For December, the Through the Lens column will feature a "best of" theme each week. First up, each regular contributing ND photographer selected an outstanding live performance to talk about, along with their favorite photos from that show. I know, I know, it is difficult to select just one favorite performance. As hard as it was, they did just that. From Carol Graham in Scotland to Steve Ford in Australia to Pierre Erickson in Sweden to those here in the US, their choices demonstrate not only how wide a swath roots music cuts across the globe but also its joyous diversity.
Chad Cochran: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at the Ryman Auditorium
It would take a strong argument to top the string of shows Jason Isbell put on this year at the Ryman. In a town and radio market that has been criticized for neglecting female performers, Isbell tapped The Secret Sisters, Julien Baker, Bettye LaVette, Amanda Shires, Lydia Loveless, and the McCrary Sisters to kick off each of the six nights.
C Elliott: Taj Mahal & Keb' Mo’
Both are seasoned artists, and their styles of music complement each other very well. A bonus for me is that Taj's daughters are in his band and add an extra layer of soul to the songs. Over the years I've seen all of them separately, but their total joy in playing together and their excellent stage banter and presence were without compare.
Chris Griffy: Angelique Kidjo's Remain in Light at Bonnaroo
Kidjo takes the African elements that David Byrne and Brian Eno explored on Remain in Light and cranks them up to 11, giving the songs a almost frenetic drive that makes even the most uncoordinated among us (me, too) want to dance.
Mark J. Smith: The Infamous Stringdusters at the Philadelphia Folk Festival
They were the surprise hit of the fest. Rock-and-roll bluegrass similar to Old Crow Medicine Show but with lights and smoke. I heard some shock from the traditional folkie audience, but I loved it, and the music absolutely matched their stage presence.
Steve Mack: Billy Strings at Festy
I've seen Billy 8 or 9 times in the last two years, and every show is over the top, but the bands' performance to close out The Festy was one for the ages. The band was tight (as always) and Billy was on fire – he never stands still – youthful energy with a talent well beyond his years, as a picker, a writer and vocalist. I love watching the faces of folks seeing Billy for the first time. It was the first song of his encore that really set this performance apart: Guitar at his side he did an a cappella version of "And Am I Born To Die" that was absolutely stunning … and you could have heard a pin drop.
Todd Gunsher: Tift Merritt at the NC Museum of Art
Not content to simply put on a concert of her own, Merritt invited friends M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger), Eric Slick (Dr. Dog), Alexandra Sauser-Monnig (Mountain Man), and The Suitcase Junket along for the ride. The stage was also adorned with Americana ephemera from Butch Anthony’s Traveling Museum of Wonder, making the event look as good as it sounded.
Brenda Rosser: Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne at City Winery, Atlanta
Smooth sibling harmonies, great material, but what struck me was the vulnerability and honesty of the performance. I have a sister too, and recognized those looks that a sister can give that boost your confidence or give a warning: “you can do it,” or “don’t be telling that.” It made me want to spend time with my sister, with whom I am often in opposition. I think I am a little in love with Shelby Lynne.
Carol Graham: Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway Tour, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
The Freedom Highway Tour showcased the breadth of Rhiannon Giddens' talent across jazz, blues, soul, and gospel, her boundless energy, and also her passion for history and civil rights. At Nashville's Schermerhorn, Giddens and her band "took a knee," instead of a bow, in support of the NFL players' stance against racial injustice. Giddens added a special encore of the Gaelic mouth music "Siomadh rud tha dhìth orm' just for the Glasgow audience.
Boom Baker: Christian Lopez on Cayamo
Lopez took the pool deck as we prepared to set sail from Florida for seven days of music aboard the Norwegian Jade. Not only did Christian perform his own songs, but he also covered Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons,” Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” and the song that blew me away – The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The crowd went absolutely wild.
Steve Ford: Patti Smith at Bluesfest Byron Bay
Smith, at 70 years old and playing music from a 40-year-old album (Horses), demonstrated rare honesty and conviction. Despite a cold, her voice sounded as strong as ever. Her mix of bravado and vulnerability was compelling. Lenny Kaye and company provided a chugging rhythmic framework while making themselves invisible.
Peter Dervin: Southern Avenue at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival and Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival
Their concert was soulful, bluesy, and downright rockin’. Lead singer Tierinii Jackson is a dynamic frontwoman with the charisma of a young Tina Turner. Along with guitarist Ori Naftaly, keyboardist Jeremy Powell, and drummer Tikyra Jackson, this band is getting noticed around the country and these shows galvanized them as one of the must-see bands in the coming year.
Even outside the US there are plenty of great opportunities to hear some great Americana live, thanks to all the music enthusiasts who arrange concerts. For instance in the small west coast town of Falkenberg, a whole bunch of outstanding artists have given stellar performances during the year. Among the more memorable ones are American Aquarium, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Yola Carter, Luther Dickinson, The Mulligan Brothers, and Jim & Sam.
Kirk Stauffer: Maggie Rogers at the Triple Door
Maggie Rogers at the Triple Door in Seattle stood out. I saw her twice at SXSW in Austin the preceding week, and the third time at home was a charm. Her onstage charisma had the audience on their feet start to finish.
Now scroll through the photos, and get a glimpse into what the ND photographers have to share.