December will be a “best of” month. Each column will highlight certain bests of the year. For this week's column I asked our regular contributing photographers to select a memorable performance from the past year. Needless to say, all said there were many to choose from; collectively they saw well over a thousand shows. But, as requested, each narrowed it down to a single one.
From Scotland to Australia, from this nation's Northwest to the Southeast, and parts in between, their selections are as different as the many branches on the tree of roots music. No two are alike.
Chris Griffy: The War and Treaty at AmericanaFest, Nashville
While I’d heard the buzz about them, they just hadn't landed on my radar. That changed the moment they hit the stage. While their album, Healing Tide, is good, it did not capture their energy live — energy that somehow combines the fervor of a tent revival, the electricity of James Brown, and the intimacy of someone's private love letters. There may come a time when the Trotters are so used to acclaim that they aren't moved to tears, laughter, and unbridled joy at the audience response they received that night, but I don't think so. It feels too baked into their DNA to ever be dimmed.
Boom Baker: Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore at the Triple Door, Seattle
This was part of their Downey to Lubbock tour, backed by The Guilty Ones, with Lisa Pankratz, Brad Fordham, and Chris Miller. The set included songs from this year's release, Downey to Lubbock, along with others by Alvin, Gilmore, Butch Hancock, The Flatlanders, The Memphis Jug Band, Lloyd Price, The Youngbloods, and Sam Cooke.
Alvin’s driving Stratocaster guitar was as electrifying as I have heard him play, especially on the Lloyd Price cover of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which was a hat-tip to early rock and roll. They closed the evening with Alvin’s “Marie, Marie," the only Zydeco hit ever written in Downey, California (Alvin’s hometown), with homage to Chuck Berry. Late in the set they performed Woody Guthrie’s 1948 song “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)," which was received by the audience as if it was written for the times we live in now.
Kevin Smith: Johnny Bush at the Quihi Gun Club Dance Hall, Quihi, Texas
I caught this Texas country music legend and his band, The Bandeleros, as part of The Texas Dance Hall Tour. Johnny defines honky-tonk, and watching him play fiddle while fronting a first-rate country band was a thrill. Highlights included “There Stands the Glass,” Don Gibson’s “Sensuous Woman,” and, of course, his most well-known song, “Whiskey River,” made famous by Willie Nelson. Johnny told the story of how he came to write the song and how Willie came to record it 12 different times! Dancing was a central part of this event, and most folks danced the two-step. Fantastic night of honky-tonk and western swing in a historic building in rural Texas hill country.
Todd Gunsher: Hiss Golden Messenger at the Carolina Theatre, Durham, North Carolina
In a beautiful old theater, surrounded by an eight-piece band full of local players, Hiss Golden Messenger put on a lovefest in their hometown. M.C. Taylor led us all in song; the songs, he said, that were written within “about 15 miles from here.” The night ended with the whole band coming to the front of the stage and we all sang “Drum” together: “Take the good news, carry it away / Take the good news, spirit it away.”
C. Elliott: Joan Baez in Tucson, Arizona
At 77 years old, this folk legend’s voice was as powerful, and perhaps better, than it has been for the last 60 years. Her songs represent how she has supported social justice and she thanked her feet “that are tired from so many marches.” This show’s set list linked us to the past, and audience singalongs were encouraged. Baez recently said, “When I go on stage, I don’t make history, I am history.” Exactly. If you didn’t have a chance to see her in 2018, she has extended this farewell tour until May of 2019.
Carol Graham: Bennett Wilson Poole at the Glasgow Americana Festival, Scotland
Playing to a packed audience in a tiny, hot and sticky venue, Glasgow’s Glad Cafe, on a stage only a foot high, the trio of Bennett Wilson Poole blew me away with their energy and talent. The trio of Danny Wilson (Danny and The Champions of the World), Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), and Tony Poole (Starry Eyed and Laughing) were dripping with sweat as they performed glorious feel-good music influenced by The Byrds, the Beach Boys, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Bennett Wilson Poole has been the name on everyone’s lips since the festival, and was recently nominated for two AMA UK awards.
Brenda Rosser: Will Hoge at City Winery Atlanta
Backdrop: It was the evening after the Thousand Oaks shootings, and a little over a week after the synagogue murders in Pittsburgh. They were still counting votes in Georgia and it appeared the gun-pointing Secretary of State would be our new governor. At the entrance of City Winery Atlanta, my purse and camera bag were thoroughly searched, and a metal detector wand waved over my body as well as a pat down. After a fine opening by Ryan Culwell, Will Hoge kicked off a cathartic evening. I was transfixed, and my outrage and hopelessness were channeled into his songs of defiance. When he dedicated "Thoughts and Prayers" to Marsha Blackburn (who had just won re-election in Tennessee and whose comment on the Thousand Oaks shooting was that we needed to support the 2nd Amendment) with a "Fuck you, Marsha Blackburn," I actually leapt from my chair. Music is the balm that soothes my soul, and a good rock show is the antidote for my despair. Right time, right songs, right artist.
Mark J. Smith: Rising Appalachia
Rising Appalachia, Chloe and Leah Smith, is not only a great show with wonderful music but its magical and spiritual as well. Their performance touched not only my eyes and ears but also my heart.
Peter Dervin: The Mavericks at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival
The Mavericks put on one of those truly magical shows at this year's blues fest in Portland, Oregon, which showcases the finest in blues and roots music in the Pacific Northwest over the 4th of July weekend. The Mavericks were a big surprise for the festival, as the hardcore blues fans found themselves on their feet dancin’ the night away. The band played their brand of Americana country swing rock music on the main stage, which was a new experience for this Portland audience. (See even more photos here.)
Steve Mack: Billy Strings at the Hoxeyville Music Festival, Michigan
The final day headliner for the Hoxeyville Music Festival in northern Michigan was Billy Strings, a hometown favorite. Billy and his band had already played several sets during the weekend but this one was special. He called his mentor on stage for not one but a number of songs — that mentor is his father. The pure joy, enthusiasm, and love radiated through the crowd, a rare treat that clearly topped my list for the year!
Steve Ford: Rachel Baiman with One Up Two Down at Metro Social, Katoomba, Australia
Read all about Rachel Baiman in Stacy Chandler’s November Spotlight feature for ND here.
Kirk Stauffer: Boygenius at the Moore Theatre, Seattle
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, each an accomplished singer-songwriter, had individual sets prior to assembling onstage together. With every song, their beautiful harmonies echoed throughout the theater.
Now, on to those photos.