Robert, let’s go!”

God bless him, Plant didn’t bite. A statement on the singer’s web site called the rumors “both frustrating and ridiculous.”

For that, he’s still my hero.

Jones, however, who seethed when Page/Plant made “Unledded” in the mid-90’s without him, is fixated on a classic rock payday. “But we don’t want to be our own tribute band,” the bassist told the BBC.

To which I reply, why not?  Boston plucked their new lead singer from a karaoke bar; Journey found Steve Perry’s doppelganger on YouTube.

More recently, Yes replaced the ailing Jon Anderson with Benoit David, who until the call came had been fronting – you guessed it – a Yes tribute band.

This could make for great reality television. I know, INXS did it on “Rock Star,” but their lead singer was dead.

Robert Plant is very much alive, and apparently doesn’t have any plans for the next couple of years beyond a possible follow-up to “Raising Sand,” the album he made with Allison Krauss.

Though he may not be interested in playing with Led Zeppelin, perhaps Plant could be coaxed into helping pick his replacement.

Picture it – with dreams of stadium shows filling their heads, cover bands count off “Whole Lotta Love” with renewed vigor.

Aging rockers clear out garage practice space, and once again squeeze into ripped old bell bottomed jeans – all for a chance at the top.

High drama ensues when Plant, weary of these Golden God wannabes, says, “sod it all, I’ll do it myself,” and then demurs.

As each hopeful takes a shot, real time ticket price estimates crawl across the screen like a Dow Jones report.  That, after all, is the reason for the exercise.  How much will fans pay to see this farce?

I’ve got a better idea – save your money, and check out some local talent:

Thursday: Jason Cann, Casa del Sol – When this newly opened Ascutney restaurant was known as Moguls in the 1980s, it hosted bands like Foghat and Marshall Tucker. The live music tradition continues weekly with Cann, one of my favorite local singer-songwriters, and in January, Wise Rokobili will perform Saturdays.   There are plans to present even bigger names in the future – good news indeed.

Friday: Red Molly, Boccelli’s – This trio, who met around a Falcon Ridge campfire a few years back, has built an avid area following since playing the Roots on the River festival in 2007.  Their gorgeous harmonies can take your breath away. I could watch them for hours.  Upper Valley fans got a taste of them last summer. If you like smooth, elegant folk music, you’ll love Red Molly.

Saturday: Bob Marley, Claremont Opera House – One of the funniest people alive, and the hardest working comedian I know is back for another area show.  Unlike many comics, Bob brings a new set of material every time he comes to town.  He can form a bit in his head in the morning and have it audience-ready by the time he walks on stage, riffing on current events, his parents (who must love the exposure), and life in New England -the essence of Ha!

Sunday: Nine Inch Nails, Worcester Centrum – I don’t typically plug many arena shows, but it’s worth noting that as the music business implodes, NIN (who play in Manchester Saturday) is thriving.  Why?  Leader Trent Reznor does right by the fans.   He gives away entire albums on the band’s web site, has no label and kowtows to no bosses.  He keeps things interesting and never forgets the reason for his success – and NIN sells out everywhere they appear.

Tuesday: Dartmouth Wind Symphony, Spaulding Auditorium – Highbrow music from an ensemble celebrating its 25th year with founder/director Max Culpepper.  This show features selections from Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, the Marriage of Figaro and other masterpieces, arranged for flute, clarinet, trumpet and other wind instruments.

Wednesday: Off the Beaten Path, Woodstock Town Hall Theatre – Subtitled “A Jazz Tap Odyssey,” this program joins a jazz quartet consisting of piano, bass, drums and woodwinds with a company of six tap dancers.  They perform a program inspired by proto-environmentalist author Rachel Carson.  There’s a special “Arts In Education” program for school kids at 12:30, and a public performance at 7:30.

Robert Plant Tells Village Voice: No Zep Tour

Great Village Voice Interview with Robert Plant, though it’s a bit dated.

Given the certitude of Mr. Plant’s statements, and the jubilation he displayed at last Thursday’s Boston show, I’d say these sentiments still hold.  Rumors fly on the Internets, but Robert Plant is on a mission that has nothing to do with Led Zeppelin:

“I mean, there are so many situations that I wouldn’t want to tour in now, because I may have visited certain areas of music too often to actually be excited.”

“… touring for the sake of touring, for me, after all these years, is just pointless. I have to be excited. … You can’t just borrow the Stones’ plane,” Plant says. “It’s got to have a creative kernel of endeavor and whatever it is, otherwise it won’t work, because Zep was about that.”

“I mean, if you want the quick tug,” he continues, “if you want the $5 massage or the happy ending, you know exactly how to get that. That’s a pointless exercise. For me, I just want to do stuff where at the end of the night, I can turn and look at the people I’m working with and go, ‘That was not just an achievement—it was one of the most heart-rending experiences I’ve had.'”

A pointless exercise – I agree, Robert – I hope the next time through you play a better venue than the BofA (or whatever bank/telecom buys it by the next time you tour) Amphitheatre.  The sound was awful.

Local Rhythms – Say It Ain’t So, Bob

I used to believe in rock and roll, until it became a commodity in a numbers game. So when Led Zeppelin reunited last year for a one-off London show, I waited for the inevitable announcement of an annuity tour, a la McCartney or the Stones.

Football stadiums with parking pricier than tickets used to be, zillionaires in luxury boxes, and fans spending more time bragging on cell phones than watching the show.

Rumors followed, but the only real Zeppelin news was Robert Plant hitting the road with Alison Krauss (the tour hits Boston June 5).

That made me smile. Money is king, but a member in the pantheon of rock’s immortal bands chose another path.

Forget “Stairway to Heaven” – Plant was having more fun playing bluegrass and covering old Everly Brothers songs to care about a big payday.

With “Raising Sand,” the album he recorded with Krauss on the iconoclastic Rounder label, Plant made a statement: he’d rather make art than cash.

Then the rumors became more insistent. Two weeks ago, NME reported on plans for four Zeppelin shows this August at the Toronto Skydome.

Say it ain’t so, Bob.

One of rock’s two great moments of the last 20 years was Pink Floyd’s five-song set at Live 8 in 2005. The second was Zeppelin’s show at the O2 last November.

In both cases, the bands reunited for a specific reason – Pink Floyd to call attention to the G8 Summit, and Zeppelin to pay tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the late president of Atlantic Records.

After each show, every prognosticator and Ticketmaster stockholder on the planet predicted a big cash-in that didn’t happen.

I saw Zeppelin in the Seventies. I saw the Stones, the Who, Clapton and three of the four Beatles. Maybe it’s unfair to deny that to someone who couldn’t experience it then.

But here’s the thing. No amount of money will recreate the alchemy of 35 years ago. You’d just be paying too much to make your friends jealous. There are better things to do with a camera phone.

Is it worth 500 bucks to see the Larry Bird of 2008 play basketball, or a crusty old Dennis Hopper reprise his role in “Easy Rider”?

Why is this any different? Instead of heading back to Jurassic Park, let’s create some new memories to share with our own children.

Perhaps there’s one or two in this list of upcoming shows:

Thursday: Lori McKenna/Mark Erelli, Bellows Falls Opera House – This is the kickoff concert for Roots on the River, a festival that attracts fans from all over the world. Four days of music for less than it costs to see Heart at the Verizon – need I say more? Highlights include the Bottle Rockets Friday, Eilen Jewell’s Depression-era music and the laconic Steve Forbert Saturday, and Mary Gauthier’s set with Roots ringmaster Fred Eaglesmith Sunday.

Friday: Natalie MacMaster, Lebanon Opera House – If you haven’t experienced the boundless energy of Cape Breton’s top musical export, then you have no excuse for not attending this performance. MacMaster exemplifies why Nova Scotia is North America’s Ireland. This time around, she’s performing with her husband, Donnell Leahy, who’s also an amazing fiddler, so the sparks should fly.

Saturday: Dr. Burma, Salt Hill Pub – With 20-plus years playing area clubs, it’s not too much to call this band a musical institution. Tonight, Dr. Burma plays a show to celebrate the release of “One Bite Won’t Kill You.” It’s only their second CD, but it was definitely worth the wait. This is a blues-rock powerhouse that always has the crowd up and dancing, and the new record is a gem.

Sunday: Pete Merrigan, Digby’s – Summer must be here, because Pete’s back in town, and his Sunday deck shows continue. Though Murphy’s has a new name, the vibe in Sunapee feels exactly the same, with plenty of cold beer and margaritas, plates piled high with nachos, and a sing-along every other tune. It’s still one of the best ways to spend a weekend afternoon.

Tuesday: Joshua Hall, Canoe Club – Hall is a middle school music teacher who duets with a lot of area guitarists, but tonight he flies solo. Canoe Club continues to be a great friend of music, with shows just about every night of the year. Recently, the club presented an R&B dance concert with the Willie Edwards Band, which will be reprised June 28.

Wednesday: Acoustic Coalition North, Inn At Idlewood (Sharon, VT) – The popular Quechee gathering now has an upcountry branch. The Inn has a fine fresh food menu, an enormous deck (5,000 square feet – that should fit a few guitars), and a great old barn for when it rains. The weekly jam session stills gathers Tuesdays at its summer home located in the Quechee Base Lodge.