Local Rhythms – Best Live Shows of 2008

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 – Remember The Name Trixie Whitley

You should have been there.

When Ray Massucco walked on stage to introduce the first performer at Saturday’s Chris Whitley tribute, he remarked that co-promoter Charlie Hunter wasn’t around. “I think he’s out selling tickets,” Ray told the crowd, which filled maybe a third of the Bellows Falls Opera House.

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, that Whitley’s music didn’t touch me as much as his reputation. I knew he could play the hell out of the National Steel guitar, and that his songs came from a very real place.

I was aware that his brother Dan shared the family talents. I’d heard that Chris’s daughter caught the performing bug at a young age. Her MySpace demos reminded me a bit of Missy Higgins or Beth Orton.

None of this knowledge prepared me for the raw emotional power of Trixie Whitley’s performance. The 20-year old acted wan and tentative when she walked on stage, but seemed to gather her strength with each song.

By the end of her set, she owned everyone in the building.

The final verse of her closing number sent a chill down my spine:

“Mama’s got strong blood, Papa’s got strong blood, I learned to survive with that same strong blood”

Trixie was 15 when she wrote “Strong Blood.” Two years later, cancer killed her father. I can’t fathom the courage it took to sing those words to an audience of adoring Chris Whitley fans. She obviously struggled to get through it; her visible pain made it all the more powerful.

“She’s grown up this weekend,” Ray Massucco told me as Trixie left the stage and Dan Whitley launched into his set (solo on a National guitar, no less).

Her potent performance raised the bar for everyone that followed.

Trixie returned to the stage at the start of Vernon Reid’s set to sing backup on “Serve You.” With Dan’s encouragement, she took the lead, and ferociously embraced one of her dad’s best songs.

“Thank you and goodnight,” Reid wisecracked.

“I feel like I should set myself on fire now,” said Alejandro Escovedo, who closed the show.

As things turned out, he did play an incendiary set. “That was worth twenty bucks right there,” one fan commented.

I wish I’d paid more attention to Chris’s music while he was alive. His legacy is in good hands; I suppose that’s a comfort. I can’t wait for next year’s show.

OK, what do we have to look forward to this week?

Wednesday: Jimmy Eat World w/ Paramore, Tsongas Arena – Much of what’s right with the music world can be found here – multiple band shows by young rockers designed to showcase up and coming talent along with the headliner. Young fans may not buy lots of CDs, but they do shell out for T-shirts, buttons and reasonably priced concert tickets.

Thursday: Michael Zsoldos & Draa Hobbs, Elixir – It’s jazz night in White River Junction. Hobbs ia a versatile guitarist who sounds best when he’s summoning of the spirits of masters like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Zsoldos plays saxophone, and has an impressive resume that includes a PBS documentary score, but kids know him as Woodstock High’s band director.

Friday: Sean Rowe, Salt hill Pub – Lebanon’s cultural exchange with Albany, New York continues. Rowe one-ups fellow Albanian duo Sirsy, a regular favorite of both Salt hills, by playing blues-infused rock all by his lonesome, with the support of a sound and sample machine. Perhaps that should be “one downs.” This talented guitarist has the skills to match the pub’s energy, and a voice that sounds more Mississippi than Hudson River delta.

Saturday: Salsa Dancing, Gusanoz – Cinco de Mayo is to this place what St. Patrick’s Day is to most Irish pubs, an excuse to celebrate all week long. Tonight features Hall of Fame nominee DJ Spin Doctor, who gives a mid-evening dance lesson (rose for clenching between teeth not included), and plays selections from his impressive, and authentic, Salsa library.

Sunday: Herricks Cove Wildlife Festival, Rockingham – Spring has been a long time coming. Local singer/guitarist Jesse Peters, who also hosts the first Friday open mike at McKinley’s in Springfield, is the musical guest for a day that celebrates the natural beauty of this spot along the Connecticut River. There are fly-fishing demonstrations, live owls and reptiles, and an actor portraying John James Audubon. Take I-91 Exit 6 to reach Herricks Cove.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly Quechee jam session gig with other bands, some with several. Listen to Acoustic Coalition recordings on yellowhousemedia.com, my favorite website for local music, for a sense of the inspired fun that transpires. You should check out the site for all the great area talent there.