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.

Roots Wrap

Plentiful sun, widely varied music, good food and good vibes prevailed at this year’s Roots on the River Festival in Rockingham. Saturday’s day-long concert was capped by a Fred Eaglesmith performance that fans called his “best in years”. Local musician Ezra Veitch helped out when regular Flying Squirrels drummer, Kori Heppner, left unexpectedly on Friday. Ezra earned high marks as a quick study.

Robbie Fulks played solo, mixing humorous songs, such as a cover of Cher’s “Do You Believe?” and the creepy story of “Godfrey, the Amateur Children’s Magician,” with beautiful and poignant performances. “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” an early alt-country hit, got a stripped-down treatment, and the unreleased “That’s Where I’m From,” which hushed the crowd, sounded like George Strait’s next hit single.

Promoter Ray Massucco was pleased with the turnout for all four days. The Lori McKenna/Mark Erelli opener was well attended, and the Fred & the Flying Squirrels/Bottle Rockets double bill was, he said, “the best Friday ever.”

Sunday’s Meeting House show was also sold out, with Fred Eaglesmith and Mary Gauthier, and included a special guest appearance by Diana Jones (“My Remembrance of You”), who joined Fred for one song.

Sarah Borges and her band The Broken Singles whipped through a set of high-energy country rock that won the crowd over in a big way. After Borges played, her merchandise sold out and had to be replenished. If Avril Lavigne went twangy, she might sound like Sarah, who had amazing chemistry with her band (based in Boston, they’ve played together six years).

Laid-back Steve Forbert acted like he was in a living room, not a concert stage, as he loped though songs that touched on the political (“Baghdad Dream”, “Good Planets Are Hard to Find”) and the romantic (most notably his biggest hit, “Romeo’s Tune”). Fans shouted out requests, most of which he good-naturedly honored, though one caused him to pause thoughtfully. “That’s a good idea,” he said, “but I’m going to play this one instead.”

After playing a refreshing set of old time country music, members of the Starline Rhythm Boys relaxed in the guitar tent and tried a few instruments. The band kept things early twentieth century for their performance, playing songs like “One Dime at a Time” and touting their latest record, “Drunk Tank,” which they plan to release as a 45 – their new album is also on vinyl.

Wearing pearls and a wry smile, and playing a guitar signed by Loretta Lynn, Eilen Jewell time-traveled to Depression-era musical times. She played several songs from last year’s “Letters From Sinners & Strangers,” as well as selections from her upcoming gospel album. Like Steve Forbert before her, she jokingly asked that no one take pictures – “I’m way too sweaty”.